The Adventurers at the Helm of the Last Voyage of the Balangay
Back in 2006, Art Valdez organized the first all-Filipino team to conquer Mt. Everest. Having made history once, he now has his sights set on accomplishing a different feat: sailing a traditional balangay all the way to China.
The expedition will involve sailing over 800 nautical miles of open sea, in boats built using the same methods as those of our ancestors. Valdez’s goal is to retrace the journey of Sulu ruler Sultan Paduka Batara on his way to pay tribute to Ming dynasty emperor Yong Le—sailing along the Philippine coastline from Sulu to Manila and La Union, then docking at Hong Kong, Shantou, and Quanzhou.
While the sultan, his family, and 300 followers were well-received by the imperial court, the sultan fell ill and died in Dezhou, Shandong. Upon hearing of Sultan Paduka Batara’s demise, the emperor arranged for a royal funeral and granted citizenship to the sultan’s family. To this day, descendants of the Sultan of Sulu’s clan reside in Dezhou.
The Balangay’s Maiden Voyage
Valdez’s own journey has been ten years in the making: in 2008, he asked members of the Sama Dilaya tribe of Tawi-Tawi to construct three balangay, using old wood provided by former Sulu governor Abdusakur Tan. The vessels were named Diwata ng Lahi, Masawa Hong Butuan, and Sama ng Tawi-Tawi. The following year, he proved them seaworthy by sailing around Southeast Asia with a 40-man team of mountaineers, Sama Dilaya boat builders, and members of the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy.
They sailed the same way our ancestors did: with no motors, lights, GPS, or radar to guide them.
“To be honest, we didn’t know anything before. We’re not sailors, we’re mountaineers. But we learn along the way,” says Valdez.
They sailed the same way our ancestors did: with no motors, lights, GPS, or radar to guide them.
All they had was five training sessions with the Manila Yacht Club in Manila Bay. Even their companions from the Philippine Coast Guard weren’t used to sailing without a motor. In the end, all of them had to learn through experience. In any case, they had a team of Sama Dilaya shipbuilders who could make emergency repairs, so long as wood was available.
Since they had no refrigerator, they lived off freshly caught fish. “We only caught enough for the day. Ang dami naming huli, yung malalaking isda. Food was not a problem. We had a lot of sashimi, kinilaw, tinola,” Valdez says.
They encountered more than their fair share of danger. “We’ve been through really rough waters. We’ve been through 12 LPAs [low pressure areas] and typhoons,” Valdez recounts. This is a challenge not even our seafaring ancestors may have faced—before the days of climate change, the seasons and weather patterns were much more predictable, allowing them to sail when the seas were calmer.
But more than storms, Valdez’s greatest fear was sailing at night. Because their vessels are made of wood, they can’t be detected by modern ships’ radar. In complete darkness, a ship could crush a balangay without its crew being any the wiser. In fact, Valdez says the crew would probably think they’d just sailed over a big wave. Without radios, the balangay team has no way of notifying passing ships of their presence apart from waving big flashlights and hoping they would be spotted.
That’s why whenever there were any nearby islands, they tried to find a place to drop anchor for the night. If they were on the open sea, they kept on sailing until sunrise.
They also had close encounters with terrorists and pirates. “I remember it was in Labason, Zamboanga del Norte that our boats were almost drawn into a rebel-infested area by a supposed balangay captain,” says team member and photographer Fung Yu.
It wasn’t easy for them to enter foreign ports, either. The authorities at Port of Singapore asked them a lot of questions about who they were and requested to see their International Maritime Registration, which they didn’t have.
In spite of all these challenges, the team loved the experience of sailing in balangays. “When I started, since we didn’t know anything better kahit binabagyo kami masaya kami,” Valdez says.
And wherever they docked, the enthusiastic greetings of their fellow Filipinos made it all worth it. “Apart from the stars, dolphins, and whales, it was the warmth and hospitality of our countrymen in each port that we visited,” Yu says. “Kids and students would line up on the beach, waving welcome banners and our national colors as they greeted us on our approach.”
