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I wrote this article about native boat builders in Cebu, the Philippines which was published online in Duckworths Magazine.
The Banca Builders of Malapascua
by Perry Gamsby
I first came to Malapascua Island two years ago with my soon to be wife. I was there to dive Monad Shoal and swim with the awesome Thresher Sharks. Often over twelve feet long with scimitar like tails two thirds their length, they are breathtaking to watch. These pelagic creatures come up to the summit of the undersea mount of Monad and look for cleaning stations run by greedy Cleaner Wrasse. Once I was priviledged to see one breach and flip high into the air before swimming back down to the depths.
I had been there several times before I wandered away from the tourist beach and discovered the Banca builders over on Logon Bay. A banca is a native outrigger boat, usually powered by a small, air-cooled gasoline engine up to 16hp. Larger boats with more beam are locally referred to as “Pumpboats” and can be as long as 100 feet. They carry passengers and cargo between islands on the runs too shallow or commercially unprofitable for the large ferry companies.
|A Dayagon Area BANCA|
Small banca’s up to 15 feet can be paddle or sail propelled and they are a distinct style. They have very tall, pointy stem and stern pieces, are very narrow and the boatman perches on a thwart to paddle. They use a crab claw sail made from patched together cement or pig feed sacks. I have seen kids as young as six paddle these canoe like vessels with amazing skill.
Motorised banca’s start about 15 feet long and are of a different style. The stem and stern are pointed forward, rather than straight up like a spire. Just aft of amidships the engine is mounted on a block of wood, with the propellor shaft attached by uni-joint or a round pad connected by bolts. The pad is made of wood and felt like material, the felt providing the “give” needed to transfer the drive from engine to prop shaft as the boat moves in the water.
|THIS PADDLE BANCA IS FROM DAANBANTAYAN AND IS A HYBRID, SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE PADDLE STYLE AND THE MOTOR STYLE.
A TRADITIONAL PADDLE OR SAIL BANCA. NOTE THE POINTY ENDS, PURELY FOR DECORATION.
Smaller banca’s have maybe a 5hp or 6hp engine and small two bladed prop. They scream around at 15 to 20 knots with the helmsman perched atop the hull. Steering for all motorised banca’s under 40 feet is by bamboo tiller rod. This rod is attached to a bar, welded to the rudder shaft. The shaft is bored through the rear deck and keel and is a small, rectangular piece of steel. The biggest I have seen on tiller steered banca’s is only 8×10 inches. Most are half that! Yes, turning gets to be a leisurely process when you combine the small rudder area with the drag of the outriggers.
MY BANCA AT BOGO
|DETAIL OF TILLER AND STEERING ARM JOINED TO RUDDER SHAFT, JUST ABOVE THE RED CAP.|
Steering is simply a matter of pushing to turn one way, and pulling the rod to turn the other. My banca has the rod to the left side, so it’s a push to turn right and a pull to turn left. Because of the prop rotation, she turns left better than right, but not much better! Straight ahead requires some decent back pressure pushing to keep her straight.
The rudders are small because most boats spend half their life drying out in the shallow inner reef areas at low tide. They tie a small log under the rear keel to keep the prop and rudder from being damaged as the boat settles in the sand or mud. Smaller banca’s are pulled up above the high tide mark while larger boats 25 feet and longer are often left anchored off the beach.
Anchoring is always with an anchor off the stern and a line led to the beach from the bow and tied to anything handy. If the boat is too far off the beach due to really shallow water, then a bow anchor is used as well as the stern one. Timing when to drop the stern anchor as you run into the beach becomes a mark of the experienced banca sailor, here. Too soon and you are pulled short. Too late and you ram the beach with a jolt that is guaranteed to draw looks from the locals.
When you get into the pump boat class, say 30 feet and more, the engines are often old diesel truck engines, still fitted with their automotive gearboxes with maybe just third and reverse left inside. Starting is by rope, the cry of “Uno! Dos!” followed by hopefully the roar of the engine is a feature of every trip.
Steering then becomes very flash. An old truck or car steering wheel with the ropes joining it to the rudder run around a wooden chock. The rope is often a patched and knotted collection of whatever was on board the last time it snapped.
The throttle is usually just a piece of nylon line tied to the carby and held between the toes. On the big boats they might wrap it around a wood wheel, winding in or out as required to change speed. Changing speed is essential in rough seas as you don’t want to get ahead of a following sea.
With the wide outriggers these boats are pretty stable, but they can be broached quite easily in the short, choppy seas that storms throw up. As the wave hits the stern, the bows tend to dip and the stern lift. Once fully on the forward slope of the wave the leeward outrigger will dig in and turn you to weather, usually right behind you, or just off one quarter.
You then have to steer to correct, otherwise you will very quickly find yourself broadside to the wave. Banca’s don’t like beam seas. Poorly helmed, they dig in the leeward outrigger and then flip over if not corrected by steering or weight shifting. On a boat filled to overflowing with non-swimming Filipinos, the panic usually guarantees another sad headline in the papers.
