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Hundreds of years ago, the Filipino ancestors, part seafarers, traders and warriors, command much of the Sulu archipelago; from coastal areas of Zamboanga in the north, to Palawan in the west and North Borneo in the south. Control by the Sultan of Sulu, these warriors would often raid settlements and ships for slaves (hence the term “slave raiders”) on-board wooden crafts like the balangays. These majestic boats, described by Antonio Pigafetta, Ferdinand Magellan’s chronicler during the 16th century as sometimes having over 100 rowers, strike awe and fear into the hearts of their enemies.
Today, replicas of the balangay boats set sail again, not to raid and plunder, but to promote unity and understanding thru historically shared maritime bonds in Southeast Asia. The three wooden crafts: Diwata ng Lahi, Masawa hong Butuan, and the recently constructed Sama Tawi-Tawi undertake an adventure to retrace the migration paths of the ancient Filipino ancestors.
I joined the balangays in the last leg of their Philippine voyage; coming aboard in the beautiful city of Zamboanga and spent nearly 15 days as we traversed the islands of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi under the aegis of the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard.
From turquoise mirror-like waters in the Basilan coast to 6-foot trepidating waves as we approached Tawi-Tawi, life at sea is a constant uncertainty for the courageous souls.
The more than 250 nautical miles journey was marred frequently by bad weather and rough seas. We had to seek shelter in unfamiliar coves not only for the waves, but also for the night. Being stranded for several days in a particular port was just a norm; like our forefathers, the crew sits it out, waits for the sea to calm before continuing our voyage.
Life aboard the balangays can be in opposite extremes; from utter relaxation during cruising to hectic repair works while at port. Each crew has their assigned duty to perform; spotters at the bow and aft are always on the lookout for boats or hazards along the sailing paths as well as doing anchor deployment, the navigator plots and steers the boat, mechanics maintain the engine, the chef of course is in-charge of the kitchen area, others are assigned to deploy the sails and everyone else helps in the up-keep of the boat.
The balangays are usually stocked full of fresh water at every port, apart from being basic requirements, the water tanks act as ballasts to stabilize the boat. Since with limited space and insufficient power, there is no freezer onboard. Food is normally bought fresh and consumed within a day during at port while vegetables, eggs, dried fish and canned goods are served during at sea. Rice is cooked for every meal.
Sometimes, the Badjao boat builders will fish, and we would have the likes of squids, rays, crabs and other exotic looking fins for the next meals.
During stops within the Philippines, the team conducted symposiums and disaster trainings to the locals. We would visit schools, civic society groups, and local museums to share or exchange stories and ideas of our forgotten maritime culture.
On this journey, the crew toured some interesting places and sights such as the pink-sand beaches of the Sta. Cruz islands; the tomb of Raja Baginda, first Muslim ruler of Sulu; scaled the 350m Bongao Peak in Tawi-Tawi; visited the island of Simunul where Islam was first introduced in the Philippines 629 years ago; docked at Sibutu, the home of the Sama boat builders and marveled at the Venice-like waterways of Sitangkai, one of the southernmost islands of the Philippines.
Crew by The First Philippine Mount Everest Team under the leadership of Art Valdez, with representatives from the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard, plus volunteers from the province of Butuan where the ancient balangays were first unearthed and carbon-dated to 320AD; these modern “raiders of the sea,” warriors in their own right, are braving the waters to sail the three balangays to Shanghai, China; taking the path of Borneo, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. They hope to reach China by mid-October, in time to participate in the Shanghai World Expo.
The Voyage of the Balangay is symbolic in nature, signifying the close cultural ties that existed between the Philippine with other countries in Southeast Asia during pre-colonial times. It is a voyage in history, as well as a voyage of the human spirit in achieving an endeavor that can only be possible through unity, camaraderie and teamwork.
The team welcomes support in any ways, for more information, visit www.balangay-voyage.com “Raiders of the Sulu Sea” is the title of a documentary by Ms. Icelle Durano Borja, title used with permission for this article. All VRs taken from July 30 to August 11, 2010. The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org