Meet Florentino R. Das, the Filipino Sinbad Who Conquered the Pacific
Florentino Das was to the seas and waters born. The Filipino Sinbad, who would gain worldwide attention in 1955 for his solo voyage across the Pacific in a wooden boat, first saw the light of day on April 19, 1918 in the coastal town of Allen, in Samar. The water-locked island became the child’s playground, where, every day, he would watch the comings and goings of boats and cargo vessels that delivered products, and ferried passengers from port to port. Indeed, it would seem that every small barrio in the islands of Visayas had at least one regular service boat, as these small watercrafts could be built cheaply and outfitted with motors.
The young Das would also learn the ways of the seas from his father, an experienced seaman who owned a small parao (native boat) that he used to bring goods and passengers to other islands. “I was already a sailor when I was still a baby,” he recalls. “My father and mother took me along on the parao whenever they went out on a trip”. During one of these trips, they ran into a squall that caused panic among the passengers. He recalled that one of the passengers went mad with terror. “But”, he declared nonchalantly, ”I didn’t even get seasick.”
He was always in awe with the depth and breadth of his father’s seafaring knowledge, who could read the relationships of the sea, sun, and stars just by looking at their positions. Observing from a distance, the boy would marvel at how his father could accurately calculate distances and estimate arrival times just by the feel of the wind.
These early exposures made a deep impression on Das, which led to his lifelong fascination with the sea and sailing vessels. “Me, I have loved them (boats) since I was a kid. Whenever my father was building a new boat, I was sure to be there beside him, when I was still very little.” Using his father’s chisels and carving tools, Das was soon building his own toy boats, which he would sent on imaginary trips on the waters of Allen.
The young and the restless
Though happier tinkering with his little boats, Das obeyed his parent’s wish to stay in school, where he also did well. But an altercation with the school principal led to his dismissal when the young rogue retaliated by stoning the school official’s house. The mischief was reported to the constabulary police. Fearing for his safety—but most of all, dreading his parents’ wrath, the 12-year-old decided to run away.
He first fled to Lavezares town, where he found work for a few years as a cabin boy on an inter-island vessel. When he reached Manila, the teen survived by taking on various jobs as a stevedore and boat crewman. Determined not to return to Samar until successful, Das made an impulsive move—on February 6 of 1934, he stowed away on “Silverbeam,” an English freighter bound for America. His reckless adventure was short-lived; a few days after setting sail, he, as well as four other stowaways were discovered. In Hawaii, where their vessel stopped over, Das was given a choice: to remain in Honolulu, or to continue his trip to San Francisco, California, with a guaranteed job aboard on the ship. He chose to be dropped ashore in Honolulu. He was only 16.
Das belatedly realized that the Great Depression had hit the U.S.—he could not find a job. After lying about his age, he met a Japanese boxing impresario and accepted his offer to be trained as a Japanese prizefighter. He fought under the name of Jack Nishi, and won more than half of his 11 fights. But Das found it unfair that his manager was making more money out of his blood and sweat than him, so he quit.
His next job was as a security guard, but that didn’t work out either. Once again jobless, he became a drifter, flitting from billiard halls to pool rooms, bumming around with fellow Pinoys. Here, Das met a Hawaiian-born Filipina, Gloria Espartino, whom he squired and married. The union proved to be good for the restless Das, who finally settled down to start a family, working legitimate jobs to support them.
During the war years, he was employed as a fishing captain of a boat that travelled the South Seas. Here, he learned the rudiments of reading ocean charts and using navigation instruments like the sextant.
Taking advantage of the post-war building boom, Das became a contractor, a job that proved to be very lucrative. He, not only built houses, but also constructed fishing boats that he rented out to island fishermen. More than what he could imagine, he was now making honest money, and he was living the good life, at last.
Florentino das waving to well-wishers before setting off across the Pacific. May 4, 1955. Photo courtesy of Pio Arce.Posted by Florentino Das: A forgotten Filipino conqueror of the Pacific on Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Stirrings of wanderlust
By the 1950s, with children grown and with his fortune and future secured, Das’ thoughts turned to his family back in the Philippines. During his two decades in Hawaii, Das had dutifully sent some money home. His worries became real when his aged parents were robbed of the one thousand dollars he had sent them—and then killed. His siblings had also become overly dependent on his dole-outs. Now, as a self-made man, he felt it was his responsibility to return home and show his brothers how to make it through life and improve their lot.
