Expert Aboard: Katharina & Ombak Putih Ship Review

January 17, 2020 • Lis Larson

AdventureSmith teammates Lis Larson and Justin Massoni review Indonesian sister ships Ombak Putih and Katharina after being aboard on Indonesia cruises in Raja Ampat, Flores and Sulawesi. Learn their insights about these unique vessels and why you should choose to cruise. Use the AdventureSmith team’s small ship cruise reviews and insights to inform, inspire and book your next trip aboard a small cruise ship.

First Impressions of the Sailing Vessels

Boarding these classic ships is a revelation; they are gaff-rigged ketches just oozing with Indonesian charm and an Old World sense of simple luxury. These sturdy and efficient ironwood ships, built in the same way for hundreds of years on the islands surrounding Sulawesi, still serve as a main means of transport in Indonesia into the 21st century. There is simply nothing like being aboard such a ship in Indonesia; they are truly at home in the seas they sail. Most times you will board the ship when it’s at anchor at sea, versus tied up to a dock, making the whole experience ever-the-more charming.

True Wooden Indonesia Ships with Romance & Charm

These ships are small enough to be intimate with personalized service, and large enough to be comfortable with a bit of privacy, but the most remarkable feature of both is all the wood. From the decks and the stairs to the mast, the rope pulleys, door tracks and even the nails, virtually every structural component and finishing touch is wood. Depending on your sleeping abilities, the sound of the wood gently creaking will either lull you to sleep or keep you up at night, so bring earplugs if you fall in the latter category. But our team’s experiences aboard were nothing but positive, with the sounds of the ship adding to the senses of Old-World charm, romance and sturdiness not commonly found when sailing today.

Deck Space & the Sounds of Indonesia

One of the striking aspects of the pinisi ship-building style is the abundance of deck space. All passenger cabins are on the lower Cabin Deck. The Main and Top Decks are entirely devoted to crew quarters and public spaces. In these ships’ capacity as commercial vessels, the large open deck allows for the high stacking of light goods. In Ombak Putih and Katharina’s capacity as luxury passenger vessels, it allows for a spacious enclosed salon with room to relax and read, an expansive and modern galley, a charming outdoor dining area and plenty of room for viewing wildlife and wild seascapes from the rail.

On the Top Deck, covered viewing areas fore and aft of the wheelhouse provide an ample supply of benches, loungers, couches and even bean bag chairs, an AdventureSmith favorite for reading in. From here, you can often hear the crew playing guitar down in their own aft deck. Nearly the entire crew and guides all play music, and there is even a large homemade stand-up bass, multiple guitars, bongo drums and other instruments aboard. If you like to play music, you’ll love these ships.

Don’t Expect to Sail the Entire Time

Despite these ships being masted and fully capable of being powered by just their sails, due to the pace of the itineraries and need for the crew to be doing other things (cooking, cleaning, driving Zodiacs, maintenance, guide support, etc), it’s simply not feasible to be at sail too much on any of Ombak Putih or Katharina’s itineraries. From what we’ve experienced and heard from other travelers and the ship captains, being at sail is more of a novelty or photo-op that happens once or twice a voyage vs. being a main means of transportation. But of course it all depends on the weather, currents and itinerary you are on, so you may get lucky and experience it more.

Knowledgeable Local Crew & Guides

As with any small cruise ship, the crew and guides are often what makes the journey so special, and these Indonesian ships are no exception. While the language barrier must be overcome a bit by smiles and gestures with some of the crew aboard Ombak Putih and Katharina, many of the crew speak a bit of English and were eager to learn and get to know us. The naturalist guides aboard are at the very least bilingual, but often speak 3-4 languages, and are key in translating to the villages on these ships’ remote itineraries. On our Sulawesi cruise, sometimes the crew would sit outside the lounge windows when we were watching documentaries or listening to our guides’ lectures and I loved to see that they were interested in learning. A few came inside one night to judge our casual trip-end photo competition too and it was fun to see how seriously they took their jobs as they scrutinized our collections of photos for composition and style.

A Review of the Cabins & How to Choose

Ombak Putih and Katharina’s cabins are a study in the efficient use of space aboard a ship—all boasting modern conveniences such as USB charging ports, lighting options for bedside reading and ambient overhead, air conditioning, multiple baskets for storage and keyed personal item storage built right into the bed’s headboard. Small ceramic spice dishes at the brass porthole are a charming touch that smell great when you look out your window! But the beach sarongs, towels, reusable water bottles and small daypack all make it clear that you won’t be spending too much time inside.

Choosing your cabin aboard comes down to your individual preferences for bed configurations as they vary on these ships. The AdventureSmith crew has stayed in both cabin 4 and cabin 10 aboard Ombak Putih, and inspected the cabins aboard Katharina. Cabin 10’s door is right when you come down the stairs, so not the best for privacy, but it was quick to get in/out of the room to the action upstairs. Equipped with a double bed, the room feels smaller compared to its neighboring aft cabins that have small entry hallways upon entering, but those are closer to the engine so if you are sensitive to noise, choose a cabin closer to the bow. There are various bed configurations on each ship so depending on your travel companions, that alone may help you determine which cabin to choose: bunk, twin beds, double or triple. For capacity reasons, the Katharina is our top choice for charter groups and features two rooms available for triple configuration.

Dining Outside & Indonesian Cuisine

Dining on both ships is a highlight as you eat all meals alfresco on the canvas-covered bow area. Seating on Ombak Putih is at three different tables, while all guests aboard Katharina can sit together at a big table, making dining a more intimate and social affair aboard this ship. The tables themselves are unique as they were former hatches down to the cabin deck that have since been covered with glass. This allows for a nice dining surface while also allowing the light to filter into the cabin hallway below.

Food aboard is diverse and locally sourced, with various fish, meat and vegetarian choices, with rice and salad daily constants among the offerings. Meals are always casual buffet style, served indoors, so you can take what you wish and come back for more as you please. Pisang goreng (fried banana) is a common appetizer, as are other fried options including shrimp and calamari. Dessert is the only plated affair and often it’s comprised of just fruit, but occasional cakes, puddings and mousses mix things up over the duration of the cruise.

Cruising along Sulawesi, our guides would buy things for us to try at the market, including banana flower, cassava leaves, papaya flower and water spinach so we could have some traditional Indonesian dishes for lunch and dinner. Our guides also purchased some dried fish and fresh red snapper from local fishermen we met on our itinerary.

Katharina & Ombak Putih Review Highlights

Ask our team or our travelers and we’d all sail these ships again in a heartbeat. It’s truly hard to imagine a better-fitting pair of vessels for the authentic, active, cultural itineraries Ombak Putih and Katharina sail. And the crew and guides aboard are clearly proud of their beautiful ships. In fact, the coast guard of every port we anchored near would come aboard to inspect (gawk) and take a few requisite selfies with us passengers aboard.

Note in looking at our photos and video that both ships’ decks were refinished to their original teak in mid-2019. When we were last aboard in early 2019, the decks still had a rubber-like covering so we can only imagine the experience is even more romantic and the ships even more beautiful with this return to wood!

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