Sailing from Sulawesi to Okinawa

From:    Philippine Daily Inquirer

Date:     November 15, 2009

By:          Niña Catherine Calleja

A 10-member team on two replicas of ancient Japanese sailboats braved the seas from Indonesia to the Philippines, relying on natural navigation techniques for more than 100 days.

It reached Philippine shores in July and stirred hopes among Filipino adventurers embarking on a similar voyage.

Steering the boats Pakur and Jomon, four Japanese nationals and six fishermen from the Mandar tribe of Indonesia, traveled some 2,000 kilometers in over three months.

The team, led by anthropology professor and surgeon Yoshiharu Sekino, traveled using the wind, stars and clouds for basic directions.

The goal of the Japanese explorers is similar to that of the “Voyage of the Balangay,” led by the people who were part of the first Philippine Mt. Everest expedition: to trace their ancestors’ migration route. A balangay is a precolonial boat.

On July 14, Sekino’s group crossed the Philippine boundary while the balangay team was preparing for its own sea voyage.

However, as Sekino’s team was halfway through its voyage, the monsoon and typhoons brewing in Philippine waters prompted it to stop and to dry dock the boats at the port of Coron in Palawan, three weeks after.

West Sulawesi

The two boats left Lambe, Tinambun in West Sulawesi, on April 13. Sekino was joined by three other Japanese: Junichiro Watabe, a professional guide and specialist on climbing, sailing and kayaking; Jiro Maeda who contributed largely to the boat design; and, Yohei Sato who was in charge of painting the boats.

Maeda and Sato were both former students of Sekino at the Masashino Art University where he has been teaching anthropology courses.

Mandar fishermen Gusman (captain of Jomon), Zainuddin (captain of Pakur); Jabir, Danial, Irsan and Latif joined the Japanese team since the start of the voyage.

Seafaring people

The Mandar tribe lives along the coast of West Sulawesi, with the boat and sea as part of its way of life. Its members have been called the “great and tough” sailors of Indonesia for their ancient shipbuilding tradition.

Apart from the traditional fishing boat pakur, they have been building and steering a fast sailboat called sandeq, which has a sharp bow, narrow hull and huge sail. It has a length 7 to 11 meters and a width of 60 to 80 cm. The boat was believed to have been used by Austronesians in sailing to islands in the Pacific Ocean and to Madagascar.

Balabac Strait

As the team reached Balabac Strait off Palawan, it was met by Kaya ng Pinoy, a group seeking to retrace the migration routes of the ancestors of Filipinos.

“We extended assistance since we are of the same kind,” said Art Valdez, head of Kaya ng Pinoy, which facilitated the construction of a 20-meter (from end to end) x 3-meter balangay. The balangay was built by Sama carpenters from Tawi-Tawi based on both the construction methods and design of the Sama builders of precolonial boat excavated in Butuan in 1978.

The Filipino team started sailing on Sept. 1 and planned on traveling to parts of Southeast Asia and going to Madagascar.

Small boats

Since the idea of the voyage was raised, Sekino had promised to use only natural materials and tools in building the wooden sailboats.

Thus, his team built Pakur and Jomon in Indonesia for three months using materials obtained from the forest.

The two boats are only half the size of the balangay.

Pakur (named after the traditional fishing boat of the Mandar people) is a 9-m long boat and can carry up to six people.

Jomon (named after the hunting-gathering culture in what is now called Japan some 10,000 years ago) is 7 meters long and can carry four people.

Sekino said the body of Jomon was carved out of the trunk of a binuang (Octomeles sumatrana) tree which is indigenous to West Sulawesi while that of Pakur and its boards came from a tipur tree.

The Mandar tribesmen had helped the Japanese in manually shaping the trees into boats and in forming the bow and stern, Sekino said in an interview at the harbor side of the Cultural Center of Philippines in Pasay City where the balangay was then docked.

Mandar women weaved the sails using palmyra palm leaves – an old practice of the tribe.