He hatched another ambitious idea for his homecoming, which he announced to his wife: He would be returning to Samar on a boat that he would sail alone across the Pacific Ocean. His wife thought he was joking, but many more thought he was crazy. The audacious Das paid no heed.
To raise funds, he sold his three fishing boats to buy a ship hull that was a navy surplus, bought at $175. Basically just a skeleton of a boat, he began restoration work in January 1955, with the help of his four sons who worked with him after school. He used whatever material he could find, mostly salvaged wood.
Word about his project leaked when Das told the Legionarios del Trabajo, a fraternal society that had wanted to induct him, that he could not join because he was planning to cross the Pacific on the boat that he was building. Soon, he was being featured on TV and written about in magazines—distractions that he didn’t need, as these slowed down his work and depleted his funds.
Good thing, another fraternal organization called Timarau Club came into the picture. In an effort to promote their club and increase its membership, the club decided to sponsor Das’s journey as a publicity stunt.
By May 1, the boat, which had been christened Lady Timarau, was finished and ready to go. But once more, the planned journey was threatened to be derailed by the U.S. Coast Guard. Shortly before his scheduled departure, Das was summoned by the local Coast Guard chief, Commander Whitelaw, who gave him a lecture on the untold dangers of the sea.
As if to test him, the commander asked him to draw up a chart map of the course he will follow in his Pacific journey. When Das showed him the chart that were as precise and correct as can be, the commander knew there was no law that would stop Das from setting sail; he had no authority to stop him. But, he said, if he had his way: “I would tie you up with a rope and keep you in port”.
Sail on silver girl, sail on by
On the morning of May 14, 1955, after hearing mass with his family, Das proceeded to the Kewalo Basin where his 24-foot wooden boat was positioned to sail. His send-off party included Commander Whitelaw, a crowd of reporters, gawkers and kibitzers, and a music band that played native Aloha music.
Das had with him three hundred dollars, a Philippine flag, a rosary and prayer book, and a letter for the mayor of Manila written by his Honolulu counterpart. On that fair, breezy morning, the Lady Timarau, steered by its lone passenger, set sail from Kewalo to the wide blue yonder that is the Pacific Ocean.
He had reached the vast ocean by evening, and at once, Das was hit by the harsh realities of being alone, a speck on the ocean, tossed and turned by the rough waves, buffeted by the cold winds, with what seemed like a perpetual feeling of thirst.
The frigid night gave way to the heat and swelter of a new day (he had forgotten to pack his sunscreen). Sleep was hard to come by; his bed felt like the back of a bronco that can’t keep still. It was so dark in the evenings that he can’t even see his hands—he thought he had gone blind.
The condition on sea remained unchanged as the days turned into weeks. Problems kept springing up—like cabin leaks, a radio that stopped working, and a windblown boom (spar) that hit Das on the back of his head. The accident could have killed him, but thankfully, he was saved by his helmet. By the end of May, he ran into sea storms with winds so powerful, that Lady Timarau’s engine got badly soaked, stalling its two outboard motors.
As if his troubles weren’t enough, Das suffered wounds on both his feet after stepping on broken glass at the height of the squall. He managed to mount one wet motor on a high bracket, and after cleaning the ignition system, it sputtered to life. That done, he proceeded to work on his radio—a car radio, actually—which he connected to a battery, and which, too, came alive with signals from both a Japanese and a Honolulu station. Based on the time differences of the broadcasts, he calculated and estimated his distance traveled to 1,350 miles west of Hawaii in 15 days.
Having survived the initial storms, he now had to face the typhoons of June that came coming one after another. This time, the wooden vessel was no match to the fierceness of the winds that dashed powerful waves on the fragile-looking boat, inundating it with water. Das helplessly clung to the mast and prayed for a miracle, as he aimlessly drifted on the ocean.
The succor came in the form of a Japanese fishing vessel that was en route to the Micronesia islands on June 22, 1955. The Japanese “Daisan Shinsei Maru” towed the badly-damaged Lady Timarau and his hapless passenger to nearby Ponape island. There, Das, who had been at sea for 42 days, landed and stayed to have his mangled boat repaired.
Word of his near-death experience in the Pacific reached Honolulu, and worried members of the Timarau Club—his sponsor—pleaded with him to abandon his journey across the Pacific. Feeling that the "Filipino national pride was on the line," the dauntless sailor refused.
