In the 1970s, traveling in Indonesia was basically restricted to overland travel between Bali, Java, and Sumatra. The other 17,000-odd other islands were out of reach. Yet, it was not impossible, as intrepid Dutch backpacker, Dick Bergsma was about to discover in 1977 when he happened upon a wooden boat, a Bugis schooner, or pinisi, in the port of Jakarta destined for Jambi in Sumatra. He convinced the captain to provide a cabin and off he set for eight days of flapping sails, flying fish, purple sunsets, and a whole new world of adventure!
Dick had long dreamt of exploring this vast maritime nation using these pinisi schooners to myriad unknown destinations strung along the equator. But fate kept him away for almost a decade to turn his dream into reality.
In 1983, Dick met Karin Righart and love was born and Dick’s dream was revived. And so it was that in September 1985, a motley group of 19 Dutch men and women, Dick included, waved goodbye to a gawking crowd in the port of Surabaya aboard the pinisi Sumber Makmur (‘source of prosperity’) on a 17-day journey along Madura, Bali, Lombok and the Kangean islands.
Sleeping on Micky Mouse-design mattresses with folding tables and chairs on deck for meals, the cooking was done on gas cookers on the front of the boat and the guest ablutions were performed in a plywood shack hanging over the side of the boat. Hardly dignified, and a far cry from the en-suite demands of the modern traveller.
A challenge indeed, but an inspiring one begging for continuation. Dick was only getting started on taking his dream further. The following year, the name SeaTrek and the seagull logo* were born, marking a major step forward in the evolution of this pioneering company.
Selling the idea to the public proved difficult in the early days. At the time, Indonesian tourism was for the happy few traveling by airplane, visiting acknowledged highlights, being coddled in five-star hotels. Travelling by pinisi boat to the far-flung corners of the archipelago was a fantasy, a crazy idea that would never take hold. But Dick was adamant that it was the very latest in traveling trends that might change the face of Indonesia!
In 1986, a World Expo was held in Vancouver, Canada. Its focus was on transportation and Indonesia constructed a wooden two-masted pinisi schooner to display at the show, complete with seven sails, two tall boards converging in a bowsprit, leeboards on both sides. President Soeharto christened the boat ‘Pinisi Nusantara’, ‘Pinisi of the Archipelago’, and it proudly sailed across the Pacific, along the ancient trade routes.
After its presentation at the Expo, the pinisi was disassembled and returned to Jakarta on the deck of a steel-hulled modern freighter, but little did anyone know, she was destined for greater things. During a ceremony in Bali, in 1988, the Pinisi Nusantara was handed over to the care of SeaTrek. The responsible Minister, the Bali Governor, and Dick, glowing at the prospects of this potential new trend in tourism, that was poised to tie the four corners of the archipelago together.
SeaTrek operated the Pinisi Nusantara for almost two years across the archipelago and they were warmly welcomed on the islands by the locals who knew its story and reputation.
In 1990, Dick met an Indonesian-Chinese shipping tycoon, Pak Zainal Abidin. He commanded a fleet of working boats such as freighters, tugboats, and ferries, but he did not yet have any tourist-carrying pinisi boats in his fleet. He was intrigued by the idea. He wanted this gap to be filled fast to take advantage of this emerging new tourism opportunity and acquired several pinisi for just this purpose.
During the early 1990s, Sea Trek chartered a selection of Pak Zainal’s fast-growing fleet of passenger carrying pinisi. From the outset Sea Trek’s favorite was Duta Bahari (‘Sea Ambassador), and after chartering her for over two years on a monthly lease, Pak Zainal offered the boat up at a very cheap price, honoring the Chinese tradition of allowing a fair price to long-standing business partners.
In 1994, Karin and Dick packed up their things in Holland and moved to Bali to run the business and to broaden the educational outlooks of their four teenage children. In 1995 the Duta Bahari joined a tall ship race from Bali to Jakarta, part of Indonesia’s 50th anniversary celebration. Although first at the finish, the President was wisely granted to award the winner’s trophy to his favorite.
During Duta Bahari’s time with SeaTrek, many epoch-making cruises on the Indonesian waters were made. Fun and friendship were in abundance when setting foot on a remote island where the villagers would all rush out with a jubilant welcome for the guests and crew and it would invariably erupt spontaneously into a tumultuous party. Many good relationships were developed during this time between SeaTrek and the people of the remoter parts of Indonesia.
In 1996, Duta Bahari’s time was up and it was time for a new boat – and so Katharina was born. Construction of ‘Katharina’ (Karin’s christian name) started along a riverbank in south Kalimantan, and in 1997 she started exploring even further out into the distant reaches of the archipelago.
As fun and exciting as it was, the bills were piling up. The persistent headache during Dick and Karin’s years with SeaTrek was financial. Indonesian banks were not interested in enterprises run by foreigners, banks at home did not care about the fate of fellow-country entrepreneurs overseas, and financial hardship was fought by means of loans from friends, family, and even clients. Graciously, but at sometimes unforgiving interest rates.
But rescue was at hand in the form of two enterprising and caring Americans, John Priebe and Marla Araki who joined a cruise on Katharina in the year 2000. Both John and Marla were endowed with an understanding of Asia and showed an unconventional hunger for exceptional adventures, and they wanted to know more. Sea Trek’s fate resonated, and John and Marla bought into the company, eventually becoming 50% owners of the company in 2013 which they still own today, continuing Dick and Karin’s legacy of offering unique cruising adventures into the distant reaches of this amazing nation.
Says Dick on his legacy, “In hindsight I take most pride of what we did during the 30 years of engagement with SeaTrek in devising and implementing the concept of island hopping on traditional Indonesian boats, enabling the disclosure of innumerable pristine islands in the most authentic and natural way to the world, and the pigheaded endurance by which we kept the enterprise alive against a never-ending stream of setbacks”.
All good things must come to an end, and as Dick has settled into a well-earned retirement in the Netherlands, he has since passed the mantle on to the next generation of SeaTrek owners: a group of four owners who are as passionate about the sea and the people of Indonesia as Dick and Karin were when they set off on the life-long journey to create a legacy as beautiful and timeless as the Indonesian Archipelago itself.
The rest, as they say, is SeaTrek history.