THE  VOYAGE  OF  THE  'BALANGAY':  FROM  THE  MOUNTAIN  TO  THE  SEAS

MANILA, JUNE 10, 2009
(STAR) By Ann Corvera - The team behind the successful endeavor to put Filipinos on the summit of Mount Everest has put another historic dream into motion – to sail the oceans on a vessel of pre-colonial make, propelled by the wind and guided by the stars.

Art Valdez once again leads the dream mission, this time with the Voyage of the Balangay. His vision is to rekindle Filipino pride and faith in a forgotten heritage, our maritime consciousness.

“It is very sad because we are a maritime people. We should be gifted and natural in the waters but colonialization robbed us of that consciousness. I am doing this to help rekindle that spirit,” Valdez tells STARweek.

Last month, a crew of Badjaos began constructing a replica of the balangay excavated in Butuan, Agusan del Norte and carbon dated to 320 AD, among the oldest seafaring vessels in human history. Measuring 15 meters long and three meters wide, it rests unassumingly by the bay at the Cultural Center of the Philippines complex as it is being readied for its momentous and timely launch on Friday, Independence Day.

What may first come to mind is the challenging question of how the Balangay team will sail a vessel with no navigational equipment or modern gadgetry to guide them, relying only on instinct and nature.

Yet the real question lies in the Filipino mindset and how much – or how little – we actually know about the balangay and its place in history.

Valdez recalls it was not easy to find boat builders. Not too many people knew what a balangay was, let alone where to find craftsmen who could build one. He had to find people who knew the story of the balangay and who carried the boat-building skill from one generation to the next.

Persistence led Valdez to the islands of Sibutu and Sitangkai in Tawi-Tawi, where the ancient technique of building boats was still alive. There he found his dream team of ten Badjaos led by Jubail Muyong from Sibutu, a professor at the Mindanao State University, and Haji Musa Malabong from Sitangkai, a retired school district supervisor.

The two helped Valdez find the best hands on deck, and the brotherhood of boat builders was formed.

“The blending of the workers was systematic. They already knew what to do so there was no need to direct them,” says Malabong.

Muyong adds that back in Tawi-Tawi, these “pandays” are fishermen who never lost touch with their proud heritage of boat building. “They build bigger boats back home, but modern.”

“We have more pandays but we picked the best,” he notes.

The balangay is a wooden boat adjoined by carved-out planks edged through pins and dowels. Our ancestors, Austronesian-speaking peoples, traveled from the Asian mainland by land bridges across the continental shelf to the Southeast Asian archipelago. From there they sailed on the balangay to as far east as Polynesia or over the central and southern Pacific Ocean, and as far west as Madagascar.

Also known as the Butuan boat, the balangay was excavated in that province in the late 1970s. Two other balangays have been dug up while six others are still preserved in the earth of Butuan.

All three excavated balangays are housed in museums in Butuan and in the National Museum in Manila.

The Voyage of the Balangay, which will run from this year until 2013, will attempt to trace the migration of our ancestors, thereby highlighting the well-developed boat-building industry the Philippines has had all along but which, Valdez laments, has been taken for granted.

The voyage will kick off in Manila, tour the archipelago in seven legs to end at the very tip of the Sulu archipelago before it sails off into foreign waters. The journey around the country will cover a distance of 2,108 nautical miles or 3,908 kilometers.

From the Philippines, the balangay will travel around Southeast Asia until 2010; Micronesia and Madascar the following year; across the Pacific onward to the Atlantic and all the way around the world and back to the country from 2012 to 2013.

The balangay will navigate by the old method used by the ancient mariners – steering by the sun, the stars, the wind, cloud formations, wave patterns and bird migrations. Valdez and his team will rely on the natural navigational instincts of the Badjaos.

What GPS (global positioning system) is to us today, celestial navigation was to our forefathers. While we look to modern gadgets, they looked to the stars for guidance.

“In the Everest expedition, while science and technology brought information on the weather, decisions were made together with the sherpas, through their instinct and sense of understanding of survival in the mountain,” Valdez points out.

The pandays employ the same boat-building technique and method of construction as their forefathers did for the balangay of the fourth, 13th and 14th centuries AD – plank-built, lashed-lug, edge-pegged and shell-first construction, unlike the “modern way” of frame first before the planks.

“Mas matibay ang shell muna kaysa ribs,” Muyong tells STARweek. “Kahit ma-loosen yung ribs nakadikit pa din yung mga planks dahil may mga (even if the ribs fall loose the planks are still held together by) dowels in between the planks.”

“We only needed to know how big was the boat that they needed us to build and we knew how much wood would be used,” Muyong says.

But that proved to be the hardest part. “We don’t have much of these trees left,” Valdez says of the wood, a type of the hardwood apitong, known locally as lutanga.

Eventually, the men found their wood in the eastern part of Tawi-Tawi, and Valdez had to first secure a special permit from the environment department, citing the “cultural significance of this project.”

The select team of boat builders worked instinctively, quickly yet so accurately with native tools such as patuk and bangkung that even Valdez was surprised each time he would check on the progress of construction.

