Sibutu Island preserves the art of building wooden-hulled boats


SIBUTU, Tawi-Tawi (MindaNews/August 07) – Surrounded by the open sea as their playground, the villagers of this remote coastal town have mastered the art of boat building, a craft inherited from their ancestors who allowed them to connect with the outside world.

Carved from the town of Sitangkai in 2006, Sibutu has preserved the art of wooden-hulled shipbuilding, an age-old craft that has facilitated the movement of people, goods and services between the Sulu Archipelago and neighboring Malaysia. For centuries.

A kumpit under construction in Bongao, the capital of Tawi-tawi, by master shipbuilders from the city of Sibutu. MindaNews Photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

“We built wooden-hulled ships with the design drawn in our minds, not blueprints unlike steel-hulled ship engineers,” 55-year-old shipbuilder Ustadz Amin Toroganan said in an interview.

Toroganan learned and mastered the techniques of wooden boat building from his father, uncles and their cousins ​​by watching them work.

As he grew older, he became their helper, paving the way for him to become one of the skilled wooden boat builders in Sibutu, an island town about three hours away. “lansa” (boat) from Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi province.

24lansasibutuport A lansa or wooden-hulled ship waits for cargo and passengers at the port of Sibutu, a town in Tawi-Tawi province known for its shipbuilding industry. MindaNews Photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

A Launched is a large wooden-hulled cargo and passenger vessel that visibly ply the high seas of Tawi-Tawi and neighboring Sulu province, even as the Ministry of Transport and Communications’ Maritime Industry Authority ( MARINA) is pushing for the phasing out of wood- hulled boats through Circular Memorandum 2016-02 issued April 29, 2016.

Toroganan’s most unforgettable experience as a boat builder was being part of the team that built two replicas of the balangay in Butuan City in 2010, which was used by a team led by former deputy Environment Secretary Arturo Valdez to sail through Southeast Asia.

Balangay Replicas

Valdez, who led the first successful Philippine expedition to Mount Everest, launched the “Voyage du Balangay” in 2009, first building a replica balangay in Manila with the masterful hands of Sama-Bajau tribesmen from Sibutu. and Sitangkai Towns in Tawi-Tawi. It was used for the Philippine leg of the trip.

At least nine balangay boats, dating from as early as 320 AD, have been discovered in Butuan since the 1970s, the largest, dubbed the “balangay Mother Boat” due to its size, unearthed in 2012 but a decade later has not been excavated.

A lansa loaded with passengers and cargo maneuvers to dock at China’s Bongao Pier, Tawi-Tawi.MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

The three balangay replicas sailed through Southeast Asia from 2009 to 2011.

“I am proud to be one of those who have reconstructed the balangays which traced the maritime history of the past,” said Toroganan in Filipino.

According to him, he and his group of shipbuilders have built at least 80 “tempel” units, or motorboats with 16 to 32 horsepower (hp) engines, and several lansas over the past few decades.

He noted that Sibutu’s shipbuilding tradition will not be lost as the younger generation has shown interest in maintaining craftsmanship, which helps shipbuilders in the town feed their families and send their children to school. ‘school.

“I myself taught my three boys how to build wooden-hulled ships,” Toroganan said.

He noted that the people of Sibutu had inherited wooden shipbuilding from their ancestors, who he said were of Malaysian descent.

Hadji Kuyoh Pajiji, a former mayor here who owned at least 10 lansas in recent years, pointed out that the wooden-hulled freighter and passenger ship is safe and sturdy to cross the high seas.

A temple, a small motorized boat at least 20 feet long, under construction in Sibutu, Tawi-Tawi. MindaNews Photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Only two wooden ships are currently operational to transport dried seaweed, Sibutu’s main product, to the town of Zamboanga. On its return here, the ship carries consumer goods such as soft drinks, rice, canned food, and hardware products, among others.

A fully loaded wooden ship powered by a 350hp engine can travel the Sibutu-Zamboanga route in 25 hours, Pajiji said.

In his seventies, he originally owned a 16-horse swing bought by his father, then a government employee, which he used to buy goods in Semporna, Tawau and Sandakan in Malaysia. Pajiji was then only 20 years old. Sibutu is closer to these Malaysian regions than to the city of Zamboanga.

