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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Fishing Boats of Orchid Island’s Tao People

Boats of Tao (Yami) people, Orchid Island
Tao tatara boats, with and without culturally significant decorations. (source) Click any image to enlarge.
Orchid Island, also known as Lanyu, is about 45 miles due east of the southernmost point of Taiwan. Only 7.5 miles long, it is home to a culture best known as the Yami, although the people themselves prefer the name Tao, which means simply “people” in their language. Numbering about 4,000, the Tao, a Malayo-Polynesian people, make up about two thirds of the island’s population, the remainder being Han Chinese from Taiwan.

Although Lanyu is now part of the Republic of China, there was little cultural contact with Taiwan until the second half of the twentieth century, leaving Tao society relatively intact and among the least affected by outside influences of all Southeast Asian cultures. The people continue to speak their own language and are culturally more akin to the inhabitants of Batanes, the northernmost province of the Philippines, about 100 miles across the Bashi Channel. They are the only of Taiwan’s remaining aboriginal peoples with a maritime culture.

Lanyu is mountainous, of volcanic origin. Much of it is covered by tropical rainforest, parts of which are untouched. “Coral reefs are distributed around the island and the warm Japan Current also flows by, attracting vast schools of fish.” (source)

Flying fish play a central role in the culture of the Tao, their migrations determining the Tao’s annual cycle of ritual and economic activities. The boats used to fish for flying fish are “a central cultural emblem,” and so distinctive as to have become the island’s best-known cultural artifact and image for tourism.

The Tao’s boats range from the 1- and 2-man tatara, about 2.3m long, to the 10- and even 14-man chinedkulan, at 7.6m long. All are of similar form and construction, their most obvious distinguishing features being the extremely high extensions of the stem and sternposts that sweep up sharply but gracefully from the gunwales, and the elaborate carved-and-painted decoration of the hulls.

Tao boats show similarities to those of Batanes, to the mon of the Solomon Islands, and to those of Lamalera, on the island of Lembata in Indonesia. Chinedkulan are notably seaworthy, having formerly been used for voyages to Batanes (but apparently no longer so used). Tatara are said to be quite unstable and are used only in protected waters in calm conditions.

The Tatara and Chinedkulan Hulls

Structural cross-section of a Yami chinedkulan boat
Structural cross-section of a chinedkulan. "Botel Tobago" is another name for Lanyu or Orchid Island. Image source: R. H. Barnes (see bibliography)
Built on a keel with separate stem and sternpost, the hull is symmetrical fore-and-aft, V-bottomed, and chined. It is built shell-first, with frames that (at least, on the chinedkulan) do not reach to the topmost strake. Thwarts, too, span the second-to-top strakes, not the topmost ones. Making up for this, a strong shelf near the lower edge of the top strake provides a great deal of rigidity. The shelf is not attached to the plank as a separate component but, rather, is carved as an integral part of the planks of the top strakes. Each strake consists of three plank sections. The larger chinedkulan has four strakes, the tatara three.

Frame/plank lashed connection in a Tao tatara boat
Detail of lashed-lug construction between frame and planks in a Tao tatara. Source: R. H. Barnes
The smooth-planked (i.e., carvel) hull is of lashed-lug construction. When each plank is gotten out, “comb cleats” (pairs of lugs with a short gap between) are left on the inside surface. Holes are bored in the lugs. The U-shaped frames are placed in the gap between the cleats and tied in place with rattan lashings. But before this happens, the strakes are assembled to the keel and to one another by blind-pegging. The upper edge of each plank is drilled with numerous holes – from photos, it appears that they are spaced rather closely, perhaps 4” apart. Dowels are inserted in the holes, and the next plank, with corresponding holes, is forced down against the lower one. Joints are caulked with vegetable fiber.

