SIBUTU: Boat Builder of the South

By JOHNNY R. LEE, PhD.

TAWI-TAWI BOATYARD: A boatyard at the coastal community in Sibutu, Tawi-Tawi where a boat owner can order a customized wooden boat from the local ship builders for any size of their boat locally known as “Lansa or Kumpit.”(Photo by Johnny R. Lee)

The Municipality of Sibutu is famous for its wooden-hulled boat industry. Practically all boats registered in Tawi-Tawi are made or built in Sibutu since time immemorial. The natives craftsmen of Sibutu, mostly Sama of Tawi-Tawi, receive  orders from other provinces in the region including Zamboanga, Basilan, Cebu and Sabah Malaysia. Boats range from small ‘kumpit’, designed for operating in sheltered water,  to huge cargo vessels for deepwater navigation, that ferries commercial goods to and from the port of Tawi-Tawi to above-named places.

The advent of ‘barter trading’ with Malaysia during the 80’s made the boat industry a windfall for its traditional boat-builders due to high demand of sea crafts for transporting commercial goods. Building a boat nowadays can cost up to a couple of million pesos  excluding the motor engine, painting and roofings. 

The thick forest of Tawi-Tawi mainland provides the basic materials (wood and lumber) to build their boat. It takes months or years to build a medium to large boat by the local craftsmen using traditional tools like ‘patuk’ (an axe-like chopping tool  attached to a wooden handle that can be rotated 360 degrees for easy adjustment to chop and shape angular fittings). Other important tools include handsaws, chisels, clamps, manual planer, hammers. Ancient craftsmen use dowels instead of nails for joints and attachments. Some of the traditional tools are slowly fading out due to availability of modern power tools like drills, mechanized bandsaws to speed-up work. Nowadays boatbuilders adopt the application of ‘fiberglass’ materials to the boat’s hull to increase durability and prevent growth of barnacles, tubeworms and fouling organisms.

Sibutu Island is also home to numbers of ‘kadatuan’ or the royal family in Tawi-Tawi. Tawi-Tawi’s three-term House of Representatives Datu Nur Jaafar and the late Congressman Datu Alawaddin Bandon, Jr. were both natives of the place. The first Muslim associate justice of the Supreme Court , the late Justice Abdulwahid Bidin came from this place. 

The municipality was created out of Sitangkai Municipality by virtue of Muslim Mindanao Autonomy Act No. 197, which was subsequently ratified in a plebiscite held on October 21, 2006.

Within its municipal waters lies the so-called Sibutu Passage which is a significant maritime landmark of the province. It is a deep channel that divides Borneo from the Sulu Archipelago. Accordingly it is estimated that 17,000 vessels pass through this passage every year. This vital passage links international shipping routes, and the amount of trade can be translated into US$ 40 billion annually. Primarily, the trade volume is expected to increase tremendously in the coming years due to the emerging economies in Southeast Asia. The economic importance of this sealane prompted the then Congressman Bandon to introduce a bill in congress to impose maritime toll in all passing international vessels patterned after the Panama Canal of South America. But the bill did not see the light in the house of congress as he was unseated by then Admiral Romulo Espaldon, via election protest,  in the middle of his term.

Sibutu is also noted for its handicrafts known as ‘tutop’ or food cover. The coastal communities are engaged in seaweed production, mariculture of exotic species of fishes like grouper or lapu-lapu. It used to be the biggest supplier of highly-prized cultured fish called Mamieng ( Napoleon Wrasse). But due to the dwindling supply of said marine species due to overfishing of its wild stocks it was declared as Endangered and on Red list of International Union for Conservation of Nature and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

Sibutu, specifically in Barangay Tandubanak, is found the shrine of Sheik Karimul Makhdum, the Arab missionary who introduced Islam in the Philippines.

DR. JOHNNY R. LEE

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