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The Philippines

Wooden Philippine boats dock at Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour after sailing for five days from Manila to Xiamen

Crew on journey to recreate famed 15th century voyage in city to visit their nation’s consulate and stock up on supplies

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2018, 7:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2018, 4:16pm

Having braved blindingly thick fog, three traditional wooden Philippine boats docked in Hong Kong on Monday, after a successful and poignant 1,300km trip from Manila to mainland China.

“There was zero visibility in the heavy fog that night,” Arturo Valdez, the 69-year-old expedition leader, said of their departure from the city of Xiamen in southeastern China, when the fleet docked at Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour on Monday. “It’s like running blindly.”

The three balangays, built following a centuries-old design, arrived at their destination in Xiamen after a non-stop voyage from the Philippine capital on April 28. The expedition aims to commemorate a voyage in 1417 taken by the Sultan of Sulu, who set sail from the southern Philippines to pay tribute to the Yongle emperor of the Ming dynasty in Beijing.

After spending six days in Xiamen, the sailors rode a train to Dezhou in the eastern province of Shandong, since the Grand Canal linking to the city is no longer navigable, unlike 600 years ago when the sultan made his visit.

All 31 crew members stayed awake for 10 hours from midnight until the thick fog cleared the next morning on May 3. The balangays are wooden Philippine sailing vessels built by local shipwrights which date back to the fourth century, and were particularly vulnerable for lack of modern navigation devices such as radar.

“All of us had to stay alert because bigger metal ships could easily squash us if we collided with them,” said John Manginsay, a Chicago-based master mariner and deck officer who volunteered for the expedition when friends from his hometown in Cebu, Philippines, got in touch. 

Manginsay quit his job working on shuttle tankers that transfer crude oil from offshore oilfields, to join the sailors earlier this year. 

“My wife back in Chicago did not agree at first. But I told her it’s not for the adults, it’s for the children to remember that Filipinos could build boats capable of sailing to China 17 centuries ago,” Manginsay said.

“And it will not happen again, as today we have modern ships powered by engine.”

The expedition from the Philippines to China on ancient boats succeeded at its third attempt. The first two were forced back by the summer monsoon, a seasonal reversing wind common in the South China Sea.

One of the 18-metre (60-foot) wooden boats was propelled solely by sail and thus needed the right wind direction, Valdez said.

Valdez, who worked as an undersecretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources until he retired from the civil service last May, made his first attempt at the adventure in 2009, with volunteer sailors who were carpenters, mechanics or medical workers by trade.

Primitive sailing vessels retrace Sultan of Sulu’s 1417 voyage to China

The fleet will leave Hong Kong on Wednesday after a meeting at the Philippine consulate and stocking enough food to sail back to Manila, among other tasks.

Valdez said the purpose of the voyage was to let Filipinos know that anything could be achieved if they put their hearts to it.

He also wanted it to unite the people of the Philippines, China and Southeast Asia.

“It’s a way of trying to show that the waters unify us. It has never divided us,” he said on Monday.

Philippine Consul General Antonio Morales said his countrymen had exhibited an adventurous spirit.

“As an archipelagic nation ... it is in the genes of the Filipinos to travel.”