Christoph Swoboda has circumnavigated the world in a Malay junk.
He is now looking for a buyer for his second ship.
Photo: Jeff Vickers
“When my son met a child who looks like him and who speaks German for the first time in his life, he was five years old.
Vanya was born in Malaysia, and just a few days after he was born we took him with us on our ship, a junk that my then partner and I had built ourselves there together with boat builders in the traditional style.
Snapshot from 1981: Christoph Swoboda with his wife Claudia and son Wanja on board the »Naga Pelangi« - with which he later circumnavigated the world.
The »Naga Pelangi«, in German »Rainbow Dragon«, was a Spartan ship, without running water, electricity, navigation system or toilet and at first without a motor.
If I had known what was in store for us, I might not have dared to set sail with it - without any experience and with a newborn - but I was 28 years old at the time and felt invincible.
Maybe you need this feeling to dare to venture out on such an adventure.
Today, more than 40 years later, I still live on such a junk and anchor off the Malaysian coast.
I never finished my studies in philosophy and history, instead I became what I dreamed of as a little boy: a captain on my own ship.
I come from an educated middle-class household in Weinheim, my mother was a doctor, my father a lawyer.
Both were stunned when I broke off my studies in 1980, closed my apartment in Heidelberg and transferred all of my savings to a boat builder in Malaysia.
During my studies I had made some money, among other things trading antiques, motorcycles, speakers and sound systems. We rescued the antiques at night from evacuated houses that were demolished: spiral staircases, wood paneling, mirrored walls. We bought the motorcycles and music systems from American soldiers who had bought them duty-free and at the US price and were allowed to resell them after a period of six months.
It was the time of the pirate radio stations and the RAF. I dreamed of a free life on my own ship outside the three-mile zone, a life without government patronage. But I had never sailed before. So I landed in Bali in 1979, looking for a chance to go sailing. And that came about through a lucky coincidence: one morning a New Zealander anchored in the harbor with a Malay junk. I was immediately fascinated by the beautiful sailing boat, and Jerry took me and two other would-be seafarers with him.
Jerry navigated without a sextant. This is called dead reckoning: it determined the path using only a compass and an estimated speed. We had no engine, we sailed and drifted without seeing land - and the first thing that came into view after 14 days was a small island in front of the destination port in Borneo. It wasn't until years later that I understood what a masterpiece of navigation it was. At that time it was only clear to me: I want that too. And when we finally arrived in Malaysia on the island of Duyong, where Jerry had his junk built years ago, I didn't think twice and commissioned Che Ali, an old boat builder, to build such a ship.
I flew back to Germany to give up my apartment. On the way back, during a stopover in Bangkok, I met my future wife and mother of my son: Claudia, a Swiss woman. She was immediately enthusiastic about my project and finally moved in with me in Duyong in a stilt house that Che Ali and his sons built for us at the shipyard from wood, bamboo and palm leaves. We lived there for a year, learned the language and became part of his family. Together we built the »Naga Pelangi« using a centuries-old, archaic construction technique in which the planks are stacked with wooden dowels and the frames are only inserted afterwards.
We wanted to install the engine in Singapore first to save the import duty.
With the newborn and two backpackers as a crew, we cruised against the wind, always in a south-easterly direction, but far out, with no land view.
Jerry had shown the way.
But when we sailed back land two days later to see where we were, it turned out: I wasn't a Jerry yet.
We had only come ten kilometers.
The "crew" wanted to disembark immediately.
Who knows, maybe it was due to the lack of traditional blessing of the "Naga Pelangi".
In any case, we had this ritual made up for.
When we set off again for Singapore with the engine installed in Malaysia, the wind was blowing so favorably that we didn't need the new engine.
Day tours for 20 German marks
For four years we sailed the waters of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Back then, in the early 1980s, tourism on Phuket and Ko Samui was only just beginning. We offered day tours with food for 20 Deutsche Mark per person. For many backpackers this seemed completely overpriced: for the money you could easily live and eat on Ko Samui for four to five days. But our ship looked great, we only had to sail along the beach once and all eyes were on us. And so there were always enough passengers. On some days we made 200 DM or more, that was enough for us to live.
When our son reached school age, we wanted to offer him a life with children of the same age who, if not German, then at least speak English. A friend invited us to Hawaii and we were on our way. Because the wind in latitudes from 20 degrees north to 20 degrees south blows from the east all year round and we didn't want to sail in the cold, rather stormy latitudes, we headed west. We reached the Mediterranean in 1986 via Africa and the Red Sea. There Claudia separated from me.
