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The moon hasn’t risen yet that night, a few stars dotted the sky here and there, clouds move with the wind against our bow, sounds of clashing waves mixed with the screams of the engine, even in darkness, the sea was white and furious as the rage of Poseidon tossed the small merchant ship I was on in a slow, arduous, 30-hour 250-nautical mile journey from Cuyo Island to Manila; with the first few seemingly endless moments spent in puking my guts out!
A Little History
The 3 balangay boats, Diwata ng Lahi, Masawa hong Butuan, and Sama Tawi-Tawi, are replicas of an ancient Philippine boat first excavated in Butuan in the 1970s. Carbon dated to about 320AD, these wooden boats, characterize with a carved-out planks edge adjoined through pins or dowels, were constructed by the Sama (Badjao) people of Sibutu and Sitangkai without any blueprints, but only through the knowledge handed down by their ancestors.
Made entirely of hard woods like the dugong, the boats use no metal nails with the planks lashed together using cabo negro, a kind of grass rope and sealed water-tight using gargar, a tree resin.
The balangay was a house boat as well as a vessel of war and commerce. Whole families lived inside these boats to which our barangay, the smallest unit of government was derived.
Propelled by wind using colorful sails and rowers on each side, our ancestors used these majestic boats in their migration; guided by the sun, the moon, and the stars as well as navigational aids such as wave patterns and seasonal wind changes.
As early as 10th Century AD, roughly 500 years before Magellan, according to the Chinese Song Shi (history), people from the kingdom of Butuan had already established trading relations with the kingdom of Champa in what is now South Vietnam. By the 11th century, Butuan was the center of trade and commerce in the Philippines and was able to send a tribute mission, using boats very much like the balangays, to the Sung Dynasty.
Antonio Pigafetta, Ferdinand Magellan’s chronicler during the voyage of 1521 described the balangay as sometimes having 100 rowers on one side commanded by proud warriors and chieftains.
Such were the maritime prowess and achievements of our pre-colonial forefathers; the forgotten heritage and consciousness that the Voyage of the Balangay hopes to rekindle.
Four Wooden Boats
Constructed in 41 days at CCP in Manila, the first balangay, Diwata ng Lahi (Spirit of the Race), is 18 meters long by 3 meters wide. Masawa hong Butuan (Masawa of Butuan), in attribution to Ferdinand Magellan’s suppose 1st Easter Mass in March 31, 1521 at the Masawa delta near the entrance to the Agusan River, is larger at 25 meters long by 6 meters wide and finished in 60 days. Balangay Sama Tawi-Tawi (Sama tribe of Tawi-Tawi), pays homage to the Badjao people that built all three boats, is at 23 meters long and 4.5 meters wide and constructed at Luna Compound, Brgy. Bading in Butuan City.
Sama Tawi-Tawi is the only balangay that has an engine. It acts as a service boat for the flotilla and as a lead boat in navigation, communications and supply. Built like a kumpit, trading and commercial boats of Southern Philippines; it houses 8 bunk beds, a 120hp engine, a generator, storage and water tanks at the lower deck while the upper deck comprises of the pilot house, the kitchen and yes, the comforts of a toilet.
Built at roughly the same time as Diwata ng Lahi, the lesser known “workhorse” of the fleet, Tiririt, is a 3 meter long boat that is mainly use for scouting and tugging.
September 1, 2009 marked the start of the voyage in Manila with only one boat, the Diwata ng Lahi; then subsequently, accompanied by Masawa hong Butuan for the Mindanao leg of the journey; and finally joined by Sama Tawi-Tawi from Zamboanga onwards.
Life Aboard the Balangays
Two atoms of hydrogen plus one atom of oxygen and it stretches forever, life at sea is never easy.
Since the dawn of human civilizations we have fought this element that was often seen as an obstacle to new lands and new discoveries. Mariners set out into the unknown in search of food and adventure, some never to return. To this day, even with the advent of GPS and modern navigations, we are still subjected to the sea’s unfathomable mysteries, her frequent mood swings and atmospheric tantrums.
When the first balangay set sail to Cavite, a few days after the maiden voyage, a storm hit that almost ended in the loss of the boat. The team got their first taste of the sea’s rage and the many more furies that later awaited them.
But the same waters that seeks to challenge their resolves, also provided for their sustenance, abundantly at that. Sea weeds, crabs, squids, and fishes of all sizes are frequently caught while sailing by the Badjaos. Fishermen also provided fresh catch between ports and local supporters gifted produce and fruits, sometimes even offered cattle, goats and fowls; such were their generosities and hospitalities.
Each member of the crew has a function to perform; spotters for the bow and aft scan the water surface for any large floating objects such as logs that can surely damage the boats, there are navigators that plots the course and steers the boats, and those in charge of lowering and raising the anchors, setting the sails, controlling the rudders, etc.
Being stranded for several days in a particular port was nothing new during times of weather disturbances. Like our ancestors, who respected nature and seeks harmony in every voyage, the crew merely waits until conditions are favorable before sailing forth once again.
During most port calls, the crew staged symposiums for the local students and teachers, retelling the rich history of our forefathers. The team also conducted medical missions and disaster preparedness training for the local communities; leaving a lasting footprint of goodwill for those people along the path of voyage.
Rendezvous in Palawan
After nearly three months since the balangays left Philippine waters bound for Southeast Asia, and over 14 months since the start of the initial voyage, the team was coming home at last; via Palawan, the Philippine’s last frontier.
The over 12,600 kilometers of voyage had toke them initially around the Philippines then to the countries of Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, and the territorial waters of Vietnam.