We Know Who We Are: Remembering Our Maritime Heritage
It took the adventurers 17 months to trace our ancestors' trade and migration routes, from Tawi-Tawi to what is now Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and the waters of Vietnam. They initially intended to go all the way to China on that first voyage. But ultimately, homesickness and the changing monsoon winds brought them home to Manila.
The Masawa Hong Butuan returned to its building site in Butuan, the city after which it was named. It is still on display at the Luna compound, next to the Agusan river. The Diwata ng Lahi was loaned to the National Museum. "I think they have broken it up already. It was not in a good condition, napabayaan din," Valdez says.
Nevertheless, Valdez believes the fact that the team made it back safe and sound with hardly any formal training shows that sailing is in our collective DNA. Through this journey, they’ve proven the seafaring prowess of the Filipino. After all, to lift a line from Moana, we are descended from voyagers.
And that’s what drives Valdez and his team to undertake these arduous journeys—he hopes to remind Filipinos of our heritage as a maritime people. “We’re an archipelago. Our people are afraid of the waters. So I’m trying to [show] that riding in a boat like this is still safe. Because it is in our DNA, we are naturally attuned to the waters. That’s what I’m trying to do. I hope people will listen, because our leaders are all land-based oriented. All the policies are land-based. And that will explain why we’re all crowded in Metro Manila when in fact there’s so much wealth in the sea.”
"In a way, what I’m doing is to hark back to the confidence of our forefathers, and I’m not even a sailor."
Valdez believes that properly harnessing the wealth of our seas could help lift Filipinos out of poverty. “Sa yaman natin, kaya nga di ba, ibang bansa pumapasok dito para kunin yung kayamanan natin sa dagat. Pero napabayaan din natin ang ating karagatan. What excites me about the sea is I think there’s so much resources in the waters. But Filipinos don’t know how to take care [of them].”
We’ve lost touch with our heritage as a seafaring people, and Valdez says that began with the colonization of the Spaniards. He reminds us that it was Jose Rizal himself who discovered our rich maritime history, when he annotated Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas.
“He went to London and did research. And what did he find there? When the colonials came in here, they saw that the seas were gleaming with craft of different shapes and sizes. It was Pigafetta who wrote about it,” Valdez says. “And he saw that one ship had a hundred rowers on one side. Can you imagine a hundred rowers on one side, gaanong kahaba iyan? Doblehin pa natin kasi may layer pa. Minimum 50 meters iyan. We had shipbuilding before the coming of the colonials.”
“Then they saw that the people moved with confident, regal bearing, and dressed elegantly in silk. Because we were trading with China. And we had music, we had drama, we had our industry, and we exuded confidence as a people,” Valdez continues. “[Rizal] was trying to rebut the Spanish writer of his time when he said the indios are no better than animals whose brains are atrophied. How did it turn out to be that he now walks with stooped shoulders? In a way, what I’m doing is to hark back to the confidence of our forefathers, and I’m not even a sailor. What more do you want? We’re trying to prove that we’re a seafaring nation with people climbed mountains then started to ride a boat and sailed.”
Earlier this year, the Balangay Voyage group held sunset cruises to raise funds for repairs. It’s impossible to watch the balangays sailing along Manila Bay without feeling a sense of awe and wonder. One can’t help but feel like a landlubber as one boards the boat via a narrow gangplank, assisted by the crewmen who hold your arms to help you keep your balance. But watching the colorful sails unfurl and billow in the wind is something else, and one’s heart fills with pride as the boat picks up speed, its prow cutting through the water.
"This is who we are, and these are the means of transport that unified everybody.”
On a Friday evening, luxury yachts sailed past the balangay, and Valdez chuckles, observing that they keep circling back for another look at the eye-catching wooden vessels. Catching Manila’s magnificent sunsets from a boat just like those used by our ancestors is a one-of-a-kind experience, and one can’t help but wish this could be a regular tourist activity, like the junks that are a common sight in Hong Kong.
