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Replicas of ancient Filipino sailboats arrive in HK to relive history

17 May 2018

By Vir B. Lumicao

A fleet of three balangays, hardwood sailboats that natives of the pre-Hispanic Philippines used to sail the seas, arrived in Hong Kong in the early hours of May 14 to reenact a historic voyage to China by a sultan of Sulu 600 years ago.
One of the three balangays which docked at the HK Yacht Club in Causeway Bay. 

The boats arrived at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club on Kellet Island in Causeway Bay at 3am on Monday after setting out on May 12 from the Chinese city of Xiamen, the first stop of their estimated 3,000 nautical mile voyage that began in Zamboanga on Apr 28.

The fleet, led by the motorized command vessel “Sama ng Tawi-tawi” berthed for three days at the Yacht Club quay along with the “Lahi ng Maharlika” and the “Sultan Sa Sulu.” The crew was treated to a welcome dinner at the Consulate on May 14.

The balangay or Butuan boat is known as the oldest pre-Hispanic watercraft found in the Philippines, and was the first wooden watercraft excavated in Southeast Asia.

The sailboat “Sultan Sa Sulu” is a replica of the sea-going vessels that natives of the archipelago used in bilateral trade with the Middle Kingdom long before the Spanish colonizers arrived.

Art Valdez, leader of the 31-man expedition, said that the port call on Hong Kong completes a voyage to China that he began with a volunteer crew of mixed professions in 2009 to reenact the tributary visit of Sultan Paduka Batara to the Ming Dynasty emperor Zhu Di of Yongle in 1417.

That 17-month voyage began in Tawi-tawi and sailed on to Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and the territorial waters of Vietnam.

But it did not proceed to China as planned because crewmembers decided to return to their families for Christmas.

Last year, exactly the 600th anniversary of Batara’s voyage, Valdez and his crew set out again from Tawi-tawi but called off the expedition when they reached Manila because of rough seas, said John Manginsay, the navigator and only schooled seafarer on the team.

Valdez said the voyage had nothing to do with the ongoing dispute between the Philippines and China over clusters of islands and atolls in the South China Sea, renamed a decade ago by Manila as the West Philippine Sea. 

“What we are trying to do is renew the ties that bind us not only to China but to all of Southeast Asia,” said 69-year-old Valdez, an adventurer from Bacolod who led the first Filipino team that reached the summit of Mount Everest a decade ago.

“This boat has nothing to do with present issues. It simply symbolizes the thousands of years of relations that we have among the people of Southeast Asia,” Valdez said.

Long before the wrangling over the Spratlys, Kalayaan Islands, Scarborough Shoals, and Reed Bank, and other coral formations in the disputed zone, inhabitants of the region were united as a people, connected by waters, as symbolized by balangay, he said.

Then came the western colonizers who divided the globe among themselves.

“My point is, the people of Southeast Asia must be at peace with each other… The key here is let’s renew the ties … because that’s the only way we can progress,” he said.

Manginsay, a graduate of the Philippine Merchant Marine Academy who worked on a giant tanker and has migrated with his family to the United States, joined the first expedition in 2009 while on vacation in Butuan City from the ship.

At the time the Butuan middle class was supporting Valdez build a balangay similar to the ones that natives of the city built centuries ago. They were recruiting volunteers and when they learned he was a merchant marine, they said he was just the man they needed because he could “navigate though the stars”.

He was told there was “a Philippine expedition using the balangay to rekindle the maritime consciousness of our people and retrace the migration of our forefathers.”

The seafarer thought he would be skippering a ship, but to his surprise, it was a fleet of wooden sailboats without a navigation system. At first he balked, but then he said he was excited at the challenge and the significance of the voyage.

“Suddenly, along the way, there was a spirit that pushed me into this journey, if you believe in calling,” he said.

Now a father of two who turned 34 in the high seas on May 2, Manginsay considers this voyage as a priceless experience that he would teach his students in future.

   Valdez said his crew of volunteers came from different professions, including doctors, but were mostly mountaineers like him. Two of them are women who joined him on the first Filipino team that conquered Mt Everest, while the third female volunteer is a medic from Pangasinan.

Unlike the crew of the first voyage who were all from Butuan, the present team came from various provinces. They had different religions, including Islam, and one had none, “but we all pray together before sailing and when we reach our destination,” he said.

So, they will begin their voyage home on May 16 with a prayer for safety and good weather as they complete an advocacy that began nine years ago.

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