'Voyage of the Balanghay' arrives

From: Borneo Bulletin
Date Published: 26 August 2010
Written By: Aziz Idris

One of the Balanghays docked off Serasa Yacht Club.

Sheikh Jamaluddin with the crew

The first group of Filipinos to climb Mt Everest not just once but thrice is currently testing their endurance on seas as they arrived in the Sultanate on a flotilla of ancient sailboats as part of a 14,000-kilometre "Voyage of the Balanghay".

The 38-member crew led by Art Valdez, 61, arrived at Serasa Yacht Club from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah yesterday for a rousing reception by Brunei Tourism Board.

The flotilla of three Balanghay (sailboat) had been sailing since September 1, 2009 around the Philippines, making 80 stops in all excluding seven international stops, which took them to Sandakan, Kudat, around the tip of Borneo to Kota Kinabalu and now Brunei before continuing their expedition to Singapore, Vietnam and Shanghai.

Art Valdez said, "We are out to show the young the sea is part of the natural environment and part of the natural highway for the people of the Philippines and Southeast Asia."

The crew is sailing in a closest possible replica of a boat dug up in coastal waters of Butuan City, Mindanao, which was carbon-dated to 320AD (4th Century), which means "riding purely powered by wind and sail... just as the way our forefathers did", explained Janet B Sardena, one of the core crew of the voyage.

"We are carrying a message of unity," she said before explaining that the voyage was to show "waters did not divide us, it's a means of unifying us to a one Southeast Asia region".

The significance of the Butuan Balanghay rests on the fact that it was the first wood watercraft ever dug up in Southeast Asia. Hence the artefact is evidence of early Filipino craftsmanship and their seamanship skills before the arrival of Spanish colonisers.

The Balanghay is believed to be the chief means by which the ancestors of Filipinos migrated to the country. Original builders were the nomadic seafarers - the people of Samar who are the Bajaus of the Philippines, similar to the Bajaus in Semporna.

It is like a 'Lepa' but this is a big 'Lepa' - 61ft long, 11ft wide, 5ft tall while the second one is 81ft long and 14ft wide. The third one is the only Balanghay that is equipped with modern technology such as an engine and GPS system.

Balanghay is an Austronesian word meaning "sailboat" but when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, they found the Filipinos already had a civilisation of their own and living in well organised independent villages called Balanghay.

In the interest of safety, they are sailing close to the coast down Borneo and up Indochina rather than facing the big waves crossing the Bashi Channel going north to Taiwan from the Philippines.

As the Balanghay was built to the original specifications using only wooden pegs to hold things together, it is not structurally strong to stand up to very rough waves and the changing weather pattern.

"In fact we were hit with eight typhoons and experienced a scare in Mindanao where our boat almost got smashed," explained Janet.

"Our biggest danger, apart form the challenging weather, would possibly be the water traffic - being hit by big tankers or ships because we are wooden and so we can't be seen on their radars," she added,

Meanwhile, in a brief interview with Sheikh Jamaluddin, Director of Brunei Tourism Board, who was amongst those who welcomed the brave sailors, he said, "We are more than honoured to welcome our visitors and hope they will enjoy their stay."

The director also noted that the 'Voyage of the Balanghay' crew will be given a tour of the places of interest in Brunei Darussalam during their brief stop in the Sultanate.