Travelling by Banca




In 2002 the Philippine authorities estimated that there are round about one half million of   motorized and non-motorized bancas in the Philippines (1). Typical for bancas (Tagalog: "bangka"-larger boats are locally also referred to as “pumpboats”) are the large outriggers made of bamboo which give to the boat the necessary stability. Bancas are part of the standard inventory of the Philippines like the Jeepney, the Narra-tree or the Sampaguita plant.

While the larger ferryboats and modern hovercraft ships (for example, the SuperCAT) as next higher classes are mainly operating between the bigger islands, the simpler and lighter bancas with less draught are more used in coastal areas. They transport products and persons and are used for fishing.  

Bancas are relatively robust if they run to ground since they have no deep-set keel or a centre board (sailing boat). But their maneuverability is relatively limited due to the flow resistance of the outriggers and the small oar blade. They are only partially ocean-going. Bankas can differ in degree of motorization, forms, sizes and colors.  

They have a length of around three to thirty meters and are mostly built from native wood. It is reported from Bicol that there have been efforts to produce in 2005 with the help of government a prototype of a cement boat with reinforced concrete (2). The initiators expect to achieve lower production costs with such Ferrocement boats also by mass production, non fire risk and corrosion resistance. Practical experiences with this new type of boat are still missing. – Smaller bancas are regularly built from own experience without construction plans. It seems that official standards of security and general admittance regulations only exist for bigger tourist bancas (3).  

There are smaller paddle-bancas. Children like to use them on the shore with amazing skill. Poorer fishermen have often only a paddle-banca. In the evening they are pulled out for fishing by motorized bancas. Sailing-bancas have become seldom nowadays. Sometimes they can still be seen in the Sulu sea used by the Badjeros. The sails can be very colorful and sometimes the boat is also a temporary accommodation for a family clan. Now and then bancas with only one outrigger can also be seen.

The power of motorized bankas reaches from 5 (type: lawn-mower engine) to over 100 hp (type: lorry engine). Mostly we find two-stroke engines. There are some reports, that many engines are not original seawater vehicle engines, but converted older – and sometimes not well maintained - engines of land transportation vehicles imported from America or Japan.

A very big banca can take up regularly more than 100 passengers depending on size, but the actual number of passengers can be many times higher. There is always the danger of overloading. If the buoyancy force is not sufficient, water can penetrate and the boat will sink. Overloading caused in the past again and again a lot of accidents.  

While the poor fisherman is happy, if he can stretch out his legs in his boat and if he has a tarpaulin against the burning son, larger bancas often offer considerably more "luxury". There are larger bancas with a control room, several sleeping cabins, toilet, satellite-phone, fish finder or a GPS system.

Many bancas are lying gray and weather-beaten near the bank. There is, however, a day in almost every fishing village they get colored and adorned with pennons to take part in a banca parade. Tourist bancas are presented usually a little more in color. The side planks can - for example be - painted whitely and adorned with a blue side line while the outriggers have a red painting. Jeepneys show us how Filipinos can be in love with decorations.

Frequently the bancas have a name. It is often the name of the owner, his son or the daughter. But there are also names with more symbolic emphasis like “Poseidon”, "Super Hawk" or “Artistic Divers”. - Bancas may have a name, but that doesn't mean that they are officially registered.  According to a report only 20 % of the bancas were registered officially (1) in 2002. The Philippine government attaches importance to such a registration, presumable less for tax reasons; the registration charges are relatively low. But boats were stolen now and then, they can serve for illegal fishing, the smuggling of goods and weapons or strand perhaps anonymously after a "capsizing" on the shore.


Almost every Philippines traveler has made his personal or negative experiences with bancas. In the following we go fictitiously as real on such a journey. A little bit plotted we will meet at first various troubles and later we give free reign to boat romanticism.

Leaving the airport - rumpled and flabbergasted by the long flight – I am sitting in cramped conditions in the jeepney. The head is ducked in, the potholes of the "street" could let it hit against the car roof. But my wife wants to go as fast as possible to her hometown which is reachable just only by boat for years. Arrived at the port place Monsoon rain starts. The wind is slightly gusty.