Das stayed for nine months in beautiful Ponape, and while carpenters worked on his boat and while waiting out the typhoon season, he befriended local tribes, went hunting and explored the island’s natural wonders. Finally, on February 22, 1956, with his boat back in tip-top shape, he was given the go-signal by authorities to continue his voyage home.
Land of the sun returning
The gritty Das resumed his journey toward the Philippines—and ran into a storm just on his first day out at sea. Despite running a high fever, he managed to maneuver the boat through the dangerous gales and giant waves. There was no let-up to the perils of the stormy seas; but though getting better, he could not hold anything down and felt very weak. The winds ripped his jib (a smaller sail), his sea anchor and steering cable needed repair, and his rudder came loose. Mercifully, he saw the uninhabited Hall Islands in the northern part of Chuuk, Micronesia.
In Manuin, he spent the night in the company of tattooed natives and a German missionary couple. The next morning, he left for Truk where he ended up making new friends and lingered for 3 months. While there, he did a radio interview for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and stayed long enough to get a copy of the paper with him on the front page.
With fresh provisions, he moved on and stopped at Yap island for more repairs. “So near, yet so far” was a fitting description of his feeling as he embarked on the last leg of his journey. By now, Das’s battered body was plagued with all sorts of pains and sores. He had a swollen bruised leg, suffered a broken wrist, and had severe stomach pains that he thought was a burst appendix. After blessing himself with holy water, which he carried on board, the pains subsided.
Florentin Das raising the Philippine flag after entering Philippine waters (April 25, 1956)Posted by Florentino Das: A forgotten Filipino conqueror of the Pacific on Monday, 13 February 2012
In the middle of April, he reached a historic milestone—he crossed into the Philippine Sea, only to be greeted by brewing Typhoon Thelma. On April 19, he celebrated his 38th birthday on sea, as violent winds pummeled his boat. The rough conditions persisted in the next few days, though the sun was out. Das also noticed porpoises swimming alongside his boat, a sure indication that he was near land.
As dawn broke on April 23, Das saw a looming darkness in the western horizon. It didn’t shift its shape, however, and, as the skies brighten and his vision cleared, it became apparent that what he beheld was land—Philippine land. He had reached Siargao, off the northeastern part of Mindanao, on April 25, 1956.
Home is the hero, and his Lady
Das had no inkling what awaited him on dry land when the conqueror of the Pacific reached the beach of barrio Alegria, in Sapao (now known as Sta. Monica), Siargao that afternoon. “Oh, I felt like a conqueror as I stood in my boat, working the rudder on my left foot, shouting and waving my hands in exultation, tears running down my face!" he recalled.
Das started screaming and shouting but no one seemed to be minding him. Here he was at last—he had just accomplished the near-impossible feat of crossing of the Pacific—and he was being ignored! Mistaken for a marauding pirate, the natives had shut their houses tight and refused to go out!
After wandering about, Das found a local teacher who sent a message by wire informing the Navy and the Manila authorities of his historic completion of his 5,000-mile Hawaii-to-Philippines voyage. It was only then that the nation learned and rejoiced of Das’ incredible feat.
A flotilla of boats and ships blow their horns to welcome Florentino Das and Lady Timarau in Manila Bay where a crowd also gathered for a glimpse of the intrepid Filipino hero. May 4, 1956.Posted by Florentino Das: A forgotten Filipino conqueror of the Pacific on Monday, 13 February 2012
As he was whisked off to Manila escorted by vessels of the Philippine Navy, he made a quick stopover at Allen, his hometown, where the returning son was reunited with his family. The town that nurtured his dreams gave him an ecstatic welcome, with an all-day affair that included a High Mass in gratitude for his safe passage, a noontime banquet, and an evening dance.
In Manila, en route to the Malacañang Palace, a colorful fluvial parade greeted him on Pasig. No less than President Ramon Magsaysay received Das, and praised him for his amazing feat that not even admirals could not have done. The President dubbed him as honorary commodore of the Philippine Navy, this, on top of his Legion of Honor. The Mayor of Manila, Arsenio Lacson, not to to be outdone, gave him the keys to the city. Das basked in the adulation of his fellow Filipinos in the “happiest day of his life.”
