Bottle Boats
copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved

Gili Trawagan, Lombok 
South O8 degrees 21.340 minutes
East 116 degrees 02.445' minutes

This is a story about state-of-the-art shipbuilding, recycling, aquaculture,government's attempts to save a fragile ecology, and sustaining tourism:the last functioning economic flow in Indonesia. It started when I sawa curious dingy. 

One morning as I walked around an empty beach on the island of GiliTarawagan a mile or so off the coast of Lombok, I came across a very unusualboat. Lying against a thatched grass shack was a handmade boat constructedprimarily of empty one-litre drinking-water bottles. The small craft wasmade by strapping a hundred or so bottles together standing side-by-side.Along the necks and bases of the plastic bottles were two thin straps ofbamboo, each attached by a web of green nylon cord. The boat was a classictriangular rowboat shape, about five feet long. I took a few photographsof this odd creation and continued walking. 

Twenty meters further down there was another one, then another, andanother. Each of the boats were slightly different. One was square, onewas round, some had water bottle floors, some fish net, some bamboo. It'san ingenious way to build a boat, extremely buoyant, though not very speedy-looking.Each one seemed to be handmade by a different individual, or someone whowas trying various designs. The flotilla was lying along a row of beat-uphuts right on the beach, but there were no people to be found. 

Initially figuring that in Indonesia-wrecked by the current economiccrisis-discarded water bottles were the only building materials the localfisherman could afford, I still wondered how they came to be. I asked myever-helpful (for a price) bungalow manager about the boats. He would introduceme to the best boat builder, though he lived on another island. Instead,after a pony-cart ride through a mosquito-infested swamp, I was introducedto the builder's eldest son, Mexs. J. Ruding: boat builder and seaweedfarmer. 

Mexs explained that about 12 months ago someone told his father thatthey had seen a boat made of water bottles, so he sat down and built oneof his own. Now the boats are built by several islanders, and that theyall check out each other's designs and adapt new ones after trying themout. They use any material they can dig up and each boat takes about twodays to build. They pay the local schoolchildren 1000 rupiah ($ .10 US)for each trash bag full of empty bottles they can collect around the island. 

There are plenty to choose from. Everyone on the islands who can affordit, and pretty much throughout Indonesia, drinks bottled water, not trustingthe local water supplies. Given a consumption of one to two litres a day,200 million Indonesians, and tens of thousands of tourists, the numberof empty water bottles is astounding. At every hotel and village I've visitedthere is a big pile of refuse lying about, usually full of clear, non bio-degradeabledrinking water bottles. In their very small way the boat builders of Lombokare starting a recycling revolution. 

In addition to their boat building prowess, Mexs and his family arealso the leading edge Aquaculturists on the islands. The water-bottle boatsare used to harvest seaweed, which is how Mex's family earns a living.So the next morning I found myself waist-deep in the sea learning the theoriesof underwater farming. 

Seaweed, it turns out, can be farmed just like corn and rice. My hostexplained the process. First the farmers stake rope into the ocean floorabout twenty meters offshore in neat rows parallel to the shore. At lowtide in waist-deep water they individually tie baby seaweed plants to theropes with string, each plant about eight inches apart. Then they wait45 days. 

During this period, the small buds grow into green clumps about teninches long, shaped like tiny Christmas trees. The farmer then removesthe plant and trims off the top two or three inches, which they retie tothe anchored rope. The plant continues to regenerate itself through thenext crop cycle where the process is repeated. 

This is where the ingenuity of the boats comes in. Seaweed is heavy,and the water bottle boats are extremely buoyant, making them easy to floatabout while harvesting the plants. Each farmer has a boat attached by arope their waist leaving both hands to cut and retie the plants, throwingthe crop into the craft as they work. Before they started using the boats,two farmers would hang a net over a bamboo pole and carry it on their shoulderswhile they completed their tasks. Inventing the boats not only eased theeffort needed to harvest the seaweed, but it allowed each farmer to workindividually, doubling or tripling their output each day. 

Once back on shore the seaweed is laid out in the sun to dry for threedays and then packed into sacks for an outrigger boat trip to the mainlandof Lombok. Eventually ending up in Jakarta, Mexs informed me that the endproduct is used in cosmetics manufacture, and as an ingredient in sunscreen.There is a cartel, coincidentally run my the elder Ruding, that pays 800rupiah (about $.09 US) per kilo of seaweed. Monthly output on Gili Trawaganis about three tons. Mexs earns about the same farming as his previousjob of SCUBA diving guide, but says he enjoys spending the day workingwith his family, all sixty of which now harvest seaweed. This is a nicechange from some of the family's previous occupations: dynamite fisherman. 

An owner of the local dive shop told me how nice it was that the Indonesiangovernment induced a number of the islanders to give up fish-bombing forfarming. It's easier to throw a grenade in the sea and collect the fishthat float to the top after the explosion than to get them individuallyby hook, or intermittently by net. Lots of the local islanders had pickedup this easy skill, which unfortunately destroys what most of the touristscome to Gili Trawagan to see: coral. Aside from sunbathing, recreationalSCUBA diving and snorkeling is the single largest draw for foreigners tothe Gili Islands. Fish-bombing has damaged most of the coral beds surroundingthe islands, and in an effort to stem this practice the government helpedseed the seaweed farmers to give the fish-bombers another way to earn aliving while maintaining the steady tourist flow and the non-stop emptyingof dollars into the economy. The number of explosive fisherman is downfrom 200 to about 20 according to Mexs. 

Now this might seem like a long story, starting as it did with an interestingboat, but it's great to see how some local marine ingenuity is effectingthe complex systems that keep life and commerce on these islands going. 

If you'd like to take a look at the boats and how they're used, here'ssome links, they are large files and will download pretty slow, but thereare some smaller ones at the bottom: 
The first boat I came upon on the beach : 
A closeup of the construction of the boat wall : 
A fully-loaded seweed boat at work : 
Mexs. J. Ruding checking seweed plants on a mooring line : 
Mexs and his grandmother harvesting : 
Three colors of dried seaweed : 

These images are lower resolution and should load quicker:

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