March 4, 2013

Across the Sea …

In boats held together by string.


Yesterday my wife and I had the pleasure of covering a regatta of the indigenously-designed bigiw on Samal Island. The bigiw is a small, kayak-like boat that is pointed and covered over at both ends, almost like a javelin, an original design by the Sama tribesmen who gave Samal Island their name – and it’s held together by string.


We got to watch the competitors, local fishermen all, arrive at the launch site at dawn with some of their boats still disassembled. I’d never appreciated before just how handy these fishermen are at being boatwrights, lashing their outriggers and rigging together at the very last minute, with the elders giving advice and instructions as needed. The ancient traditions of boatbuilding are definitely alive on Samal Island. However, they were using nylon string – I imagine in pre-industrial times they would’ve been using abaca or coconut coir.


I felt really lucky to be able to do some research and observations for Hari Ragat while doing my ‘day job.’  Main takeways for the RPG are validation for the idea of having the Orang Malaya caste role cover such a wide range of working skills: these racers are fishermen, using a wide range of techniques from netting and trapping to spearfishing underwater, while at the same time they’re small-scale cultivators on land and very capable of erecting their own houses and building their own boats.  And decorating them, too.


Not all the boats were painted with the traditional bold geometric designs, but the Sama taste for vibrant colors was very evident in all of them. 

The race itself brought home to me the physical toughness and sailing skill of these fishermen. Since the bigiw have no centerboards, the racers had to keep paddling to correct their courses as well as for extra speed.  They did this for the entire course. By the midpoint of the race, the wind had picked up and the skies were threatening rain. Conditions had changed so fast that the light simply went from beautifully sunny to flat gray between one shot and the next. The wind had gotten so strong that one entry had a spar broken, finishing the race with part of his sail flopping like a broken wing. Nevertheless, everyone finished safely.

Witnessing the race also raised a new question. The rigging of the bigiw roughly resembles the ‘crab-claw’ sail design of the Polynesians, with the sails held up in a Y-shape.

Was there a relation? Were  the Sama fishermen still using the same sail design from before the Polynesian and Malay peoples split ways? Now I want to research the Malay-Polynesian connection more.

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