Pegged plank fastening, Tao boat, Orchid Island
Blind pegged fastening of planks. Source: R. H. Barnes (see bibliography)
The planking has three sets of lugs: one set, amidships, holds the frames. The smaller boats have a single frame amidships. The larger ones have two frames, dividing the hull approximately in thirds lengthwise. The second set of lugs, appearing at one end only, is used to fasten a transverse bulkhead. The third set, appearing at both ends, holds lashings to pull the port and starboard planks in toward each other. It’s unclear how the hood ends are fastened to the endposts, or how the butt joints between the plank sections are fastened.

Tao Tatara boat of Lanyu
Tatara with single frame amidships. Also shown are shelf near the bottom of the sheerstrake and a transverse bulkhead at right. Source: R.H. Barnes
The backbone consists of three pieces – the V-shaped keel and two endposts – joined in a stepped joint (and presumably pegged).

The boats are rowed with oars that pivot against a kind of tholepin structure that consists of two or three posts arranged with their bottoms splayed fore-and-aft and their tops, which rise high above the gunwale, lashed together with many wraps of heavy rope. The bottom ends appear to penetrate the shelf that runs near the lower edge of the topmost strake, and perhaps are held in place by lugs in the planking below the shelf.

Thole structures, sheerstrake shelf, steering oar yoke and thwarts (deckbeams) are all visible. Source: R.H. Barnes 
Tao (Yami) Boat Construction Procedures

To begin construction, trees are felled with an ax, and planks are shaped with an adze, each trunk yielding a single plank or backbone section. The center of the trunk becomes a plank’s outer surface. The endposts, in order to avoid grain run-out in the rapidly curved transition from the horizontal to the vertical, are gotten out from the base of a tree with buttress roots, in the manner of grown knees in Western boatbuilding.

Much of the construction of Tao boats is regulated by ritual. All of the major parts of the boat must be cut from live trees, there being a prohibition against the use of dead wood. According to Barnes, “(T)imber should be felled, worked into rough shape and carried back to the village on the same day. The bow and stern pieces require some twenty men taking turns to carry them across the island.” A ceremony and celebration, with feasting, greet the men on their return to the village.

Having brought the major pieces back to the village, the boat is finished in a special boatbuilding shed, using axes, adzes, chisels, gouges, and borers or a brace and bit to produce the holes for the planking dowels.

Construction takes two or three years. When it is complete, a boat may be painted rather simply – usually with white topsides inside and out and a red bottom – and put into use. It is more common, however, to apply elaborate conventional decorations in traditional red, white and black painted and carved patterns that represent human figures, waves, and bow oculi in the form of the sun. Borders made of multiple bands of repeating triangles of the three colors outline the sheer, cutwaters at bow and stern, and waterline. The tops of the endposts are decorated with chicken feathers.

Hull decorations on fishing boat of Orchid Island
Traditional decorations includes (from left to right) the sun-like oculus, human figures, and ocean waves. (source)
The Tao, according to a Taiwanese government website, “consider a boat as a man’s body. Boat-building is a sacred mission and a part of life. Owning a boat means owning the ocean and the sky and having valor. For the Tao, boat-building is the manifestation of divinity and beauty.” Carrying such heavy social/psychological meaning, only boats that will be subjected to an expensive, elaborate launching ritual may be decorated in the traditional manner.

One step of this ritual consists of covering the boat in taro roots which, after flying fish, is the most important staple of the Tao diet. Given the large amount of taro required, land clearing and planting may begin three or four years prior to the start of building the boat. After the boat is covered in tubers, they are removed to become part of a celebratory feast (which also includes roast pig, shared with the community but also slaughtered as a sacrifice) in which the whole village partakes. Women wear special clothing for several days before the ceremony. In the climax to the ritual, men, wearing the loincloths that they also wear when fishing, circle the boat several times to guard it from evil spirits, then lift it above their heads and throw it into the air several times.

