The Balatik & Tao Expeditions
As I turned off my headlamp, it was nearly pitch-black out as we stood 25 meters offshore in ankle deep water. “Okay, watch.” said Gener, almost in a whisper. A moment later, he started jumping through the water and the bright purple bioluminescence lit up momentarily under his disruption. I couldn’t see anything except the bursts of tiny lights under his feet, but I could tell he had an ear-to-ear grin on his face, reaffirmed by a soft, childish giggle a few moments later.
Dressed in colorful sarongs and sporting long dreadlocks with decorative shells, Gener Paduga seemed to always have a smile on his face; A gentle personality that couldn’t hide his love of his home. Growing up on the island of Dumaran in eastern Palawan, he is an avid sailor, first running excursions on Honda Bay near Puerto Princessa. Now along with being an expedition leader for Tao Expeditions based out of El Nido, he is teaching local youth sailing and navigational techniques in Palawan. His aim is to rekindle Palawan’s bygone sailing tradition, an intricate part his culture that went in to decline in the 1970’s when engines became readily available. “A return to sailing makes sense – our marine environment is under threat and fuel prices are rising. Learning to sail again will help Palaweños escape dependence on gasoline and diesel while, at the same time, fostering a deeper understanding and respect for the sea.”
So along with Eddie Brock and Jack Foottit, the founders of Tao Expeditions, Gener conceived the idea of building a traditional Filipino Paraw; A replica of a boat that first crossed the Philippine seas more than 1,000 years ago transporting cargo and passengers. A Paraw consists of three major elements: The bangka, the main canoe-like section either dug out from solid trees or made up of planks; The katig, two outriggers typically made of wood or bamboo that serve as counterpoise so the boat will not easily overturn and removes the need for a heavy keel, reducing the overall weight without sacrificing stability; And the layag or the main sail, which can be made out of anything from woven mats to cloth and canvas.
The largest obstacle for Tao was figuring out how to actually build the Paraw. Knowledge of boat-making was passed down from generation to generation and it had been decades since one had been seen or built; There were no blueprints or diagrams so they searched the Philippines to find other men and master carpenters who still remembered the traditional structure of the Paraw. Jaime “Mindoro” Maltos, (66) from Romblonand, Bernando Conche (57) a carpenter from Cagayancillo, Celso Conde (40) a boat builder from Cagayancillo on the Sulu Sea to the east, and Claro Magbanua (54) a sailor from Cagayancillo were all enlisted to help collaborate and construct Gener’s vision.
It took two years, from inception to completion for their Paraw to launch in April 2014. Named the Balatik (“Constellation of Orion” in Hiligaynon, a language of the Western Visayas region of the Philippines) at 22 meters long (72 feet) with a 13 meter (43 feet) tall mast embellished with cream sails, it is the largest of its kind. (As a testament to its size, when the hull was launched in to the Babuyan River, it took 102 men and a few Carabao (water buffalo) to push and pull it in to the river.)
Effort went in to recreating an authentic experience of boat life – The Balatik is decorated with Surat (traditional lettering) and tribal carvings of Palawan wildlife, all engraved by master carvers from the Pala’wan tribe, vegetables hang from the thatch roof of the kitchen (originally a way to stop rats from getting to them on long journeys), and Gener even poses with his Kris sword, a historic Indonesian sword also used in the southern Philippines.
The Balatik now spends the dry season transporting adventurous travelers to experience the remoteness of this Linipacan group between Coron and El Nido (and vice versa). During the monsoons, the Batalik becomes a tool to teach young people nautical skills and reignite a passion for sailing.
(Much of this information was gathered in conversations with Gener or off Palawan Paraw)