By Fidel V. Ramos
Former Philippine President
We were part of an admiring group that welcomed the return at the Manila Yacht Club last 22 May of the intrepid fleet of three balangays of ancient design on their homeward leg from Xiamen, China, and Hong Kong.
PN Rear Admiral Erick Kagaoan led the Government authorities at the homecoming. The odyssey of the expedition which set sail from Manila for Xiamen (Amoy in the old days) last 28 April is recounted in the Manila Bulletin issue of 20 May as follows:
“According to expedition leader former DOTC Undersecretary (FVR Cabinet) Arturo Valdez, the purpose of the expedition was to mark the 600th year since Sultan Paduka Batara of Sulu travelled to the Middle Kingdom in 1417.
The sultan traveled to China to pay tribute to the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty in Beijing.
“We sailed about 2,700 nautical miles while crossing the vast South China Sea,” says Valdez.
The 32-member crew sailed onboard three identical wooden sailboats, a well-crafted centuries-old design.
The crew spent six days in Xiamen, China, rode a train to Dezhou in the eastern province of Shandong where the Sultan’s remains are buried, and was even able to travel through the Grand Canal.
The expedition’s story began in 2009 when Valdez and his crew set sail from Tawi-Tawi in the Southern Philippines on a 17-month voyage that called on the ports of Brunei, lndonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The original plan was to continue and sail on to China. However, due to bad weather, the plan was postponed.
“This was supposedly the first attempt to mark the 600th anniversary of the historical journey of the Sultan of Sulu,” says Valdez.
Reporter Stuart Heaver recounts the odyssey of the 32 hardy Filipino seafarers as told to him by expedition leader Arturo Valdez, the 69-year-old mountaineer and former undersecretary of transport and communications in the 13 May 2018 issue of the Hong Kong-based Post Magazine, thus:
“Seafaring is our DNA – our forefathers sailed these oceans long before the Europeans arrived. A nation that does not produce trailblazers, explorers, and discoverers can never be a great nation,” Art says, speaking with unrestrained enthusiasm. “Nations are built out of dreams.”
According to Ming dynasty annals, the party was warmly welcomed by the Chinese court, offered full royal honors and showered with priceless gifts. As Valdez likes to point out, his nation was a major maritime power with close links to China more than a century before Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was said to have “discovered” the Philippines, in 1521.
The expedition has been battling with International Maritime Organization reference numbers, technical specifications, registration, insurance, and classification documentation as much as it has with unfavor able weather conditions and technical difficulties.
The sailing itself, though, was basic, as it was in this part of the world some six centuries ago. The balangay has no wheel with which to steer, instead relying on two sturdy timber tillers, one on each side of the quarter deck and each manned by one crew member. They are connected at right angles to rudders trailing like two long-handled spoons through the water. As the vessel gathers speed, they shudder and tremble under the helmsmen’s hands.
An inflatable white plastic life raft is lashed to the fore deck, but there is no auxiliary engine, no navigation equipment, and next to nothing in the way of modern technology or creature comforts.
The only modern marine equipment visible is a VHF radio aerial, for keeping in contact with the other two boats in the flotilla; a large water flask lashed to the bulkhead and a single torch hanging limply from a lanyard over a pair of flip-flops.
Conditions are spartan and spending even 24 hours on board in rough weather is extremely challenging.
The minimalist, 15th-century approach proved adequate for that first phase of their expedition, visiting remote islands of the Philippine archipelago, and some coastal hopping, but for an ocean passage from Manila to Xiamen, it is courageous bordering on reckless. Busy shipping lanes near the Taiwan Strait are notorious for their confused currents and unpredictable seas. The area is invariably crowded with merchant and fishing vessels, and small wooden boats do not show up well on radar.
“Sailing at night is the biggest worry,” says Jan Paul Rodriguez, skipper of the lead balangay. “We have no lights.” He admits his boat was nearly hit by a fast ferry during a night passage near Mindanao only a few weeks earlier.
If the wind drops, the only means of propulsion are the two huge oars on the upper deck, but none of Valdez’s young team are afraid of a physical challenge. A few of them were with him in 2006, when he led the first expedition of Philippine mountaineers to scale Mount Everest.
At their temporary Manila headquarters, on the concrete pier near the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the conditions are hardly glamorous and there is none of the media circus normally associated with high-profile sailing expeditions. Security at the covered entrance is provided by four sleepy pariah dogs chained to a fence.
There is a curious absence of corporate logos, local politicians, or public-relations types sporting Ray-Ban sun glasses and pressed chinos. Instead, a shirtless shipwright is carving some model boat hulls from solid timber near the end of the pier, squatting next to caged chickens.
The only professional ocean navigator among them is John Manginsay, a master mariner and deck officer from Chicago in the United States. He was born in Butuan, on Mindanao, is more used to navigating oil tankers.
There is no shortage of goodwill, effort, or enthusiasm, but this is not a slick, big-budget operation fronted by celebrity explorers with a book deal in the offing. And given the symbolic nature of the voyage and its emphasis on historical marine ties between China and the Philippines, official support is curiously absent, too.
“We have been all over the news but we really need institutional help from government,” Valdez says. “There is no material help from the authorities.”
While he is quick to praise the Philippine Coast Guard, which has provided much of his crew on secondment, he admits that perhaps Sino-Philippine relations have become too politically sensitive to trust to a romantic sailing expedition.
Chinese commercial ports are accustomed to dealing with giant container ships, which means the expedition’s vessels could be treated like any visiting cargo vessel, and their crews expected to pay the full docking, security, and pilotage fees.
“There are only two places in the Philippines where they still know how to build these boats the traditional way, with no metal screws or nails,” says Valdez, naming the Batanes archipelago, the northernmost province of the country, and Tawi-Tawi, an island province in the autonomous Muslim region of southern Mindanao.
“The sway of the colonial powers did not reach that far,” says Valdez, who believes that a legacy of three centuries of Spanish and then American colonialism, during which indigenous shipbuilding skills were used to build Western-style vessels, has been the loss of his country’s maritime heritage and tradition.
Six hundred and one years ago, the Sultan of Sulu’s visit to China ended in tragedy. After 27 days of lavish, imperial hospitality, the sultan’s party commenced their homeward journey weighed down with gold, silver, bolts of fine silk, and ceremonial insignia. While transiting the Grand Canal, he fell ill, and he died in Dezhou, Shandong province, in late 1417. Some of his retinue, including one of his wives and two of his sons, remained in China and were given land by the emperor. Their descendants still live in the area and Dezhou has a memorial park dedicated to the sultan.
Art Valdez concludes: It is a great relief to receive a brief email on the evening of 3 May: “Balangay fleet after 64 hours of sailing across the vast South China [Sea] has entered Xiamen Port safely. It’s been a challenging voyage with swells, rough seas, lack of sleep plus threat of being run over by big ships because of zero visibility.”
Not just millenials, but also the nonagerians and the centennials vigorously applaud the heroic balangays in their expedition of goodwill, brotherhood and serendipity!!!
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