Boat launching ceremony, Lanyu
Tossing a newly-built chinedkulan into the air: part of the traditional launching ceremony on Lanyu. (source)
Boat Use on Lanyu (Orchid Island)
“Surrounded by sea, the Tao society is a typical maritime one. Their annual schedule corresponds to the flying fish season. The Tao people designed a calendar according to habitual behaviors of marine life and the movements of ocean currents, which includes restrictions and taboos regulating the fishing area, timing and methods.” (source)

The Tao celebrate flying fish season with a festival consisting of 13 distinct rituals. Flying fish are caught from March through June, but “shoulder seasons” at both ends make the period from February to October the most important part of the Tao’s year economically and culturally. Almost all activities during this longer period relate to catching, preparing, distributing and storing the fish for use throughout the year. Flying fish may not be caught outside of the official flying fish season, although other kinds of fishing, especially for crabs, octopus, and shellfish, occur at other times.

To catch flying fish, the Tao boatmen work in concert with free divers. The larger boats are rowed with one man per oar and steered with a steering oar. Nets as long as 8 meters are spread into a U-shaped wall attached to the bottom, their tops 2m to 4m below the water surface. Divers, numbering between 25 and 40 and remarkable for their lung capacity, spread out some distance from the net in a half-circle that can be up to 300m wide. Using large, whisk-like beaters that they sweep through the water and hit against the bottom, they drive schools of fish toward and into the net. They then gather the ends of the net together, and it is lifted into the boat.

“After each drive, the fish are taken to shore, removed from the net and scaled. For scaling the Yami use stone chips. After the fish are cleaned, they are put back into the boat, the net is loaded into the boat as well, and the group performs one or two more drives. On a lucky day the catch may total over a thousand fish, but such days are rare. Usually a good catch brings in five or six hundred fish.”

The catch is processed communally and distributed by a formula that takes account of who owns the boat, the net, and who participated in that particular drive.

Sources:
R.H. Barnes, "Yami Boats and Boat Building in a Wider Perspective," in Ships and the Development of Maritime Technology in the Indian Ocean, David Parkin and Ruth Barnes, eds.Routledge, 2002
"Tao: Introduction to the Ethnic Group," in Digital Museum of Taiwan Indigenous Peopleshttp://www.dmtip.gov.tw/Eng/Tao.htm
"A Minority Within a Minority: Cultural Survival on Taiwan's Orchid Island," in Cultural Survival Quarterlyhttps://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/minority-within-minority-cultural-survival-taiwans-orchid
Jerome F. Keating, "The Driving Forces and Scope of the Mapping of Taiwan," in Mediascapehttp://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/Winter2012_Taiwan.html
"Orchid Island (Lanyu)" in Taiwan: The Heart of Asiahttp://eng.taiwan.net.tw/m1.aspx?sNo=0002123&id=650
"Offshore Islands: Penghu; Kinmen National Park; Matsu; Green Island (Lyudao); Orchid Island (Lanyu)" in Taiwan: Heart of Asiahttp://go2taiwan.net/monthly_selection.php?sqno=7
"Yami People" in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yami_people
Dezso Benedek, The Songs of the Ancestors: A Comparative Study of Bashic Folklorehttp://asian-lp.uga.edu/jpn_html/yami/
Katherine Kuang, "Yami Creation Myths": http://www.laits.utexas.edu/doherty/plan2/kuang.html


Friday, April 7, 2017

The Vattai of Tamil Nadu

Examples of traditional frame-first boat construction in Asian cultures are rare. Throughout the Far East, Middle East and east Africa, shell-first construction of planked boats is the norm, where it is used for everything from sampans and junks to dhows. One of the few exceptions is the vattai, an open, sail-powered, flush-planked (carvel) fishing boat common in the state of Tamil Nadu, in India’s southeast.

A vattai in Tamil Nadu
A vattai in Tamil Nadu. Source: Blue (click any image to enlarge)
The vattai is described by Lucy Blue in “The Historical Context of the Construction of the Vattai Fishing Boat and Related Frame-First Vessels of Tamil Nadu and Beyond,” published in Ships and the Development of Maritime Technology in the Indian Ocean (David Parkin and Ruth Barnes, editors; Routledge, 2016). The information and images in this post are from that article.