We could now proceed with a larger banca, however, the relationship is also there with a smaller banca. A look shows that the greater Banca is already load up fully. Not only with passengers, but also with innumerable tied up cartons, bulging bags, cement bags, a refrigerator and some chickens. A passenger, who wants to reach a sea, has at first to balance himself above a narrow landing stage into the boat and then to move hand over hand along the boat edge and later in the boat trunk over passengers and goods. Whom may I step onto the feet and in which lap of which woman will I probably land?  

I decide - also for politeness reasons - in favor of the smaller banca of my relative. The trouser legs are rolled up and we wade to the boat. I am offered a “favorite place". It is the broadest place of the boat with about sixty centimeters. A stronger rain and spray water is expected, therefore the suitcases get protected with a plastic tarpaulin. The Banca is shifted into deeper water. But there are still a couple of sandbanks, which have to be passed by help of a long bamboo pole. The time of starting comes – Tension and apprehension can be read on the faces. Will the engine start? We hear the calls „Uno! Dos!” and after repeated pulling of the starter rope the engine starts with  coughing and the boat is slowly shifting forward  in the up and down of the waves . We head into the apple-green rippling sea. People and houses on the shore get smaller and are disappearing. I am grasped by feelings of tensions - should my agoraphobias in the aero plane celebrate a happy resurrection? But one leg of the boat leader still hangs loosely outside the banca while one hand is operating calmly the tiller.

The clouds are hanging now deeper. The rain increases and the wind freshen up. First gusts capture the boat and water sprays are going into face. My hands grip all of a sudden to the planks. The other fellow passengers are relatively still calm. The women presumably have never learned to swim from shame and they trust apparently on the load-carrying capacity of the wood also in case of emergency. Wouldn’t a ship made of heavy steel go faster down and if so there wouldn’t be any plank to cling onto? And furthermore they trust in the boatman Narcing, the owner of the banca.  Narcing knows how to meet the waves. He corrects the course from time to time and throttles down the speed. Later he will say to me that for him the steering of banca is more a playful ride with than a fight against the waves. It would be important to prevent, that the boat is packed by a wave alongside or a outrigger is undercut by the water. Then the stability of boat would be gone. Bancas do not like bigger waves from the side.

I have completely different thoughts. Didn’t I read a report from a banca accident in the waters of Leyte in January 2006? 16 people drowned. At first only a person went overboard. However, when the passengers were on the lookout after him and stayed together only on one boat side, the boat lost his balance. The boat capsized and the tragedy took its course.

A wave splashes into the boat. „Don’t be afraid”, I hear and passengers try quickly to bale out the boat.  The drama of our story requires that now also the engine of our banca breaks down. So let’s do the story the favor. Suddenly the engine starts to stutter and fails. More and more physical strength is invested in the start experiments – they remain without result. Unrest arises. Does the engine still have gasoline? Is the spark plug sooty? Where are the paddles? The shore is still further remote. Why didn’t this guy of boatman drive nearer at the bank? Now we are in hazy ocean water becoming only a match-ball of the nature forces? I hear, “We are in the hands of God ". It becomes silent. However, the engines of the bancas are not only "notoriously unreliable" (4) - sometimes they are also in coincidence with the happy chance. Another pull of the rope   and our engine starts again to the great delight of all. Our fishing village comes into sight and the banca is crunching at the shore sand.

However, Banca journeys can also be considerably more delightful. Again we sail in the coastal area of Bicol.  The water is a gigantic blue mirror showered over from the silvery white light of the sun. The engine of our boat chugs smoothly. Curling waves touch gently the planks of the boat which cuts friendly through the skin of the water. Villages with palm huts are passing by. We see in the clear water under us bunches of sea grass and colored coral heads. Now we could travel down under the horizon of the sea   … 

© W. Bethge, 2006

(1) DOCT declares a 6-month amnesty on banca registration, 02.04, 2002 in: http. //

(2) Bicol Fishermen build Ferrocement Banca, in: http.//  (3) After the "Rules and regulation on Motorized Boat/Banca" of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) of 1987 tourist boats must not only be made of good material; they have to be clean and painted. For the lifesaving and fire-fighting appropriate equipment and measures are also required. Light signaling transmitters, waste containers, a VHF radio frequency and at least two batsmen have to be on board. The boats require a certification and are examined in rotation. Details here:

(4) Roland Hanewald, Philippinen Abenteuer-Handbuch, 1996, p. 24