Epic Voyage: The Balangays

From: Philippine Daily Inquirer
Date: February 15, 2010
By: JB R. Devesa (PDI Provincial Correspondent)

An article written by a PDI correspondent on board the Balangay from Cagayan de Oro City to Initao, Misamis Occ last February 15.

TWO BALANGAYS—Diwata ng Lahi and Masawa Hong Butuan (the latter built in Butuan City)—prepare to set off to sea Feb. 6 from Gingoog City. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Many may find the idea of crossing open seas in a boat that is fueled by neither petrol nor electricity, in a boat built using technology hundreds of years old, and in a boat crewed by men and women who’ve built their reputations climbing the world’s highest mountains, crazy.

And perhaps in world of cold statistical data and tangible accomplishments, the idea of hopping from Manila to the different islands that make up the Philippine archipelago; and, from the Philippines, to Sabah, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and ultimately to China by June 2010, is crazy.

But for adventurer Art Valdez, former undersecretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), leader of the team of Filipinos who first scaled Mt. Everest in 2007, it is something that needs to be done.

“We are adventurers,” Valdez says.

“But more than adventurers, we want to deliver a message,” he says.

The message that the 60 year-old Valdez and his team want to deliver is simple—it is in dreaming that makes the seemingly impossible less daunting.

Off the bat, it is quite easy to be overwhelmed by what Valdez and his team is proposing to do---retrace the trade routes of the Filipinos’ forebears on board a balangay, a pre-Hispanic watercraft built using carved out wooden planks and joined by pins and dowels.

But like a sculptor methodically chipping at a granite block, the journey that began in September 2009 in Manila is now on the eve of its seventh leg.

One by one, scheduled ports of call have been ticked off its list. As of this writing, the boats are quietly lying in anchor in the placid waters off Initao in Misamis Oriental, Mindanao, approximately 1,000 nautical miles from Manila.

That the boats, the 15-meter Diwata ng Lahi and the 24.7-meter long Masawa Hong Butuan, and their crew of 30 (made up of men from the Philippine Navy, the Philippine Coast Guard, members of the First Philippine Mt. Everest Expedition Team, Badjao tribesmen, and Butuan City volunteers) have gotten this far is nothing short of a miracle.

Already, the expedition has sailed through eight typhoons and has had to undergo meticulous repairs in almost every port of call. Strong winds snapped the sails of the Diwata twice off Balingoan in Misamis Oriental. And the crew has had to repair Masawa’s broken rudder in Cagayan de Oro.

Crew members still managed to indulge in light banter Monday evening, even after the estimated four to five hour travel time from Cagayan de Oro to Initao turned out to be 14-hours long. The boats had left Cagayan de Oro at 8:47 am Monday, expecting to be at Initao, which is an hour’s drive away from Cagayan de Oro, by 2 in the afternoon. Instead, a persistent headwind caused the crew to paddle furiously for hours on end before the boats’ sails finally caught wind at 5 pm.

And then the expedition’s motorized dinghy, christened “Tiririt” by expedition members, got lost somewhere off Gitagum, Misamis Oriental, after the rope tethering it to Diwata snapped in the gathering darkness. Tiririt had been vital in towing the boats to port, in helping secure the anchors, and in shuttling between the two boats while at sea. With no Tiririt, the two boats dropped their anchors at 10:30 pm after being towed to port first by a trailing Navy ship and later by a fisherman’s banca.

“We have gotten used to it somehow,” crew member Nelson D. Ojano said after an 11 pm dinner.

Ojano says sometimes, the elements seem almost alive. There is nothing in his 18 years in the Coast Guard, Ojano says, that comes even comes close to the experience of sailing while being pounded by the elements.

“But we all have to undergo pain and suffering before reaching our goals,” he says adding that ultimately, it is all a matter of persistence.

There is no doubt that dogged persistence, God-willing, will get the team to China by June. But Valdez, who seem to be possessed by some unseen kinetic energy, says he is also only too aware of the perils at sea.

“We are totally dependent on nature—the wind, waves and of course, on how sturdy the boats are,” he says.

This is why, he says, they made it a point to tap both the knowledge of the Philippine Navy and the Coast Guard as well as rely on the Badjaos’ sea sense.

“This is how we normally look,” Valdez says pointing to a photo of themselves taken at Mt. Everest Base Camp.

“So I told (the Badjao crew members), ‘get it right (celestial navigation) otherwise we will not be able to go home’,” Valdez says.

Turning serious, Valdez, dog-tired like the rest of the crew after a 14-hour slog, says he hopes their efforts may help stir up national pride, especially among the young.

Thirty years from now, Valdez says people will look at what they have done and hopefully find inspiration.

“Who ever thought we could climb Mt. Everest,” Valdez says.

“And yet we did. We want to finish this and show everybody it can be done,” he says.

“Imagine two balangays sailing up the Huangpu River in Shanghai in June,” Valdez says.

“What a sight that must be,” he says, “What a sight that must be.”