To quote Dr. Blue:
"Vattai, are flat-bottomed, have a box-like transverse section and are near wall-sided over much of their length. They range in size from around 13.72m long, with a beam of 2.13m and a depth of 1.37m, to the smallest vessels of c. 5.18m x 1.07m x 0.76m. However, irrespective of their size, they are all similar in shape with very high bows, and two or three masts each with a settee-lateen sail, a balance board, and, uniquely on this coast, leeboards."
The design process is of much interest. A single mould form or template is used to lay out most of the frames on a scrieve board, the form being flipped to draw the port and starboard half-breadths. (Forms for different boats differ from one another, apparently, only in the radius of the curve that joins their two straight, right-angled legs.) Since the boat’s cross-section (half-breadth shape) is constant across its entire midbody, a single shape drawn on the scrieve board suffices to define most of the frames, and this follows the exact shape of the form laid square to the edges of the scrieve board.

Use of mould form and scrieve board to design a vattai boat
Use of the mould form and scrieve board (A) to create the shapes of the "equal" frames for the midbody (B,C,D), and the progressively narrower frames toward the ends (E, F, G). 
Fore and aft of the “equal” frames that constitute the midbody, each of the next three progressively narrower frames at the bow has an identical counterpart in the stern. These frames that define the ends are derived from the same mould form according to a formula that defines how far in from the scrieve board’s upper edge and how far up along the diagonal the form is placed. By rotating and raising the form, different frame shapes may be drawn to create the narrowing and flare of the hull’s ends. The final three frames in the very bow and stern, however, are not drawn or gotten out at this time.

In the boat recorded by Blue, there were 15 “equal” frames for the midbody plus 12 “unequal” ones, evenly divided between the bow and stern. The midsection always consists of an odd number of frames – the central master frame, and equal numbers of identical frames fore and aft of it. The design can be readily made longer by the addition of more equal frames in the midbody with no changes to the ends, and made wider starting with a wider scrieve board but using the same mould form. Rules of thumb establish ratios between length, breadth, depth, and frame spacing, so the builder’s discretion to make changes is limited mainly to his choice of the mould form and number of frames.

Vattai construction drawing
Vattai construction drawing
Frames are built up from floor timbers and futtocks, which are assembled with “a complex dovetail joint” that “extends right through the turn of the bilge.” The vattai has no backbone, so apparently the frames are set up on the straight, flat bottom planking, which must be laid down first. Stem and sternpost are butted with a lap joint against the ends of the central bottom plank. The article states variously that the shapes of the very ends are determined by battens (ribbands) or by laid planking between the midbody frames and the end posts. Whichever is truly the case, these define the shapes of the three final pairs of half-frames at each end. Only in these final three sets of frames do the shapes of the vattai’s bow and stern differ. They are installed without floors, their lower ends overlapping fore-and-aft where they land on top of, or are notched onto, the stem and sternpost. (This detail can’t be determined from the drawing.)

I have been unable to find any other photos, descriptions or even references to the vattai through Google searches and would welcome additional input. There is much else I’d like to know, including:
  • whether the planks have a caulking bevel, and the materials (if any) used for caulking
  • the design process for the end profiles (i.e., whether the stem and sternpost shapes are determined by template or drawn by eye.) 
  • details of the rig and leeboards
  • details of usage: crew size, responsibilities, sailing procedures and performance

I would also much like to see additional photos. Google image searches for terms like “fishing boat Tamil Nadu” yield a number of stock photos of open fishing boats that do not appear much like the vattai (the distinctive bow shape is an easily-noticed identifying characteristic), and nothing else even close. Please communicate in the comments if you can add to the discussion.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Bundle Boats in Oman and Elsewhere

