Timber for boat building is sourced from dense forests south of Bako peninsula.
Next time you cross a river by Sampan, or photograph one crossing to / from one of the many Pangkalang Sampan that dot the north and south banks of the river, spare a thought for the master wooden boat builders who go into the forest to select and harvest the trees and hew and assemble the components of these boats, following time-honored, traditional techniques. Will this age-old craft surive the onslaught of factory made fibreglass Boats, which are lighter, last longer, and cost only marginally more ?
Mat and Saidi are boat builders, born of generations of boat builders before them. In a community where fishing and farming were once the traditional economy, they have supplied the wherewithal in the traditional way entirely from the forest that surrounds them. They roam their land looking for the right materials for their wooden boats, several species for each structure, and then fell, prepare and fix the timber for each one entirely by hand.
The process starts with a survey of the forest area between Bako Park’s Southern boundary and the two kampungs located near Muara Tebas, the mouth of the Sarawak River. The craftsmen survey the forest looking for trees of a suitable size, form, and species – Selangan Batu, Meraka, Lun – which have the desired properties for boat building. These include: light-weight, strong, durable and flexible.
Traditional wooden boat making is a dying craft, competing with factory made fibreglass boats.
At these simple boat yards, several types of boats are skillfully crafted.
Traditional wooden sampans and jetties connect remote riverine kampungs to Sarawak’s rivers to towns and roads.
Meleleuca paper bark trees are used for caulking.
Boat components are hewn in the forest.
Mat and Jay in fond complicity.
The Meleleuca bark is mixed with gums and resins (such as damar) to caulk cracks between the boat’s planks, to make them waterproof
Once selected, the trees are felled and hewn into boat components including frame, ribs, planking, oars, bow, transom, etc. These heavy wooden pieces are then manually carried along jungle tracks, for up to several kilometres to kampung boat building sheds located in the coastal areas to the east of Bako Park.
At these simple boat yards, wooden boat components are labouriously and skillfully crafted into perahu tambang and other types of wooden boats that ply rivers providing transport to and from sampan jetties from Muara Tebas and Kampung Gobilt, near the mouth of the Sarawak River, to as far upstream as Batu Kawa and Batu Kitang.
Raw Material Sources for Wooden Boats
The forests that provide the wood raw material for boat building have been managed by local communities under “forest customary use rights” by several generations of kampung folk whose skills have been passed down through successive generations of boat building families. These forests lie in a narrow buffer zone along the south-east corner of Bako National Park and the mouth of the Sarawak River at Muara Tebas.
Bark of Meleleuca Trees Used to Make the Wooden Boats Waterproof
Besides timber, wooden boat building operations also harvest the soft, paper-like bark of Meleleuca trees that have been widely planted along roadsides in the Muara Tebas area. The bark is mixed with gums and resins (such as damar) to caulk cracks between the boat’s planks, to make them waterproof.
The Meleleuca bark swells when the boat is immersed in water thus preventing water from entering the boat. After harvesting, the bark regrows quickly. Provided care is taken, tree vitality and growth are unaffected by this sustainable tree bark harvesting for use in wooden boat building. The tree bark can continue to be periodically harvested, as long as the tree is not damaged during the bark removal process.
Long Term Viability of Wooden Boat Building
Like many traditional artisanal handicrafts, the long-term viability of wooden boat building is threatened by diminishing raw material sources, coupled with substitution by aluminum and fibreglass boats that are mass produced in modern, mechanized manufacturing facilities. Although these factory- made boats are currently more expensive that the traditionally made wooden boats, they are also lighter and less susceptible to insect and fungal attack. One can already see replacement of traditional sampans on the Sarawak River by larger capacity fibreglass boats, capable of carrying more passengers and thus generating more operating revenue and profit than the more traditional wooden sampans which they are replacing.
Jay Blakeney, a retired Canadian forest engineer and avid outdoors-man, has spent three decades enjoying and accessing the state’s rainforest by bike or on foot, either with friends or flying solo. He thanks the people of Kampung Selabat and Kampung Karangan, for their hospitality and for sharing information on their area.