Canoe Extraordinaire – The Bangka

yellow-bangka-boat 1

One of the perks of a Bilbao youth in Hinoba-an back in the 70s was access to, and practically unlimited use of, the native outrigger canoe—the venerable bangka.

Tool-of-the-trade of the local fisherman, a cluster of  four or five would daily be docked beach-side a stone’s throw from our homes. 

Out to sea the entire night, the fishermen would return at dawn, their bangkas laden with the Sulu Sea’s bounty—all manner of tropical fish and crustaceans. Beach-side vacationing Bilbaos were their first customers, beneficiaries of the choicest catch; whatever remained was brought to market.

Our first use of the bangka had us asking their owner’s permission.  Unhesitating in their assent, those kind, sea-weathered folk granted us carte blanch, asking only that the boats be returned before dusk.

With our near-daily use, it didn’t take us long to become adroit at handling these versatile canoes whose simple yet indefectible design had changed little over millennia.

The bangka’s two bamboo floats—latched onto the hull with two cross members—provided unmatched stability.  Their exceptional buoyancy kept the craft afloat even if the hull completely filled with water (an all-too-common occurrence given our youthful predilection for rough play) or even if it capsized (and in the few times it did, it did so having been deliberately occasioned by a Bilbao youth!).    

Add to these safety features the indispensable kabu—a plastic container of sorts that no self-respecting banca-man would do without—used to scoop out water that entered the hull, and one begins to see how teenage city-folk could, in short order, become daring seafarers.

Our utilization of these amazingly rugged outriggers was robust.  Typically we would paddle out to sea, as far as we dared—perhaps a kilometer or so—for the sheer thrill.   We’d race them and out-maneuvering one another; use them as platforms from which to free-dive the emerald-green depths; use them to explore wider swaths of an area typical Sulu-Sulawesi Sea coral reef (bar none, the richest of its type on the planet) that stretched south for several kilometers.

Periodically we’d taxi around younger cousins to their giddy delight.  Particularly enjoyable was the occasional ferrying-about of attractive lady guests—our canoeing skills diminishing in curious inverse relationship to the skimpiness of their bikinis. 

On an elemental level, the bangka had become the consummate summer toy, providing hours of fun plus the unintended benefits of vigorous exercise and a deep tan.

On a profound level, the bangka had forged our relationship to the sea, imbuing us with an enduring sense of wonder and awe at her majesty.  Ever dauntless whilst constantly in her realm, we nevertheless were wise to, and not once lost sight of, her immense power and utter dominion.

I last took up use of a bangka a little over a decade ago vacationing in Hinoba-an.   Not having been around one for some twenty odd years, it took, to my amazement and delight, all of a minute to get the old feel and skill-set back.

Silhouetted against the setting sun as my wife worriedly looked on, I put out to sea one late June afternoon in ’98, and found myself once again in blissful, sublime harmony with the bangka and sea that I so loved.



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