In the last week or so, two bundle boats from Oman came to my attention. First, a reader sent me a link to this travel article in Daily Kos, containing this photo:
Mangrove root bundle boat, Oman
Caption from original article: "This old, traditional, fishing boat is made from “barasti”, the aerial roots of the mangrove.  I took this shot on the beach near Sohar, the third largest city in the country located near the UAE border." (Click any image to enlarge.)
This brought to mind the following photo of a shasha, another Omani bundle boat, from Tim Severin’s The Sinbad Voyage, which I reproduced in a post several years ago. But unlike the boat in the Daily Kos photo, this one was made from palm fronds.
palm frond bundle boat, Oman
A shasha -- an Omani bundle boat made of palm fronds (Source: The Sinbad Voyage)
The very next day, an image of another Omani bundle boat, also apparently made of palm fronds, appeared in my Facebook feed. I found it surprising that, even in the present day and within the confines of a rather small country, two methods of bundle boat construction, based on different materials, remain in use.
palm frond bundle boats, Oman
Original caption: "These are fishing boats in Oman. They are filled with polystyrene and paddled out to sea. At night the catch is landed and the village builds bonfires to cook supper. Which is fish." (Posted by Jonathan Savill to the Facebook page Church of the Double-Bladed Paddle)

Bundle boats are not really boats: they are boat-shaped rafts that derive their buoyancy from the materials of their construction, which are themselves buoyant. In contrast, true boats achieve buoyancy enclosing air within a watertight shell (or, to phrase it another way, by excluding water from a watertight shell).

In most cases, bundle boats are made from soft, flexible materials like grass, rushes, reeds, or leaves, large amounts of which are wrapped with cordage into long bundles – generally pointed at both ends – and then tied to other bundles into a boat shape – i.e., pointed at the bow (and often, at the stern), and usually with something approximating either raised gunwales, also composed of bundles, or a cockpit formed by leaving a cavity in or between bundles.

Sticks, roots or branches may also be used for construction. In most cases, these are tied into bundles in a manner similar to that used for soft, flexible materials, but in others, they are arranged and lashed side-by-side and not truly bundled. This method reduces the craft’s buoyancy and freeboard, also reducing its payload and leaving the boatman’s bottom constantly wet, but it also reduces its weight and makes it easier to dry, probably prolonging its life.
ambatch bundle canoe, Upper Nile
A canoe-like bundle boat used on the Upper Nile by the Dinka and Shulluk people. In this example, ambatch branches are tied into bundles, then the bundles are tied to each other into a boat shape. Indigenous to parts of Africa, ambatch is a  large shrub or small tree with a lightweight wood. (Source: Hornell)
ambatch bundle boat, Angola
An ambatch canoe on Lobito Bay, Angola. In this example, the branches are not truly bundled, but are lashed side-by-side into a boat shape. This photo and the one above it are from Hornell's 1946 work, Water Transport: Origins and Early Evolution. I don't know if such craft are still in use.
Absent gunwales or a cockpit, a bundle-built craft would have no “inside,” and lacking this characteristic, it would be a stretch to to call it boat-like. But that’s hardly a firm definition. Some models of papyrus bundle craft from ancient Egypt lack “insides” but are so boat-like in shape that it is hard to deny them the name bundle boat. (The models do have very low bundle-built toe-rails, however, which approximate the function of gunwales in a minimal way.)
Egyptian reed fishing boat model
Ancient Egyptian papyrus-bundle canoes pulling a trawl between them. (Source: Hornell)
Somewhat similar reed “boats” remain in use on Lake Titicaca, although they have substantial bundle gunwales, and thus a definite “inside.” What most distinguishes these craft from Egypt and Lake Titicaca from the Omani, Upper Nile and Lobito Bay types shown above, however, is the large volume of the bundles in comparison to the load, placing the boatman and his cargo well above the water and giving fair promise of keeping him and his cargo dry.
Reed balsa boat, Lake Titicacas
A fishing balsa made of totora reeds, on Lake Titicaca (Source: Hornell)
The bundle boat was an technological dead end in the sense that it apparently never evolved anywhere into a true boat. Although stick-built bundle boats appear superficially to be a step in that direction, they are still solidly rafts in concept.

But technological evolution is not the sole measure of past or present validity. The fact that bundle boats remain in use in more than one culture in the 21st century testifies to their practicality and the soundness of the concept. 

Sources: 
Basil Greenhill, Archaeology of the Boat
Paul Johnstone (Ed., Sean McGrail), The Sea-Craft of Prehistory
James Hornell, Water Transport: Origins and Early Evolution
(and as noted in text)