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Philippine craftsmen keep centuries old boat-making tradition alive

(AFP) / 5 April 2005

MAHATAO, Philippines - Sweat trickles down the back of Florentino Gallana as he applies the finishing touches to an eight-meter long fishing boat designed to dance with the churning waves of the Pacific and the South China Sea.

Gallana is among only a handful of expert craftsmen left in the extreme northern Philippine island of Batanes who build tatayas and fallowas, tub-shaped vessels used by the local Ivatan tribe to go fishing.

The boats are built from a local tree called Palomaria, whose whorled fibers ensure no seepage and whose durability is tested.

There are no specific measurements, and the boats are built depending on the amount of resources available or when a tree is mature enough for cutting down.

It is a tradition passed on from one generation to another, from father to son as early as the 16th or 17th centuries, when the first historical accounts about Batanes were written, according to experts at the National Museum in Manila.

The boats typically last for 20 years, and during that span, new trees would have matured to replace those that were used previously, locals said.

The museum has been commissioned by the Philippine government to include it in a study of ancient boat-making practices in the Philippines. The paper is to be finished within the year, according to officials.

“We measure by instinct. When you ask old people here how the tatayas are built, they will scoff at you and say, “how do fish swim?’,” Gallana says.

“Look at the boat, it looks like a fish with a wide head and narrow tail,” he says. “That is natural and it takes a lot to sink it.”

Batanes is the Philippines’ farthest and tiniest northern island province, and is closer to Taiwan than the main island of Luzon. It is separated only by the Bashi Channel from Taiwan and is bound to the west by the South China Sea and to the east by the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific’s strong current smashes directly with that of the South China Sea, resulting in all-year-round rough waters surrounding Batanes, a virtually untouched island province consisting of three rugged but scenic volcanic islands.

Mahatao is one of six remote coastal towns in the province, which is being promoted for inclusion in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) list of ”world heritage” sites.

The local Ivatan natives are believed to have descended from ancient inhabitants of Taiwan, who dispersed in Asia and the Pacific some 3,500 years ago, according to historians.

Built to dance with the waves

The fallowas and the tatayas bear resemblance to those made by inhabitants of Orchid Island near Taiwan and even the dialects are similar.

“My father taught me to make boats, and now I am teaching my nephews. There are only a handful of us here in Mahatao,” says Gallana 56, who says he regrets not having married or bearing any children to pass on the practice.

The boats are typically finished in two to three months, using machetes and a local carving adz, called kawal, to shape the tree trunk into planks. Wooden pegs are used instead of nails, and tatayas are considered an extension of a fisherman’s home.

The craftsmen first build the boat’s hull or shell, before attaching the skeleton or frame. This method is called “shell-first construction” -- the most ancient form of boat making in the archipelago, experts say.

“This is our way of life. This boat is an extension of the fisherman and you can only venture out to sea alone in the tataya,” Gallana says.

The bigger fallowas however are used to sail in the deep, and are used to catch groupers and dorados that are salted and dried here.

Gallana recalls that 30 years ago one fisherman aboard a tataya was swept by high waves to Taiwan. He survived and the boat was intact and they were later flown back to Batanes.

“They don’t sink even in churning waters. They are built to dance with the waves,” says Rey Santiago, a senior researcher at the National Museum’s archeology department who is studying ancient boating practices.

The origin

Some locals once tried a catamaran-type boat with outriggers, only to be thrown back to the shore by a huge wave that broke the vessel in two.

A tataya or a fallowa will not break, because its wide front will glide above the wave, and the fishermen roll with the water as they drop their line to trawl.

Boat making was likely brought to the islands during the Neolithic period by Austronesians from ancient Taiwan who migrated to Pacific countries, Santiago says.

Austronesians were coastal-dwelling people in the Asia Pacific during that period. The tataya boat-making craft in the present most likely evolved from hollowing out tree trunks.

“We still don’t know the exact origin of this design. But we suspect the first boat makers here were Austronesians. It is possible that came here from Taiwan by ancient boats as well,” Santiago says.

The reason why the practise still exists is because Ivatans also practice sustainable fishing. They sell some to nearby communities, but preserve most of the catch ahead of the long stormy season.

“They always work in harmony with nature. The size of the boat would depend on the availability of resources,” says Maharlika Cuevas, also a National Museum field researcher.

But Batanes’ fast-rising reputation as a new eco-tourism spot for adventure tourists could endanger the craft and make fishing here unsustainable. Some entrepreneurs may also try to commercialize the practice and lead to destruction of forests, Cuevas says.

Photo courtesy: boastahistory.com

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