Such grandiose fancies are usually discarded when the footloose dreamer returns home, where the demands of "real" life make themselves known. Yet for two decades, Beale inwardly nourished his obsession, and now it has taken on hardwood reality: Beale's reconstruction of the eighth century Indonesian schooner depicted at Borobudur is now under sail in the Indian Ocean, on its way to Africa, manned by a multinational crew. The 19-meter-long ship is retracing the route of its ancient prototypes, which are believed to have formed the earliest transoceanic sailing fleet in history.
As an expedition leader, he is perhaps more lovable than inspirational, usually to be found below deck, sweating over a laptop and dog-eared papers, rather than breasting the wind on deck as his ship slices through the shimmering swells. Yet when he talks about the project, his resolve glints through his mild demeanor. "We're following the ancient Cinnamon Route," he says proudly, seated atop a coil of rope in the ship's bow as it skims across the Java Sea. "Indonesian ships sailed it thousands of years ago, bringing the spices of the islands to Africa and returning with iron, luxury goods such as ivory and leopard skins, and slaves. It was the beginning of global commerce."
Though largely unknown outside of the region, this was one of the first great achievements in marine exploration: centuries before anybody else engaged in regular long-distance voyages, mariners from the Malay Archipelago ruled the Indian Ocean. The Roman historian Pliny wrote in the first century A.D. about sailors arriving in Africa from the eastern sea on rafts, propelled not by sails but by "the spirit of man and human courage," carrying cinnamon and other spices.
Modern scholars identify these voyagers as ancient Indonesians, based upon the indelible linguistic and DNA footprints they left behind in East Africa. However, Madagascar is only the mid-point of Beale's projected voyage: from there, he plans to sail the ship around the Cape of Good Hope, one of the most perilous sea passages on earth, and then north to Ghana, ending his odyssey beneath the cliffs of Accra. The historic evidence for Indonesian contact with West Africa is shaky, as Beale readily concedes. The case relies largely upon striking similarities in traditional African and Indonesian music. The Madagascar-Ghana portion of the trip is thus at once the most daring and speculative of the expedition. Beale explains: "Academics pose questions such as, 'Could the ancient Indonesians have done this or that?' If we succeed, it won't prove they did it, but then no one can say they couldn't do it. It seems to me an interesting thing to do for itself."
Beale's amateur fascination with such questions might never have been satisfied if two years ago he had not met Nick Burningham, a maritime-heritage consultant who specializes in replicas of early Southeast Asian ships. Beale commissioned Burningham to create a design based upon the sculpture at Borobudur and then hired Assad Abdullah, an Indonesian with 30 years experience as a shipwright, to build the vessel.
Burningham has built several replica ships, but the Borobudur, he says, was "my greatest challenge, the most speculative reconstruction I've ever worked on." In addition to the handful of ship carvings at Borobudur and a few vaguely analogous shipwrecks, he was also guided by Assad's instincts and experience. Burningham built a model based upon historical estimates of load and the limits of materials available at the time, then gave it to Assad to construct on the Indonesian island of Pagerungan Kecil. "He not only built from the model," says Burningham, "he also interpreted it."
The ship was constructed from seven kinds of hardwood native to Indonesia and joined entirely by pegs, which Assad calls "tree nails." Burningham declares himself "just about satisfied" with the results. "Stability is adequate, not excellent, and the maximum speed is about 7 1/2 knots. She has a terrific motion and doesn't pitch or roll." The ship that he and Assad built is a funny-looking duck, with masts like narrow pointed ladders, canted sails and stout bamboo outriggers. The ship's captain, Alan Campbell, a Scotsman now living in Tasmania, recalls his first impression: "Some ships, when you first see them, you're not sure which end is the front and which is the back. When I first saw a picture of this ship, I wasn't sure which end was the top." Yet when she cuts through the water, the Borobudur possesses an undeniable majesty.
Modifications in the design continued even a few days before the launch. Assad's team used traditional caulking, the sere bark of the paper tree, but it proved leaky, so they switched to standard marine waterproofing. Modern navigation and communications technology, such as the satellite-based global-positioning system, or GPS, have been installed with no apologies. Ports are cut in the ship's sides so that it can be propelled with paddles if there's no wind. The toilet, at least, can't be surpassed for authenticity: a meter-square box attached to the ship's starboard side, with a hole in the bottom and a canvas curtain across the top.
When the launch finally came on Aug. 15, it was a grand and surprisingly emotional affair. President Megawati Sukarnoputri oversaw the gala ceremony in Jakarta and impulsively stepped aboard to take a closer look. For the Indonesian crew, led by I Gusti Putu Ngurah Sedana, a navy captain from Bali, the expedition is clearly a tremendous source of national pride.
Philip Beale looked a bit dazed. His adventure has every appearance of being just what he says it is: an extravagant youthful dream he has clung to for 20 years and which he is now riding out into the broad world, where so much can go awry. As his ship poked its nose out into the sea, he tried once again to explain what on earth possessed him, why someone with no background as an adventurer and no special expertise in maritime history would undertake such an arduous voyage. Baffled, it seems, that anyone might fail to grasp the logic of his epic expedition, he murmured with quiet conviction, "I just want to prove that it can actually be done."