“After Everest, I thought of putting out something that Filipinos can understand. The Voyage of the Balangay is something that is relevant to us because we live in an archipelago. I wanted it to be authentic and the boat itself has to be authentic in design. That’s the only way to do it,” says Valdez, who insisted that no modern material or equipment be used in the construction of the balangay, so much so that the pegs and waterproofing were of the same make as, or at least closest to, what the original balangay voyagers used.

Neither Poseidon nor the pirates of Somalia can stop the dream from becoming a reality.

“Maybe the Somalian pirates would take one look at us and offer us an engine,” Valdez laughs.

People came to observe the construction of the balangay at the area near the Folk Arts Theater, including architects, members of the academe, officials like US Ambassador Kristie Kenney, families strolling along on a Sunday, and curious onlookers.

From afar, the boat appears small but up close it is as large as the historical significance of the balangay and its impending reunion with the sea.

The boat can fit between 50 to 60 people, Valdez says.

The crew, he explains, must be representative of the best of Philippine maritime culture. “The core is the Everest team – we are mountaineers and we don’t assume to be good mariners. Just like when we climbed Everest we had sherpas, now when we sail we have the Badjaos,” Valdez relates.

The core team is composed of Leo Oracion and Erwin “Pastour” Emata of the original Everest team, along with the first Filipino women to reach the Everest summit – Noelle Wenceslao, Carina Dayondon and Janet Belarmino-Sardena. With them from Everest to the balangay expedition are Dr. Ted Esguerra, Fred Jamili and Dr. Voltaire Velasco.

The rest of the crew has not yet been finalized but Valdez says it should include teams from the Coast Guard, the Navy and the Joint Manning (Seafarers) Group.

“The crew will be alternating on every leg,” Valdez says.

In Everest, Valdez recalls that recruitment of the team was guided by the “Three Cs” principle: Capability to accomplish the task at hand; Commitment to the team and its undertaking; and Compatibility with the team’s core values.

For the Voyage of the Balangay, it will be the “Three Hs”:

“Harmony with nature – we will only sail in harmony with nature; Harmony with the boat – the capability of the boat to travel and sail; and Harmony with the people or teamwork,” Valdez explains.

Displaying harmony with nature and true to his mariner roots, Muyong points to a type of wood they call sampanguwak, which they look to to gauge barometric pressure.

“Kapag itong kahoy na ito ay pinawisan, within two to three days darating ang ulan (When moisture builds up on this wood, within two to three days, rain will come),” he says.

From inherited instincts, these boat builders are also keenly observant of the movement of sea creatures, the waves and the wind – enabling them to be aware of sea and weather conditions perhaps way before any Doppler radar can detect what is about to come.

“We are very thankful to Sir Art. The skills and talents of our tribe were confined for more than a century to our hometown and there was no promotion of it,” Malabong says.

Butuan is also building its own balangay, according to Valdez, who adds that because our ancestors traveled in fleet, they are also inviting Batanes to join the voyage, noting that craftsmen of this ancient vessel are also found in this northernmost province.

“This is not just some adventure we thought of embarking on,” Valdez stresses. “We will have activities in all our port calls. We will stay between two to five days in one stop – do coastal cleanup, symposia at schools on our heritage, medical missions, as doctors will also be coming with us on escort yachts, and we will hold cultural programs and push the country’s tourism.”

Valdez says the balangay can travel “between four to six knots, depending on the wind.” The balangay will stop at 75 ports around the Philippines on a journey that is expected to last almost eight months before they move out towards Sabah.

Master mariners from the Joint Manning Group will be there with their instruments during the journey but Valdez emphasizes they will not interfere with the way the boat is being sailed.

“They will be there just to confirm and observe but the ones to determine the sailing will be the Badjaos,” he says.

The project “is a comparison between tradition and modernity – an archaeological experiment.”

As a safety measure, the team will sail only during daytime and before the sun sets the balangay will stop at the nearest port and the group will interact with the communities.

A support group of other sea vessels will most likely sail with the balangay, particularly around the Philippines.

It will be a different story once the balangay sails outside Philippine waters.

Valdez has been coordinating with different embassies of our Southeast Asian neighbors “to bridge the culture of the entire Indo-Malay” race.

“These bodies of water – South China Sea, Celebes, Java, Gulf of Thailand – in spite of the reefs and typhoons, they were not obstacles to our forefathers. The waters unify us rather than divide us,” Valdez explains. “That is what we would like to show – that by traveling together with our ASEAN brothers, it will be a symbol of ASEAN unity.”

“Anyone can join us,” he says, citing that the ambassador of Saudi Arabia has told him to let him know if they will pass the peninsula “and offered to take care of everything.”

The real challenge will be crossing the Pacific but our forefathers did it, Valdez says, citing the discovery of pottery that came from mainland Asia and an early seafaring route called the “black current.”

“In the Pacific, there is a black current during a certain time of the year,” he explains, though admitting that the seas these days are more unpredictable than ever.

Global warming or not, the Badjaos know better than to challenge nature. “Our ancestors were one with nature and that sensitivity still lies within the Badjaos,” Valdez says.

“The voyage and the boat are only a beginning. Just like Mount Everest, the Voyage of the Balangay is a way of triggering faith in ourselves if only we recognize the richness of our heritage, the skills that we have and the kind of fortune that we live in an island that’s almost like paradise. Then we may finally value and try to preserve this.”


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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