For a nation of 7001 islands it is remarkable how few Filipinos can swim. Add to this the scarcity of lifejackets and you have a recipe for disaster. The lifejackets they do fit are locally made, styrofoam filled buoyancy vests that are always too small for me. I bring my own or put one over each arm pit!
The boats are made in a traditional fashion and order. They use no power tools as the island only has electricity from 6pm to midnight. There are no plans, dimensions or even tape measures used, just experience, inherited knowledge and an inherent sense of proportion. They do have a ruler and a small square, just for the detail work. Everything is made to fit by working from the “KASKO”, or Kilya, the keel.
The keel is made from a single piece of Lauan. It is several inches thick and solid enough to shrug off being hammered onto one of the numerous corral reefs that abound in these waters. Its length and width determine the final size of the boat. Everything is in proportion to the keel.
|THE SOLID LAUAN KEEL PIECE|
The stem and stern pieces are made from Tugas wood. Like the keel, these important parts are imported from nearby Samar, a large and heavily wooded island in the Eastern Visayas, about 30 nautical miles from Malapascua. They are shaped by eye using a bolo, or machete to give the basic shape, then finished off with a smaller bolo and sanded.
|STEM DETAIL. NOTCH IS USED TO SECURE ANCHOR LINE WITH A CLOVE HITCH|
Sand paper is made using beach sand and homemade glue, my Visayan was not sufficient to understand how the glue is made but it is a smelly process, so I believe. The “paper” is made from coconut husks and the sand adhered to that. Coconut husks are also used by themselves to sand back the painted hulls, as well as being great for polished floors!
With the stem and stern nailed into place, the ribs and stringers can be sized, cut and fixed. Bronze nails are the fixing medium of choice. The bevels on the frame pieces are all hand sawn and chiselled to fit each piece to the next. This is not mass production type assembly of prefabricated parts but good old fashioned craftsmanship at work.
The upright ribs go in first all along each side of the boat. Then they fit the middle stringer, then the inwhale. The ribs and stringers are made from Lauan and are easy to work, each piece planed to size and smoothness with home made planes. The blades are often off cuts from any flat piece of metal, jammed in place with a wedge in the box shaped plane.
|YOU CAN SEE THE DECORATIVE CUTWATER ON THE BOW NEAR THE FOREDECK, AS WELL AS THE RIBS AND STRINGERS. HE IS MAKING THE HELM STATION|
Once the frame is in place, the plywood sides are cut to size and shape. They use the saw in a reverse, ripping style, cutting towards themselves. The ply is marked and then placed on a frame made of two lengths of bamboo. The saw is turned so the teeth are facing the sawer, with the handle below the work. He then saws while moving back from the starting edge, pulling the blade toward himself in a rythymic dance of “pull down, step back, push up; pull down, step back, push up”. They cut straight and true and there is very little in the way of offcuts. Thrift is essential in a country where every centavo counts.
The sides are tacked in place with the bronze nails, leaving half the nail proud. It will be hammered home later once the whole boat is together and there is no need to remove panels for re-sizing or adjusting. Once the sides and the bow and stern deck pieces are in place, they will hammer home the nails and then epoxy the seams.
Before the introduction of plywood they used thin strips of lauan, caulked with the husks of coconuts. The husk pieces would swell when soaked and keep the boat watertight. Plywood offers the benefit of a considerable amount of time and effort saved so absolutely nobody uses the old method anymore. Haven’t done so since plywood became available after the Second World War from discarded packing crates left behind by the US Army.
The epoxy comes in two cans, marked A for the adhesive and B for the hardener. Currently on Malapascua they use an epoxy that sets kind of coffee coloured. Last time I was there it was a salmon like shade. They use whatever is available at the hardware store on the mainland where virtually every manmade item on the island has had to be shipped in from.
The tropical heat means the epoxy stays malleable for a decent length of time. They use coconut shells as mixing bowls and epoxy every seam from stern to stem. Or stem to stern, there is no specific order or ritual so long as there are no seams left unsealed.
With the seams sealed, they make the helmsman’s position and the cutwater for the foredeck. Here they add the individual flourishes of the boatbuilder. Each piece is hand drawn with the decorative curves that will set this banca apart as a Malapascua boat. In other areas the helm, or bridge deck will be subtley different, but only if you are looking for it.
Another indicator of the boat’s origins is the stem and stern pieces themselves. Different angles and carved edges let you know this is a boat from Malapascua. My banca comes from Asturias on the central west coast of Cebu and the men on Malapascua knew it the first time they saw it land there. They asked me where had I come from and I replied “Bogo”. They shook their heads and said Bogo is on the northern east coast, only 16 miles away. My boat is a west coast boat. I then told them I had bought it in Balambas, near Asturia and they nodded in a way that told me they were too canny to be fooled by foreigners!
|VIEW FROM STERN TO HELM STATION|
Once the helm station, cutwater (a simple device that deflects the water coming over the bow quite effectively) and stem and stern pieces are finished, the rudder and prop shafts are bored. They use an awl like borer and run it down through the rear deck and out through the keel. Then they mark the position of the prop shaft hole and bore that. The prop shaft then has a metal pipe fitted and epoxied in place. The prop shaft is fitted and run up to the engine mount area. The rudder also has a pipe epoxied in place and the rudder shaft is fed through that from the bottom, up.
