Title: History hunter underwater
Date: 7/12/2004; Publication: New Straits Times; Author: Jennifer Rodrigo
New Straits Times
History hunter underwater
Byline: Jennifer Rodrigo
Edition: The City Advertiser; 2*
JENNIFER RODRIGO braves 20 hours on a diving boat to interview Sten Sjostrand, the man who has
found nine historical shipwrecks in the South China Sea.
THE video playing in the gift shop of Tanjong Jara Resort in Terengganu depicted the recovery of ceramics and other artefacts from shipwrecks dating as far back as the 11th century. Throughout the clips of different shipwrecks, one thing was clearly evident: They had all been discovered by one man - Sten Sjostrand.
To date, he has found nine historical shipwrecks in the South China Sea.
Recently, Sjostrand, in a joint collaboration between his company, Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sdn Bhd, and the Department of Museums and Antiquities, made a presentation to Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Datuk Rais Yatim regarding the excavation of his ninth shipwreck, found just a few kilometres offshore from Tanjong Jara Resort. The Wanli project, as the excavation is known, represents the 17th-century link he has been looking for since 2001.
His discoveries put him in the unique situation of being able to study and cross-check any new data about ancient maritime trade and trade routes in the South China Sea. Clues such as the ship's coat-of-arms, its metal nails and type of wood suggest that Wanli was a Portuguese ship made in the Philippines and built by Chinese shipbuilders.
Rare Ming porcelain found onboard was manufactured during the later part of the Ming dynasty when Chinese
porcelain production was at its peak.
In person, Sjostrand has all the salty dog traits of a man who has spent a lot of time at sea. Tanned, wiry and lean,
his blue eyes blaze with an intensity that springs from an almost unbridled passion for maritime trade and ceramics.
"We must move away from the perception that shipwrecks are only about their cargoes," he says. "A shipwreck
and its artefacts are time capsules. The real treasure is the boat, its cargo and the history behind them."
The excavation has been fraught with problems, with difficult diving conditions, bureaucratic delays and one
heartbreaking tragedy: the recent sinking of Sjostrand's beloved private boat, Cadenza.
He had used the superb purpose-built private boat in all his shipwreck discoveries. It gave him freedom, mobility and comfort. But one day, as he was heading back to shore alone, Cadenza struck a submerged log, leaving a gaping hole in its hull. It only took five minutes for the sea to claim the boat.
Sjostrand only had time to grab his cell phone and jump into the launch boat before Cadenza sank 36 metres
underwater not far from the excavation site, taking all the onboard computers and data with her.
"I've seen more than 200 shipwrecks," Sjostrand says, "and after so many shipwrecks, one day it's you."
So just who is this man? An obsessed treasure hunter? A maverick historian? Mad visionary? Or a history hunter
who believes in unearthing clues from shipwrecks to piece together the truth about the past?
His early days may provide some answers. Born in the small town of Landskrona in Sweden,
Sjostrand learnt to sail from the age of seven under the strict tutelage of his father.
By age nine, he won his first boat race, beating the other boys from the yacht club by a huge berth. He has been
a champion race sailor ever since.
At age 10, he concocted a homemade grenade, which blew up "too early". Realising that no one was home,
and bleeding profusely, the young Sjostrand staggered two-and-a-half kilometres to the hospital where he was
immediately taken to the operating table. He emerged from the ordeal missing part of one thumb and two fingers.
With such daring intrepidness and inventiveness, it did not seem possible for Sweden to keep her son home.
In the late-70's, Sjostrand bought an city bus, ripped out the 44 seats and turned it into a "rolling home". When
he and his wife arrived in Singapore two years later, they spend another few years sailing around Southeast Asia.
By the age of 28 he had made up his mind to stay in Singapore.
It was there that he designed and built the world's first purpose-built, 200 rooms floating hotel, a project never done before. The hotel was sold to an Australian consortium, which used it on the Great Barrier Reef for two years. It was then sold to the Japanese, who sent it to Ho Chi Minh City as the Saigon Floating Hotel. Today it belongs to Hyundai and is in North Korea.
As we sat on the deck of the excavation boat, nicknamed Enterprise 4, it quickly became evident that this man was more history hunter than treasure hunter.
Sjostrand is here to remind us of the rich maritime heritage we have and should preserve. Ask him how he finds his wrecks with such apparent ease, and he's quick to say that there is nothing easy about it.
"Passion, persistence and hard work. I am self financed. I am onboard all the time. I love the sea. I can be there all the time," he says. "A lot of people have the boats and the money for the search. But not many have the perseverance.
"I am careful in making that decision. I think about it for quite a long time. In everything I do in my private or professional life, when I say yes and decide it is feasible, I never give up. Why just go for a couple of months, give up and go back?"
Sjostrand's right-hand man, Johan Milton, describes him as a "tough, stubborn workaholic with a short fuse. He
can never sit still. There is always something going on. He thinks way, way ahead! And he hates to see anyone
relaxing, especially someone on his own doing nothing."
Divers Jan Ory and Gypsy laud him for his dedication, knowledge, foresight and logistical expertise in the area of
Documentary filmmaker Ben Rongen, who has been covering Nanhai's above- water events since 2002, had this to
say: "His underwater footage is superb. He picks things up really fast. I'd be lucky to keep my job! He even filmed
an interview of himself in the pottery kiln sites of Sisatchanalai in Thailand (where his old shipwreck pots had been
made centuries earlier)."
Sjostrand's relationship with the Department of Museums and Antiquities has been one based on a genuine
passion for maritime archaeology and Asia's ceramic developments.
Sjostrand has been and still is involved in the training of Malaysia's first team of maritime archaeologists.
The artefacts are shared between Nanhai and the museum on a 70-30 per cent basis. Right now, the man
is in no hurry to sell these antiques from the sea. But it is good to know that when the selling happens,
Malaysians have first preference.
Is there going to be a 10th shipwreck? Quite possibly. This time, Sjostrand will be leaving the hard slog to Milton while he focuses on the research and detective work of unravelling the maritime history and ceramic traditions of the region. In this field, the work never ends.
Thousands of man-hours will continue to be spent researching, searching, surveying, excavating, transporting, cataloguing, training. And Sten Sjostrand will continue to apply his consummate skills as the history hunter.
The nine shipwrecks:
found in 1995 -Royal Nanhai (circa 1460),
found in 1995 -Nanyang (circa 1380),
found in 1995 -Xuande (circa 1540),
found in 1996 -Longquan (circa 1400),
found in 1996 -Turiang (circa 1370),
found in 1998 -Singtai (circa 1550),
found in 2001 -Desaru (circa 1830),
found in 2001 -Tanjong Simpang (AD 960- 1127),
found in 2003 -Wanli (early 17th century), found in 2003
* All names are project names. Dates of the ships are approximate.