Having last been with the team in Singapore and the Indonesian island of Batam, I boarded a flight the following day they arrived in Puerto Princesa, with the intention of sailing with the boats all the way to Manila.
From Puerto Princesa, the balangays headed north; dropped anchor on the island of Dumaran briefly for a night and reached Apulit Island in El Nido the next day. Renamed Apulit Resort, the former Club Noah Isabelle hosted our lunch that day with appetizing marinated crabs, grilled squids, steamed fish, and other fresh catch. We were supposed to spend the night in their newly renovated cottages along the beach, but opted to visit the nearby Municipality of Taytay, one of the former capitals of Palawan.
The next day, after a glorious sunrise and a hearty breakfast provided by the Mayor of Taytay, the balangays set out towards Cuyo Island, retracing the suppose route of the 10 Bornean Datus that arrived in the neighboring Island of Panay; a trip that took us 14 hours, from sunrise to sunset, and the rising of the full moon.
Literally in the middle of nowhere, Cuyo Island is over 100 kilometers from any major land mass; it sits roughly between Palawan and Panay in the Sulu Sea, and like Taytay, used to be Palawan’s capital as evidently by the presence of the Spanish fort.
The team spent the next day hosting a symposium to mostly students and government employees, toured some sights around the island, swam in the clear waters of the beach, and feasted on sumptuous food provided by a member of a crew who is a native of Cuyo.
With little knowledge that the northeast monsoon was gaining in strength and the waters quite turbulent in this area, our first attempt at leaving the island was hampered; second attempt the following day resulted in failure as well. The continuous pounding of waves against our boats was just beyond the wooden balangays can tolerate; force of the impacts sometime reverberated to the entire vessel, seeking to overturn us in hair-raising tilts. We have no recourse but to turned back and seek the protection of the port; to forcibly continue may result in disaster, a risk that our team leader is not willing to take, not that the boats are so close to home.
After two unsuccessful attempts at leaving the island, the team came to a consensus to wait for a few days, hoping for a favorable window of opportunity. Face with uncertainty, this writer, together with two other crew members and a canine, opted to toke a small merchant ship bound for Manila.
Over 12 hours our little ship got hammered and tossed by the waves, swells as high as 15 feet incessantly rammed through the metal hull, vibrations rang out like a gong! In my mind, even though the team’s will may be made of steel, the balangays are still made of wood; the boats will never stand a chance in these turbulent waters!
The ride only became tolerable after the ship reaches Coron, under the protective covers of Mindoro; from there, it was almost like a leisurely cruise.
Upon landing in Manila that morning, we eagerly awaited news of the balangays’ third attempt at escaping Cuyo Island. Using satellite tracking, everyone heaped a sign of relieve knowing the boats were on approach to Antique, Panay Island that afternoon. Preparations for the arrivals in Manila can finally commence.
Arrivals in Manila
It took the balangays 9 more days after leaving Cuyo, passing through Antique, Boracay, Mindoro, and Batangas before at last entering the safety of Manila Bay. The journey was not without incidents and risks; balangay Sama Tawi-Tawi hit a reef as she was departing Boracay that resulted in a foot long puncture on her hull; the short passage through the Verde Islands was described by one crew member as “like being in a washing machine.”
After staying in Sangley Point, Cavite for a few days of rest and boat cleaning; the three balangays with her intrepid crew sailed towards CCP, Manila on the morning of December 13, 2010 for a grand arrival celebration spearheaded by San Miguel Properties that sponsored the balangay’s Southeast Asia voyage.
Escorted by vessels of the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard, the balangays made their way in the mirror-like waters of Manila Bay. Approaching the breakwaters, 4 dragon boats from the Philippine Team came alongside to greet us with their drums in tuned. Scores of people waving little Philippine flags lined the stretch of Harbour Square while the Coast Guard band provided the rousing music.
Representatives from different sectors of society: such as former President Fidel V. Ramos, who even rode on the Masawa from Cavite, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Gen. Danilo Lim, Butuan City’s Mayor Amante, Mr. Nur Misuari, Admiral Tamayo of the Philippine Coast Guards, Father Suarez, Tony Meloto, and other notable personalities attended the event.
In his arrival speech, team leader Art Valdez, (Sir Art to most of us), spoke about the symbolism of the Voyage of the Balangay. How his greatest achievement of the voyage was to bring home safely the 40 members of the balangay crew to their respective families. How by working together, even with different faiths, backgrounds and believes, the crew was able to accomplish its challenges and made an impact in rekindling the pride and maritime consciousness of our people.
Like the balangay, the Philippines, as a single “ship of state”, our nation, and thus the Filipino people can propel forward if we set aside our differences and work towards our common goals.
The voyage of the balangay may be coming to a close, but the journey continues… in our hearts, in our thoughts, in our hopes, and in our dreams. May our cherished aspirations, carried by boats of the past, reach the shores of the future.
I am mighty proud to be a part of this team, a member of this crew. May the essence and spirit of the balangay voyage endure; for this is our Filipino pride, this is our Malay heritage, and this will be our legacy. Mabuhay ang mabuting Pilipino!
Author’s Note: The three balangays are currently docked at Harbour Square in CCP, Manila. After repair and refurbishment, Diwata ng Lahi will be consigned to the National Museum; the team will then set sail towards Butuan City to return balangay Masawa hong Butuan in mid-January.
VRs taken on November 20-30, 2010 in Palawan and December 13, 2010 in Cavite and Manila. Voyage of the Balangay’s website: www.balangay-voyage.com. Facebook page: Balangay Voyage. The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org