The angle of the prop shaft dictates the making and positioning of the engine mounting block. Two support beams sit athwart the hollowed out keel piece forming the bottom of the hull. Then a block of Lauan is fixed to the beams with four bolts driven through from underneath on which to mount the engine. Both Briggs and Stratton and Kohler, the two more popular brands, apparently have the same footprint for each corresponding engine size. Robin and Honda are two other brands gaining acceptance and I think they share a similar footprint. Otherwise the moutning block is drilled to suit the final engine choice.
|IN THE BACKGROUND IS THE RUDDER SHAFT AND PROP SHAFT. IN THE FOREGROUND IS THE AWL AND CHISEL USED TO BORE THE HOLES FOR THESE. THE BOAT IS ON ITS SIDE SHOWING THE KEEL AND THE SIDES|
To make sure the drive shaft from the engine fits the prop shaft, they will shim the block as required to line it all up, then epoxy everything in place. All that remains is to paint, something often left to the eventual buyer of the boat as he might have some old paint lying around and that will save him some peso’s.
Meanwhile, the outriggers are being made. Again, the length of the keel determines the size of the finished boat and thus the size of the outriggers. Bamboo poles are heated over a coconut husk fire and then bent to shape around the stump of an old coconut tree. They are then propped over another stump and the bent ends weighed down with heavy logs and concrete hollow blocks for several days.
|MY BANCA. NOTE THE ANCHOR ROPE IS TURNED AROUND THE STEM THEN TIED OFF TO THE FORE OUTRIGGER. YOU CAN ALSO SEE THE CUTWATER AHEAD OF THE FORE OUTRIGGER|
When ready, they are fitted into place and tied together using nylon monofilament line. It might not seem all that traditional, but it is cheap and readily available and easy to work with. In the old days they made ropes from, yous guessed it, coconut husks and manila hemp plants. Too time consuming for this modern age, they now use copious quantities of nylon line. You can still buy hemp rope and string and I use it for the halyards and sheets on my own homebuilt sail boat.
With the outriggers bound on, the engine fitted and the boat painted, she is ready to launch. Grab a dozen of your village friends and carry her between the nipa huts to the waters edge, then launch! You then add an anchor made from steel reinforcing bar bent and welded to form a Fisherman type. There is just the one style available, Ploughs, CQR’s and Bruce’s are unheard of here. You also need a paddle carved from coconut lumber or a bamboo pole to punt her out with.
Total cost for a 20 foot banca fitted with a 5hp engine, painted and ready to earn a living catching fish? About US$300. If you are wider than a telephone book like me, spend the extra few bucks and go up to 25 or 30 feet. My banca is 30 feet long and the hull is over three feet wide. It has carried a kilometre long Pamo fishing net and the catch that goes with it, sacks of cement, crates of beer, live pigs, a mates household contents, you name it!
For ease of maintenance and repair by local boatwrights with locally available parts and materials, the banca can’t be beaten. For operating in waters that often get very thin and are studded with corral heads and uncharted reefs, she is superb. Not the best in heavy seas unless you really know your business but then this is the Philippines. Time means little and you can always pick another day to go when the weather fines up and the turquoise sea is like glass.
The banca builders of Malapascua are a joy to watch as they ply their time honoured craft. Forget what you see on TV or read in the news. There is no SARS here, no Abu Sayyaf, no danger except the natural risks of living closer to nature in a tropical paradise.
Get on a plane and come to Cebu. Then come and stay on Malapascua for a week or two and work with these men. Build a boat that will feed a family for life. Do it with your two hands and enjoy the pride you earn as you work. When it gets too hot, go for a swim or have a cold beer.
If you want to you can disassemble your banca, stick it in a crate and ship it home, it might be cheaper than buying the materials locally and making one in your garage! If you leave it on the island, you will take away skills you will keep and treasure your whole life.
If anyone has any queries about the Banca Builders of Malapascua, or coming to Cebu to learn the craft, drop me an email (email@example.com) and I would be happy to answer any questions. You can do this for less than US$2000 from virtually anywhere in the world, fares, accomodation, meals and a donation to the Boatwright for his teaching. Salamat Po!
THE AUTHOR ATOP HIS LATEEN RIGGED, FIRST SELF-BUILT BOAT, “THE KARL HEINZ OF HEMSENDORF” AFTER HER MAIDEN VOYAGE ON BOGO BAY, MAY 2003. NOTE THE PUMPBOATS IN THE BACKGROUND.