Time and tide
The hoopla over the returning hero soon died down, and Das lingered in the country with the intention of raising funds for his return to Hawaii. He had offered his Lady Timarau to the government for possible enshrinement in a museum, but got no response. He was also facing his own personal crisis—his wife in Hawaii had divorced him for his lack of child support (they had eight children). Some time after his return though, he would fall in love again, this time with Herminia Cipriano, a school teacher, who served as his devoted wife and loyal companion all his life.
Starting over, Das looked for gainful employment. Though his sponsors were gone, he found a variety of odd jobs to tide him and his wife over. He had developed diabetes and the complications from the disease started to show.
Together with his wife, they became caretakers of a resort house in Corregidor, which allowed Das to sail again on the placid bays of the island. He secured projects from the Philippine government surveying islands and waterways. He also worked for the Philippine Tourist and Travel Authority but resigned in January 1963 as his health failed.
Timarau with Kewalo Basin in the background....Posted by Florentino Das: A forgotten Filipino conqueror of the Pacific on Tuesday, 7 February 2012
To mark his extraordinary voyage alone seven years before, Das made his last solo boat trip in 1963, from San Jose, Mindoro to Manila, in his 27-foot “utility boat,” even though his vision was waning. In April of 1963, he was admitted to a free ward at the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Hospital of the University of the East, for glaucoma surgery in the right eye. Taking over as breadwinner, wife Herminia, accepted the post of a principal at the Divine Word College in Mindoro, to make ends meet.
Once again, after his operation, Das reiterated his offer to donate his Lady Timarau to the government, which had sunk the year before in Pasig River at the height of a severe storm. He contacted Defense Undersecretary Albert de Joya, the project director of the Corregidor rehabilitation project, who, in turn, referred him to the National Shrines Commission. But nobody seemed interested in the boat that, in Das’s words, “has given given credit and honor to the country and our people in the field of navigation.”
By 1964, his health condition took a turn for the worse. He became completely blind and his organs started to fail. He passed away from uremia at a Manila hospital on October 7, 1964.
Das was just 46 years old. Fittingly, he received a Navy Honor guard service burial at the Manila North Cemetery where he and his wife now rest.
Remembrances and recognition
Das' conquest of the Pacific was unprecedented in Philippine maritime history. It was made more remarkable by the fact that it was accomplished by a self-trained sailor who, after almost year on the sea, had transformed into a seasoned navigator of the world. Yet today, his fantastic voyage—a triumph not just for Filipinos, but for the whole of humanity—is but a blur in our memory, and it took over 60 years for two nations and its people to recognize his story’s profound significance.
At Kewalo Basin Park Pavilion in Honolulu, a commemorative plaque to mark the 50th anniversary of Das' epic Pacific adventure was dedicated in his honor by the U.S. government on May 14, 2006. The plaque’s inscription reads: Florentino R. Das’ Solo Voyage, Hawaii to Philippines, May 14, 1955, to April 25, 1956, ‘Bold Dream, Uncommon Valor.” A small, model replica of his boat “Lady Timarau” can also be found at the Hawaii Maritime Museum (the original boat has never been retrieved from the depths of the Pasig River).
Meanwhile, in Masajay port in Alegria, the Florentino Das Landing Landmark stands to mark the hallowed spot where the returning sailor set his foot on his home soil. On May 14, 2018, the statue and marker of Florentino Das was unveiled in his hometown of Allen, a project of the Filipino Centennial Celebration Commission, the Congress of Visayan Organizations (COVO), and the Oahu Visayan Council with the support of Hawaii Development Authority and the Office of the Governor.
On hand to grace the occasion was Das’ daughter, Sylvia Das-Day, now 72, who brought along her two children, niece, and grandson from Hawaii. It was their first ever visit to the Philippines, not only to witness the proceedings, but also to reconnect with their roots and meet their long-lost Das relatives of Samar. The statue of Florentino Das stands tall before the waters of his town that nurtured his young dream to find a better life beyond Allen’s shores. It is also a fulfillment of his final wish “to go back to the sea, where I feel I belong.”
De Manila, Quijano, “Florentino Das: the Long Voyage Home”, in Ronnie Poe & Other Silhouettes. pp. 35-44. National Book Store, 1977.
“Kin Honors Sailor’s Feats, Unsinkable Dream”. Philippine Daily Inquirer May 6, 2018
Special thanks to Pastor Pio Arce.