Boats endanger marriages, I am now convinced of that. Looking back, we could have seen the danger coming: On the ship, it was I who did the heavy lifting and was the captain, and my wife took care of the children and the kitchen. This traditional division of roles was automatic, but it is unhealthy today. I can understand that after seven years that was no longer enough for Claudia.
During a stopover at my parents' home in Weinheim, our son went to kindergarten for the first time.
He really blossomed.
He liked it there so much that we didn't have the heart to tear him out of this life again.
So Vanya stayed with my parents, Claudia moved back to Switzerland, and I sailed on to Hawaii and sold the Naga Pelangi to my friend there.
Back in Weinheim I met my first big love again, Ulrike, a school friend from the neighboring town.
Like me, she was newly divorced.
We became a couple again.
Around the world with the junk
Although my parents could not understand the decision for my adventure life, they always supported me.
We had a great relationship.
Still, it was strange to go back to their homes after all these years, and I was just waiting for the right time to leave.
In 1995 the time had come: The friend from Hawaii called.
His marriage had failed and he could no longer pay the installments for the boat.
Wanja had moved to live with his mother in Switzerland.
So I returned to the »Naga Pelangi«, prepared it and sailed back to Malaysia with Ulrike and other friends.
This is how the first circumnavigation of the world by a Malay junk came about.
Ulrike and I planned to start a charter business in Southeast Asia on one of the tourist islands.
Unfortunately, these dreams were shattered, the »Naga Pelangi« was simply too small and uncomfortable.
I sold them for $ 60,000 in 2000.
The construction had cost me exactly as much 20 years earlier.
And then in 2003 I gave Hassan, Che Ali's son, the order to build a new, larger ship.
The boat builders on Duyong were not doing well at the time.
Of the more than 40 boat builders, only four had survived.
All that knowledge threatened to die out.
It tore my heart.
The »Naga Pelangi« had proven its seaworthiness in a severe storm in the Pacific.
I dreamed of popularizing the Malay junk, stimulating the demand for this type of ship and thus saving the art of boatbuilding on Duyong from extinction.
I thought we could build on the success of the Turkish gulets, the Arab dhows, the Dutch flat-bottomed ships: all former cargo sailors that have been converted to charter operations have found a permanent place in tourism.
In fact, I managed to get the Malay government interested.
High government officials came to the shipyard and new junks were commissioned so that the last builders could pass on their knowledge.
But these subsidies fizzled out.
Unfortunately, there were no entrepreneurs who wanted to emulate me.
The figurehead of a luxury hotel
My calculation worked out well: With its traditional design, its almost 30 meters and the luxurious interior fittings, the »Naga Pelangi 2« is in demand with tourists and since 2014 it has been the flagship of a luxury hotel on the island of Langkawi, on the west coast of the Malay peninsula.
From November to May we lie in the bay in front of the beach of the Datai Hotel and offer sailing tours for guests six days a week.
The most popular is the "Sunset Cruise" for 120 euros per person with a flat rate for champagne.
If you want, you can also book the ship for a whole day for yourself, with a cook, masseur and butler.
That then costs 1200 euros.
We already had English lords on board, princes from all over the world, including heads of state.
Business was excellent until the start of the corona pandemic.
Then Malaysia imposed a lockdown and the hotel had to close, like everyone in the country.
Since then I have lived alone on the ship.
I haven't held my wife Ulrike in my arms since August 2019, she stayed in Germany.
The borders are closed because of Corona, and if I leave, I may not come back into the country.
A strict lockdown is currently in force again in Malaysia;
at the moment I only leave the ship once a week to go shopping.
I have a ten-year visa that is still valid for two years and which I will probably renew again.
But because I am now almost 70 and it is becoming more and more difficult for me to pull up the dinghy alone, I can now imagine what used to be unimaginable: the end of life at sea.
I paid around 300,000 euros for the construction of the »Naga Pelangi 2«.
Today, the more than 50 cubic meters of wood on the ship alone would cost 200,000 euros.
But where is the market for Malay junks?
The »Naga Pelangi 2« is something for lovers.
When I get the money that it cost me to build, I'll be happy.
I have nothing to expect from the German pension insurance; I have never been on wages long enough for that. But I put some money aside and inherited a little. If I can sell the ship, I'll make ends meet financially. Getting old will probably be my next, my greatest adventure. "