Reliable Kumpits

“The kumpits built by Sibutu shipbuilders are reliable. For ages, they are the ones who have served the ports of Bongao to the other island towns of Tawi-Tawi and Sulu, and with neighboring Malaysia,” he told MindaNews.

Sibutu, which boasts of a nine-kilometre stretch of white sand beaches, has 16 villages and wooden boat builders can be found in each of them, Pajiji said.

For their mastery of the craft, they can complete a kumpit, even without a plan, in six months, he added.

Vendors sell various goods aboard small motorized boats at Sitangkai Floating Market, from where the town of Sibutu was carved out. MindaNews Photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Pajiji said that even small tuna producers in the city of General Santos, dubbed the “Tuna Capital of the Philippines”, and its neighboring areas have turned to shipbuilders in Sibutu to build their fishing boats.

“Our shipbuilding industry continues to thrive because the craft is passed down from generation to generation,” he noted.

Tawi-Tawi is part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), with its regional headquarters in the city of Cotabato. There are daily flights from Zamboanga to Bongao, the provincial capital, and since June, twice a week from Cotabato to Bongao.

Naguib Sinarimbo, spokesperson for BARMM, said the Cotabato-Bongao road will accelerate the exchange of people, goods and services between the mainland of Cotabato and the landlocked provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur with the island provinces of Tawi-Tawi and Sulu. Basilan is the other island province under BARMM.

“Tourists from the Bangsamoro mainland can fly straight in and enjoy what Tawi-Tawi has to offer,” he said. “White sandy beaches, exotic seafood, rich cultural heritage and friendly people await curious tourists.”


Mayor Nur-Fitra Ahaja said Sibutu prides itself on introducing the boat building industry to tourists visiting and exploring the locality, which is also home to the Sheik Makdum shrine.

Makdum was the first Arab missionary to spread Islam to Mindanao in 1380 and is believed to have been buried here.

Besides the shipbuilding industry, Sibutu is also proud of its seaweed industry and long stretches of powdery white sand beaches, including in its island villages.

Ahaja said one of the city’s tourist routes is the island of Sicolan, home to the flagship station of Saluag, evidence of the age-old importance of the locality’s sea route which could perhaps explain why the he shipbuilding industry has thrived here for centuries. The island of Sicolan is 30 minutes by boat from the mainland of Sibutu.

Tourists can taste freshly caught fish sold along the road in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. The sellers do not use scales but sell them by “tapok” (battery). MindaNews Photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

The city’s other gem is the Sibutu Strait or Passage, a deep channel about 18 miles wide connecting the Sulu and Sulawesi seas. The strait is used by cargo ships for international trade between the Pacific and Indian oceans. Some 15,000 ships are said to use the Sibutu Strait for passage each year.

According to Ahaja, the city has lit the way for international and domestic cargo ships with the Saluag Lighthouse, a silent witness to the boom of the wooden hull shipbuilding industry so far.

A sunrise view in one of the resorts of Sibutu, which boasts of a 9 kilometer stretch of fine white sand beaches. MindaNews Photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Modern shipbuilding

Wooden boat building continues to thrive here, although there is a nationwide movement to phase them out.

However, the 2016 Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) advisory circular on the nationwide phase-out of wooden-hulled vessels has not been fully implemented.

For Bangsamoro Transport Minister Dickson Hermoso, the DOTr memo on the phasing out of wooden-hulled boats “is very difficult to implement at BARMM especially since since time immemorial sailors from Sulu use this type of vessel”.

He noted that nationally, there are at least 9,000 wooden-hulled ships of 3 tons gross tonnage and above in the country. “About 75% are in the BARMM area,” he said, adding that “replacing these wooden-hulled vessels with a steel, fiberglass or aluminum hull is very expensive.” The price ranges from 5 million pesos and up. A simple boat owner cannot afford it.

He cited three things that could be done: “Before a clearance to sail is granted, the vessel must have the following. Life jacket, radar (GPS), automatic identification system (AIS), VHF radio, airworthiness clearance PCG (Philippine Coast Guard);

organize wooden hull shipowners into cooperatives to enable them to benefit from loans on favorable terms to finance the construction of modern ships; and to recognize that Tausug and Sama are “wooden boat craftsmen and seafarers and they are very good, but our neighboring EAGA (East ASEAN Growth Area) countries do not allow the entry of these wooden-hulled vessels into their waters”. (Bong S. Sarmiento with reporting by Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)


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