Snapshots of the Sulu Archipelago: Boatbuilding

The Sama-Bajau are celebrated craftsmen and continue to make ships entirely by hand.

Words and photos by Jacob Maentz

Driving into the center of Bongao, I noticed some grand-looking ships being built. They immediately caught my interest, as I had never seen anything like this being built in the Philippines.  Dating back to its precolonial inhabitants, shipbuilding in Sulu has a rich history, with the Sama-Bajau celebrated as skilled craftsmen.

We returned the following day, and realised that everything was being handmade, with what looked like a great deal of hard manual labor. I chatted for a while with some of the men, and they told me that most of the workers here were Sama-Bajau from one particular community. Unique to Tawi-Tawi, the craftsmanship of these vessels was remarkable.

The Sama-Bajau are known as exceptional shipbuilders, having spent centuries building and maintaining their own wooden boats.

All of these wooden prahus ships — vessels that can be sailed with either end at the front — were custom ordered from Malaysia for carrying cargo or passengers, and would sell for anywhere between 15-20 million pesos. The men told us it takes roughly one year to build each ship, all by hand.

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Screenshot 2019-04-10 at 10.03.51
Words and photos by

Jacob Maentz

Documentary photographer based in the Philippines. I’m passionate about issues related to the human condition, culture, and humanity’s interactions with the natural world.

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