The jukung are strange little outrigger canoes that have a a rich and colourful history. The ubiquitous presence of such vessels in the Indonesian holiday island of Bali makes them arguably one of the most photographed icons of this beautiful island. Jukung are so prevalent in Bali, so vibrant, they truly represents the eclectic history of the island and seem to be synonymous with island life. You will find them beached after a day’s activity all around Bali.
These originally hand-crafted wooden canoes with outriggers (or supports) on one or both sides of the vessel (primarily for support) have been designed and used throughout South-East Asia and the South Pacific since almost 2000 years. They are typically carved from Camplung trees and bamboo trees, and in Bali, once they are fully constructed, they undergo a traditional and very beautiful blessing ceremony with offerings of rice, flowers, and fruits.
Bali is of course not the only place where you can actually spot a jukung. Also called cadik in some areas, the double outrigger jukung is but one of many types of Austronesian canoes that use the crab claw sail, traditional throughout Polynesia. People in Kalimantan also name their boats jukung and use them for transportation and in daily activities such as going to the office, to school, or shopping in the market. In Salonpeng, Madura, an island off the northeastern coast of Java, the jukung are huge and are used by the local fishermen.
There are some varying theories on how an almost identical design managed to penetrate so many vast islands in the region, but it would seem clear that some intrepid travellers or lost fishermen ended up on different islands and the design spread throughout the area.
Regardless of where they are used, they all have in common one thing: they are typically bright in color and highly decorated, coloured and designed to symbolise the boat-builder or the area of the craftsmen. They usually bear a marlin-like prow.
These hand-crafted little vessels were all originally built for local transportation and primarily fishing as they are known to be sturdy, robust and able to withstand precarious conditions. Fast and nimble, the Jukung are known for their capacity to skim over shallow reefs and also withstand ocean conditions. Nowadays they are often utilised for an unlikely use: Scuba Diving, snorkelling and surfing trips, and other novel tourist adventures. However the jukung design is still the same, it has not really deviated much from the original designs from hundreds of years ago. The boat owners and captains are still typically from fishing and building heritage and they custom-design their boats to fit surfboards and Scuba equipment.
Since the 1970s, there has been an increasing awareness in Bali to protect the environment, so access to wood to make traditional jukung became increasingly challenging. Currently there is a modern version of jukung, still sturdy and inexpensive, advertised as unsinkable and made from High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) in Indonesia.
It is perhaps worth mentioning about a jukung race in the late 1980s, a three-month seafaring journey of over 1,900 km in open outrigger jukung canoes by nine crews, who sailed from Bali to Darwin, Australia, across the Timor Sea. The expedition was filmed and made into a documentary called “Passage out of Paradise”; it was also featured by the National Geographic Society as “The Great Jukung Race”. It was the first ever expedition of this kind, following purported Austronesian sailing routes dating 7,000 years old.
Challenges experienced were storms requiring numerous boat repairs, waterspouts, excessive exposure to sun, heat or rain, adverse currents and whirlpools. Hazards included drifting onto war-torn Timor, unpredictable behaviour/welcome from remote villagers, salt water boils, wound infections, malnutrition, near misses with night-time freighters, sightings of sperm whales and giant white sharks. Some sailors were viciously attacked by hornets while preparing to leave a remote beach camp.
The crews eventually rebelled and unanimously decided to sail as a group, as opposed to racing the final leg of the journey, for safety. They all successfully reached their final destination of Darwin.
A final point to mention is that experts say that if you ever happen to dream of a jukung or a similar vessel, this represents your capacity to withstand and navigate your way through difficult times and circumstances.
So, when you are in Bali and you see jukung, or when your dive centre uses a jukung for a dive, then remember this brief history of an amazing vessel and its heritage.