Having chartered the magnificent 51-metre phinisi Dunia Baru, this Singaporean owner set out to build something just like it. But, as Charlotte Hogarth-Jones discovers, she ended up buying the boat itself
“Everyone said, ‘Don’t do it,’” laughs Jing-Yi Wee, proud owner of the 51-metre Indonesian phinisi Dunia Baru. She’s recalling a trip to Bali with her younger brother, Teng Yuan, to speak with various shipyards about building a new yacht. Following a couple of charter trips on Dunia Baru, and a few on other boats around the world, “we realised she excelled on all fronts, from the boat itself to her locations and the crew’s expertise”, she says enthusiastically. “So we were thinking, what does it take to build a yacht like this?”
Quite a lot, as it happens. “We quickly found out there was no way we could have done it,” she confirms. For a start, Dunia Baru took eight years to painstakingly craft from ulin ironwood, a type of wood that grows at a rate of 0.5mm a year. Prized for its hardiness, its export is now prohibited and its forests heavily protected.
“Yards said we can do it, but not like Dunia Baru,” she explains. Given the siblings’ inexperience – neither had even owned a yacht before, both had chartered only a handful of times, Teng Yuan had a full-time job to maintain, while Jing-Yi had a young family – they thought, “OK, let’s forget it.”
Of course, the story doesn’t end there, but it’s easy to see why embarking on a big boat build felt somewhat intimidating. Growing up in Singapore, Teng Yuan, Jing-Yi and their siblings had “sporadic but wonderful” experiences with boats.
It wasn’t until they reached young adulthood that the siblings, who are all keen divers, began looking for new ways to enjoy the pursuit with friends and yachting came back into view. Dunia Baru was Wee’s first ever charter. “A good friend of mine suggested we check out Komodo on a yacht, sent across some brief information on Dunia Baru and we just went. I had literally no expectations,” she explains. The trip was a resounding – and somewhat unexpected – success.
For a group of friends that didn’t know each other very well, “everyone just really let their guard down and was super chilled”, Wee says. The four or five dives that the group went on each day were spectacular. “In Komodo we saw everything from the really small stuff, like nudibranchs [extraordinary, brightly coloured molluscs], to huge manta rays, and there was a superfast drift dive that really stands out – it sort of shoots you out of a passage. It was scary but those kinds of experiences are quite bonding.”
That was back in 2014, and come 2017, Wee was lobbying to return to Dunia Baru. “This time round it was my trip, so I planned it,” she says, “and I pushed for Dunia Baru because I said ‘I know it, I’ve been on it’.”
It was another incredible experience, this time with her husband, brother and their friends in tow, but it took two further charters – one on the 38-metre, Vripack-designed explorer RH3 in Greece, and one other charter in Indonesia – before the siblings found themselves looking into building their own Dunia Baru-inspired vessel.
They had all but given up, but put in a final call to Michael Kasten, the naval architect who had designed her in the first place. “He gave us all the plans, and then said if we wanted to know more, we could always call Mark Robba, Dunia Baru’s current owner,” says Wee.
It turned out to be a fortuitous call, as Robba had already been considering selling the boat. “Mark’s a man of his word. We agreed a price, and that was it, done,” says Wee, in what sounds like one of the most straightforward sales in history.
Next, Wee had to search for an interior designer, but given her own background in the subject, finding the right person was key. She had lived for a year in Paris to do an MBA in brand management previously. “Paris shaped my aesthetic,” she goes on. “There, it’s really about being effortless. Design should be comfortable and timeless.”
When an opportunity arose to work for her father’s real estate company and help to inject design into both high-end and mass-market projects, it seemed like the perfect fit. “It’s a small team, so I saw that I could really have a say in everything from the financial through to marketing or design,” she says. In the five years she worked at the company, “we were really trying to push the boundaries”, hiring architects like Richard Rogers for projects in Shanghai, “whose style is very industrial and really quite different to what was there at the time”.
Despite her five years working in residential design, Wee was at a loss when it came to finding a designer for Dunia Baru. She wanted someone with yacht experience “who wasn’t going to fly in from Europe”, someone with local knowledge and a sensitive approach. A simple Google search was what led her to Deirdre Renniers, who has designed two other Indonesian phinisis, including the 52-metre Amandira.
“She was a very special hire,” Wee admits. In December, Jing-Yi and Teng Yuan flew to Raja Ampat and spent two days on board with Renniers, discussing what changes they wanted to make to the boat. “On the flight home, she told me that she’d thought she would want to change a lot of things,” says Wee with a smile, “but now she didn’t want to change a thing. She completely appreciated the workmanship that was on board.”
A few alterations have naturally been made – tweaks to the existing interior to make it “more feminine, softer, cosier”, as well as more family-friendly, but Wee and her brother clearly recognise that they own a one-of a-kind treasure.
Her favourite improvements include a private day bed that connects to the master cabin. “It used to be this queen bed that felt quite uninviting, and Deirdre basically cut it down and redesigned the cushions. Now it’s super cosy and intimate and the cushions really bring out the plushness,” she says. Meanwhile, the addition of convertible seating on the deck means that you can now expand the area into a huge daybed, creating a spacious area for lounging and enjoying the breeze, both during the day and at night. “It feels very luxurious,” says Wee, “and it’s really amazing when you have kids on board.”
When it comes to the level of craftsmanship on the boat, Wee has been keen to maintain the incredible standard of the existing work. No detail has been overlooked – even the artworks on the saloon shelves are 19th-century pieces that were specially sourced by a historian, and the commitment to quality continues throughout.
For now, Wee is frustratingly separated from Dunia Baru. “It’s killing me!” she laughs, explaining that she’s unable to head to Indonesia at the moment without needing a 14-day quarantine on her return in Singapore. “We did a video and a photo shoot of the new interiors recently, and the team that went out there literally took my dream trip,” she says. “The plan was to visit in December.”
When owner and boat are eventually reunited, the Lesser Sunda Islands beckon. “That whole area is so cultural, and there are villages there known to make amazing textiles,” she says.
Until they can get to Dunia Baru, they’re encouraging the crew to take her out and explore new spots. “We want it to get used,” Wee says. “The wood she’s made from is extremely hardy, so with proper care she’ll last for two or three generations.” Will this strange impulse purchase become a family heirloom, I ask? “I hope so,” she replies. “Wouldn’t that be amazing?”
This feature is taken from the March 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW