Raja Ampat: The Great Beyond

Raja Ampat, Indonesia, beckons with beauty above and below the water.
By Yachts International Editors ,

Raja Ampat, Indonesia, beckons with beauty above and below the water.

Story and photos by Kim Kavin

Laguna Bintang, or “Star Lagoon,” is in the Keindahan Daerah Painemu scenic area.

HANDMADE: Dunia Baru is built of ironwood and teak.

When chicken blood and a sacrificial goat are part of a yacht’s build schedule, you know you’re nowhere near the shipyards of America or Europe. In Indonesia, though, these elements are considered crucial. The chicken’s blood blesses the keel at the start of construction, and the goat’s feet hang from the bow and stern, like ornaments, upon completion. When they fall off at a time of nature’s choosing, the owner may consider his boat blessed.

Such traditions are just one thing that makes 167-foot (50.9-meter) Dunia Baru an unusual charter yacht. American owner Mark Robba, who does business in Indonesia, commissioned the Phinisi-style yacht after seeing 164-foot (50-meter) Silolona, a popular charter yacht. Robba hired Michael Kasten, the same designer, to draw plans for the Konjo boatbuilders, who are revered as the best in the country.

Raja Ampat’s morning light casts reflections off Dunia Baru.

They go where the wood is, clearing trees along a muddy, cappuccino-colored river in Kalimantan, on the Indonesian side of Borneo. For each boat, the Konjo first build an ironwood crane to help lift the bow, and then they lay the keel in a pit they dig on the riverbank. A wood planer, a couple of sanders and a single chainsaw are their only power tools. Many men work barefoot or in flip-flops, just as their fathers, grandfathers and uncles have always worked.

The ironwood flexes like metal with heat, and the Konjo bend it over a 16-foot firepit. They can shape two pieces of wood a day, and most boats take about two years to complete. Dunia Baru, though, took eight years, including finishing in Bali, where the hull was towed by tugboat. Robba wanted a new level of luxury. The steering wheel alone required four days of bending ironwood pieces and then joining them by hand in a mold.

“All the fathers and grandfathers were saying to their sons, ‘Why did it take you so long to build the boat? Didn’t we teach you how to build a boat?’” recalls Courtney Robba, the owner’s daughter. “Then they came on the boat. They would stand and look at hinges for 15 minutes. They were really impressed. I have goosebumps thinking about it. They patted their sons and grandsons on the back as if to say, ‘How did you even think of this?’”

Crewmember Arman with the convertible seating and dining area he built.

Every hinge on Dunia Baru came from the mind of Jamaluddin, known as “Jamal” among the crew. He was 24 when construction started, with about a fifth-grade education. Today, he’s a 33-year-old deckhand working as a carpenter on board.

“Jamal went from being one of the artisans to being the big boss in Bali,” Courtney Robba says. “This is not just his baby; it’s the star of Indonesian craftsmanship. He’s maintaining the pearl of his life.”

ISLAND LIFE: Locals are welcoming in Raja Ampat.

Life in the islands of Raja Ampat is simple, with streets made of raked dirt, homes built with thatched roofs, colorful wooden fishing boats for transportation and the occasional satellite dish to stay in touch with the world beyond. The place is still virtually untouched by mass tourism, with local “shops” being front porches where villagers sell woven hats or shiny shells while the youngest children play naked in the nearby yard.

Boats and the sea are a daily playground for island children.

Older children are eager to meet newcomers, and they have English phrases at the ready, everything from “Hello, my name is ...” to “It is a pleasure to meet you, miss.” They say their sentences with the pride of straight-A students and are eager to be photographed, clamoring around cameras like bees to a hive, wanting to see the immediate digital portrait.

Signs at a village entrance remind Western visitors to dress demurely.

Most villages have an offering box at the entrance dock, where visitors can leave a donation of rupiah (100,000 rupiah equals about $8). Then, charterers can snorkel right off the entrance dock, where coral beds are very much alive and schools of fish often play.

Reefs and snorkeling abound, even at village entrance docks.

Village schoolchildren at recess.

A tourist map on the side of a village’s dirt road.

NATURAL AWE: Above and below the water.

As beautiful as many of the above-water views are in Raja Ampat, the real show is often underwater or on land, where encounters with animals and nature can be astounding.

This remote part of Indonesia is hard to reach (it’s five flights one-way from New York’s JFK International Airport), it is considered a marine protected area and its geography is inhospitable to development. These are great qualities when it comes to saving the ecosystem, including the endless fields of healthy, vibrant coral reefs. Near Penemu, Dunia Baru’s onboard PADI scuba instructor, Ramon Estrada, looked out from the aft deck and considered all the other places he’s explored underwater, from Mexico to Egypt, Thailand, Cuba, Belize and the Galapagos Islands. “These three little islands right here,” he said, “have the healthiest bed of hard coral I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing.”

The underwater landscape in Raja Ampat is teeming with life, including a colorful school of striped yellow fusiliers about 30 feet down.

More than 1,300 species of fish have been identified in Raja Ampat (some say 1,500), along with 10 times the number of hard coral species found in the Caribbean. Every one of our dive and snorkel excursions led to schools upon schools of fish, some of them swimming through one another in shockingly clear water. Even if we stayed down for an hour, the coral and fish stretched well onward into the distance; the underwater photos shown above were taken with a wrist-mounted GoPro camera, without a flash.

A charter guest at the famous Boo Windows scuba site.

The flights to and from the yacht in Raja Ampat come by way of a stopover in Bali, which is about an hour’s drive from Ubud, the town made famous in the Julia Roberts film Eat, Pray, Love. At Ubud, you can visit the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (monkeyforestubud.com), where long-tailed macaques will take bananas and sweet potatoes from your hand—or from your bag, or from anything else they can get into.

Snorkeling at the surface near the dive site Melissa’s Garden reveals an endless number of fish.

DAILY FUN: Giant caves, open-air massages and more.

My charter aboard Dunia Baru this past November was one of the first since the yacht launched, which meant itineraries were still being worked out and crewmembers were still learning what interests Western charter guests. While liveaboard diveboats number in the dozens in Raja Ampat, there are just three locally based crewed yachts that Western charter brokers regularly recommend. Silolona, launched by the Konjo in 2004, has long dominated the luxury scene with excellent client feedback. Dunia Baru launched in early 2014 as a competitor, followed by 214-foot (65.2-meter) Lamima, which launched late last year and had her first charter clients during the winter holidays.

“I’m hoping these Phinisi-style yachts are at the start of an evolution here, like the one we saw with gulets in Turkey,” says charter broker Missy Johnston of Northrop & Johnson Worldwide Yacht Charters, which arranged our Dunia Baru trip. “The boats are traditional in style for their regions, but the owners are making them far more luxurious, to meet the standards that charter clients from around the world expect.”

Paddle boarding over visible coral beds near the water’s surface.

The giant cave at Tomolol near Missol (note the tiny-looking man in the white shirt at the entrance).

Dunia Baru’s captain recommends itineraries that stay within the southern part of Raja Ampat, where the scuba sites are ambitious enough for occasional divers, there’s great snorkeling for non-divers and plenty of coves and caves exist to explore. Trying to see the whole of the region is impossible during even a two-week charter; Raja Ampat spans some 15,000 square miles. We covered about 400 nautical miles across both the northern and southern regions in seven days on Dunia Baru, and the schedule felt ambitious, with overnight motoring, passages as long as 15 hours, early morning anchor drops and several activities each day. If time allows, plan for a two- or three-week charter at a more leisurely pace, so you can enjoy the handful of beaches and tons of water sports between restful naps on the foredeck sunpad.

Open-air massage aboard Dunia Baru.

Also expect to see a lot of, well, nothing in terms of manmade structures and objects. During our first four days aboard, the only aid to navigation I saw was a chunk of Styrofoam tied out as a reef marker at an inlet. The stars shine brightly here, with no civilization or manmade light ashore, and whatever you have for entertainment on the yacht is all you are going to find.

That’s wonderful for those of us who enjoy solitude, and it makes exploring nature’s rhythms all the more adventurous.

Dunia Baru's chef presents local specialties.

Activities on and off Dunia Baru can include gunkholing with a camera.

For more information: Northrop & Johnson Worldwide Yacht Charters, 401 848 5540, njcharters.com

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