Zen Shirane, spokesperson of the expedition, said in an e-mail to Talk of the Town that the boats’ arms, rudders and masts were made of teak and bamboo, the deck of bamboo and rattan, and the rope of materials from ijuk tree. The dowels were made from an iron tree and the paint from lime and coconut oil.


Even the tools used in boat building like the katana (a Japanese blade) were hand-made, Sekino said.

Sekino’s group also used Mandar tools such as palang for cutting wood and chankur and pahat for carving.

Sekino, 60, said the tools were forged from iron-bearing sand from a beach in Sulawesi using a clay furnace.

He said the team wanted not only to redo how ancient boats were constructed, but also to travel the routes once taken by Japanese ancestors “the way it was.”

Black current

The Black Current route, which the team plans to follow, is one of the tree paths, “believed to be taken by the ancient Japanese 3,000 to 5,000 years ago” according to interdisciplinary researches, said Sekino.

Another route is in the north - from Siberia to Hokkaido, Japan which Sekino had traveled by walking and kayaking from July 2004 to August 2005.

Then for three years, from October 2005 to March 2008, he took the continental route from the Himalayas via China and the Korean Peninsula to Kyushu, Japan.

In a map showed by Sekino, the black-current route his group was following starts from Sulawesi, and passes along the coasts of Kalimantan, Indonesia and Sabah, Malaysia, and proceeds to the Philippines and Taiwan before it reaches Japan.

Ethnically alike

In the Philippines, the route starts in southern Palawan and ends off the coast of northern Luzon.

Sekino said he believed that the aborigines of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan were “ethnically alike.”

Thus, in every stopover along the route, he would collect DNA samples (human mucous) and store each of them in a tiny tube.

The samples, which last for about two to three months have been brought to Japan for DNA analysis.

“We want to establish patterns. If there are differences and similarities,” he said.

Sekino, a traveler for the past 40 years, said that the human race came from Africa and spread out to other parts of the world.

Great journey

Some 15 years ago, he embarked on a 10-year voyage, which a British archaeologist called “the great journey.”

From 1993 to 2004, Sekino traveled the route considered the longest taken by man – from Africa to Siberia and Alaska, and to South America.

“I did it by land and by sea. I crossed the river in a kayak. (All I used) was human power, without the aid of automobile and motors,” he said.

He also used a bicycle, reindeer, camel and canoe.

Helping hand

The arrival of the Japanese team was timely because the group preparing to steer the balangay has been undergoing training on sailing in Manila Bay, Valdez said.

He said that upon learning about the Japanese voyage, he did not hesitate to offer help.

Fred Jamili, a member of Kaya ng Pinoy who assisted the Japanese team in sailing off Palawan for 28 days, said he learned many things from the Japanese. “Especially for me, who had no experience in living on a boat,” he said.

What made the sailing difficult was a lack of artificial mean in powering the boat, according to Jamili.

“You wanted to go to this direction but you couldn’t because the wind opposes you,” he said.

Paddling for 12 hours

Jamili said the team paddled from 5 am until 5 pm every day.

The two boats can travel 30 to 40 km a day on the average. They can travel a minimum distance of 15 km and a maximum of 70 km a day.

“Before dusk, we would stop wherever we were to fish and then cook our catch for dinner,” he said, noting that 10 to 12 cooked fish served as a delectable food for the group.

The team said it had been sailing during full moon off the coast of Sabah.

Unfortunately through, Jamili said the team decided to stop the voyage because bad weather was making sailing difficult and dangerous.

Strong winds, huge waves and typhoons are not good for the voyage, he said.

“If I were the one to decide, I’d go on. But of course, they were just being careful,” Jamili said.

Sekino’s team left the Philippines on Aug. 11 and promised to returen to Palawan and resume the journey in May next year. It expects to reach Naha City in Okinawa, Japan, by August 2010, a delay of 13 months. The expedition was originally planned to reach the finish line on July 20.