Maurizio Borriello isn’t just a boat builder. Most of all he is an ethnographer who started to travel the world twenty years ago to have a close look at the construction techniques used in building wooden boats in the Indian Ocean
by Carla Pagani – photo by Sergio De Riccardis
Turkish axes, curved Finnish planes, hand-turned Indonesian drills, chisels from southern India, Japanese saws, Norwegian hatchets, Papuan mallets, Thai marking gauges, Malaysian vices.
The toolbag that Maurizio Borriello brings with him every time that he starts work in a new shipyard is a varied kaleidoscope of distant countries, seas and oceans. A small collection of the countless solutions that different peoples, at different times and in different situations, have found to solve the same problems, the problems that arise from building a wooden boat.
Maurizio Borriello became a craftsman of the sea by learning on the job, side by side with people who have always built boats. This 43-year-old Neapolitan, after a long time spent in Asia, seven years in Scandinavia and a brief stop in Italy, is currently working in the UK in one of Europe’s most prestigious shipyards, one that has won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise as a luxury yacht builder.
Boats on the Ganges, Indonesian prahus, Finnish sailing and motor boats, huge Norwegian passenger boats. These hold centre stage in the stories that Borriello tells when he talks about his work. Asking him how to build a boat means opening up a Pandora’s box consisting of creativity, journeys and experiences.
We met him in Naples, a few days before he set off for England. It is sunny on the Caracciolo sea front, the sea is calm and the light is beautiful. He is wearing a light linen shirt, tortoiseshell glasses, plain shoes and trousers. He smiles when we ask him to tell us about past projects. We sit down patiently, understanding that there is a lot to hear.
In his experience there isn’t just one tradition. There are many of them, which are mixed up together in a completely new and original way. You just have to think of Finland’s Pirtu Vene, which literally means “alcohol boat”. For a long time it was one of the fastest boats in Northern Europe.
The Finnish government at one stage decided to ban the sale of alcohol, but clever Finns didn’t give up. They wanted to get hold of alcohol. So what better solution was there than a very fast boat, like the Pirtu Vene, which can get to Estonia – where alcohol wasn’t banned – quickly and escape the Coast Guard’s patrols? While attending the Finnish school where he perfected his boatbuilding skills (the Salpaus Institute in Lahti, which is one of the most important design centres in Europe), Maurizio Borriello spent months studying old versions of this kind of boat and then decided to make a copy, using both traditional construction techniques and innovative solutions based on different technologies. But that is just one of a huge number of examples that he gives us to explain the really unique mix of his shipwright skills and ethnographic knowledge.
It is no coincidence that his journey began in Indonesia. He worked there as a volunteer rebuilding wooden boats damaged by the tsunami, and spent years in the local communities in South East Asia. He has an advantage, because he shares a language with them: he speaks Indonesian-Malaysian, Hindi and Swahili. That is a fantastic point of access to the knowledge of the sea. Including that of the North Sea. After Finland, his experience continued in the Norwegian Arctic, where he led the restoration of three culturally important historic boats.
For a shipwright, opening up to innovation also means being able to talk about one’s profession in an innovative way. And this is what Borriello has done with a film that is completely original and innovative. It is called “Faber Navalis” and has already been shown in a large number of film festivals around the world, winning the Maritime Award at the San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival. “Faber Navalis” isn’t a didactic account of how to restore a boat.
It is a pure reflection of the work of a craftsman. Maurizio Borriello shot it while restoring a large passenger boat built at the beginning of the twentieth century in northern Norway, and which was later used in Oslo. A lot of people think that the shipwright’s craft is dying out.
The extraordinary experience of Borriello tells us that isn’t actually the case. And the large number of views that his film has got on YouTube shows that there is a thirst for knowledge in a sector which is too often considered a niche, but which is just waiting to be explored.
(Maurizio Borriello, craftsman of the sea – Barchemagazine.com – February 2018)