'Ancient' ships of unity dock in Brunei

From: The Brunei Times
Date Published: August 26, 2010

            Expedition leader Arturo Valdez.
                Picture: BT/Rudolf Portillo

A flotilla of traditionally crafted and navigated fourth century Balangay sailing vessels reached Brunei's shores, as one of the stops on a 14,000km journey around the Southeast Asian archipelago.

Embarking from the capital of Manila on September 1 last year, the group of three ships, the Diwata ng Lahi, Masawa Hong Butuan and Sama Tawi-Tawi travelled around the many islands of the Philippines for 11 months and 15 days, covering a distance of 3,000km.

After a pause in the voyage for the recent elections in the Philippines in March, the flotilla made their first international port of call on August 15 this year in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia.

Keeping close to the coasts, and using "ancient" navigational methods practised by the earliest mariners, such as by getting their bearings through the reading of positions of the sun, stars, clouds and bird migrations, the boats' 39 crewmen made their way to the Sabah capital of Kota Kinabalu before reaching Brunei waters yesterday.

Dropping anchor on the shores of Serasa Beach, the Filipino voyagers were welcomed by Brunei Tourism Director Sheikh Jamaluddin Sheikh Mohamed, officials from the Philippine Embassy and community here as well as members of the Royal Brunei Yacht Club in Serasa, who all boarded the larger of the three wooden ships, the Masawa Hong Butuan.

Onboard, the tourism director and other members of the welcoming committee met expedition leader Arturo Valdez (pic), a former undersecretary of the Philippines' Department of Transportation and Communication, who is also a veteran marathon runner and mountaineer, having led the first Philippine Mount Everest expedition.

Valdez explained to the Brunei welcoming committee that the ships were a "faithful replica" of one of the oldest wooden watercraft ever to be dug up in Southeast Asia, with some remains of the ships carbon-dated from as far as 320 AD, according to a statement from Brunei Tourism.

"Traditionally, these boats are built with no plan, no design or measurements except in the head of the master builders, and are fastened with wooden pegs. Made 15 metres long and three to four metres wide, the Balangay is propelled by a sail of nipah fibre and was used for cargo or raiding purposes," the statement read.

"It leaks (so) you regularly have to bail the water out. But we are used to it," Valdez informed Sheikh Jamaluddin while onboard.

The historical significance of the boats and the traditional methods used throughout the international journey hoped to commemorate and promote the common bond shared by the people of Southeast Asia.

"We want the balangays to not only be the source of unity for the country (Philippines), but also as a source of unity for the whole of Asia," said the expedition leader.

He noted that historically, Southeast Asians had used the balangays originally to trade with China almost two centuries ago.

"The challenge is how to re-inculcate within the psyche of the Southeast Asian peoples that we are all united before the colonials came in," assistant expedition leader and medical doctor for the team, Dr Ted Esquerra, told The Brunei Times.

He added that the colonials had described the people of this region as "brave, regal and gentle people", while noting that the first circumnavigator was an Indo-Malay and the slave guide of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

"We are a great race, a great people... so we are trying to promote this brotherhood using the boats.

"Incidentally we are all Filipinos (on board the ships), but we are trying to portray there is unity of the Southeast Asian nations," Esquerra added.

The international leg of the voyage will take the balangays through Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Vietnam, where they intend to reach the latter in time for the Asean Summit in September.

Eventually, they are destined for Shanghai, China in mid-October 2010 where the Philippines has a pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010.

After a brief Malay welcoming ceremony at the Royal Brunei Yacht Club in Serasa, the crew and the ships were in Brunei for an overnight stay, where they will stock up and Brunei Tourism will host them in visits to the museums this morning.