After sailing his home-built proa from Amsterdam to Australia in his early twenties, Ini became convinced the proa still had some significant advantages over more modern sailboats. The proa remains a remarkably efficient design, whether in terms of the amount of materials required in the construction, its speed, elegant simplicity, stability, comfort or superior seakeeping.
In 2008 he began building a new, larger proa – a purpose-built long-range environmental expedition vessel and currently the world’s largest sail-powered proa.
At 71ft, Gaiasdream is based on no one type of traditional proa. Her unique rig (more on this later) has some similarity with the walap of the Marshall Islands (see left), though she lacks the distinctive lee-platform of these earlier supersized proas. Her spacious bridge deck has antecedents in thedrua of Fiji though she differs in hull shape. Like all Pacific proa, she sails with her outrigger (ama) to windward.
Unsurprisingly, the experiment presented Ini with a number of unique engineering challenges. When shunting, earlier proas relied on burly seamen to physically carry the mast from one end of the boat the other (see left). Above a certain size, the clearly becomes impossible. With a 22m wing-mast and mainsail that alone weighs 100kg a new approach was needed.
Designing a system that could reliably move a rig of that size while coping with the jarring forces of a boat in big seas was no mean feat. Like the proa itself, simplicity and elegance has been key. With little beam to leeward, the mast is supported from the windward side by a 12m pole. Two stays from the top of the mast to the ends of the main hull (vaka) along with one “backstay” attached to the ama complete the standing rigging. The top of the mast remains stationary as the base slides along a 6m track to reconfigure the rig for the new direction of travel.
With an engine converted to run on veggie oil and a hull and mast built entirely from Australian plantation timber, Gaiasdream is true showcase of sustainable design and engineering.
The Pacific islanders’ mastery of boatbuilding was exceeded only by their intimate understanding of the ocean itself and their extraordinary skill at navigating.
“To understand the genius of the Polynesians …you must begin with the fundamental elements of the Polynesian world: wind, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, birds, fish, and the water itself. Bring to these the raw power of empirical observation, of universal human inquiry. The skills of the traditional navigator are not unlike those of the scientist; one learns through direct experience and the testing of hypotheses, with information drawn from all branches of the natural sciences, astronomy, animal behaviour, meteorology, and oceanography. Temper this with a lifelong training of impossibly intense commitment and discipline, all to be rewarded with the highest level of prestige in a culture where status counted for everything. All the intellectual brilliance of humanity, in other words, together with the full potential of human desire and ambitions, was applied to the challenge of the sea.” -Wade Davis, The Wayfinders (2009: p. 52)
For Ini and his team, interest in traditional knowledge has always been coupled with an awareness of the acute vulnerability of Pacific communities to climate change. The project aims, among other things, to highlight the impacts of climate change while showing that crucial insights into today’s most vexing challenges can still be found in age-old knowledge and wisdom.