Last January, the three balangays transported a group of students from Ateneo de Manila and National University of Singapore to Lubang, Mindoro as part of a study tour. The students loved it so much, they refused to leave the boat whenever it docked for the night, even though Valdez had found resorts where they could pitch their tents. Instead, they slept on the roofs of the boats.
Even after the end of the study tour, the students continued to visit the Balangay Voyage group. “They kept coming here [to the dock] and bringing food for us, which we enjoyed. I think it’s a new experience for them,” Valdez says. “I think the fact that we’re doing this, this is who we are and these are the means of transport that unified everybody else.”
Commemorating Old Friendships
Unlike their previous voyage, the balangay team is now obliged to outfit at least one of their boats with modern equipment to gain entry to Chinese ports. Valdez doesn’t blame the Chinese authorities—in places with heavy sea traffic like Hong Kong or Shanghai, a vessel without propulsion is a maritime hazard. “’Yung palayag-layag ka papasok doon, baka masagasaan ka ng container ship or tanker. The hindrance to sailing a boat like this is modernity,” he explains. “Tatanungin ka, anong restroom mo?"
With their Southeast Asia voyage, they’ve already proven that they can sail without technology. “Masaya kami because we don’t know anything better,” Valdez says. “Now we know the hazards, especially when you enter ports.”
When entering a busy harbor, you need to be able to easily steer your vessel away from other ships, and communicate which direction you’re heading in so that they can avoid you—it’s the same thing planes and air traffic control towers do. Complying with international maritime standards aside, Valdez wants to ensure the safety of his crew, and outfitting the Sama Tawi-Tawi with the basics like a satellite phone, GPS, a radar reflector, and an engine allows him to do that. After all, this time they’ll be sailing 800 nautical miles of open sea, with no islets for them to hide behind or drop anchor.
The Sama Tawi-Tawi will act as a service boat for their two new balangays—the Sultan Sin Sulu and Lahi ng Maharlika—which will sail without modern equipment.
As of this writing, Valdez is busy overseeing the maintenance and repair of the boats in Zamboanga, in preparation for the coming expedition. The journey to and from China will take about a month, and it’s imperative that they return to the Philippines within 45 days, or risk being blown off course by monsoon winds.
"A country that does not produce dreamers, trailblazers, discoverers cannot be a great nation. Nations are made out of dreams.”
One may think that commemorating the sultan of Sulu’s friendship with the Chinese emperor is a peculiar choice, especially at a time when tensions over the latter nation encroaching on Philippine territory run high. But Valdez believes it’s important to remember the goodwill between Asian nations, before colonizers divided the region.
“I’d like to start [by saying] these great bodies of water that surround us—the South China Sea, Sulu Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, Java, were the means of transport and communications for our people, long before the colonizers,” he explains. “In spite of hidden reefs, occasional local storms, and other lurking dangers never threatened or intimidated our people. It never divided us. In fact, they are the means that unified us. I think we should look at it that way, that there was no animosity among us before, but with the coming of the colonials, they started to divide, divide, divide. It started with the treaty of Tordesillas—the papal bull that the world was divided between Spain and Portugal—and that started this whole mess.”
“We can communicate and talk about the way it was,” Valdez continues. “This voyage is trying to bridge the thousands of years of relationship that we have, not only with China but with the rest of the Southeast Asian peoples. There are quarrels because of the boundaries put up by colonialism. The waters unified us, and the ancient boat with its colorful sails symbolizes that means that unified us as a people. That is the message of this voyage.”
This may be the balangays’ last voyage, because maintaining them without popular support isn’t easy. At the end of every journey, they need wood for repairs, and quality hardwood isn’t as easy to source as it once was. There’s also the issue of lack of funding.
“How to sustain this is the most difficult part. You cannot keep on doing your own advocacy, karga mo lahat. Kasi yung Filipino, they love this kind of thing. They love to talk about it. They appreciate it. But they don’t like to pay the price,” says Valdez. “So I keep on saying that a country that does not produce dreamers, trailblazers, discoverers, cannot be a great nation. Nations are made out of dreams.”