Philippines Dugout Canoes for rapids and rocks – Pagsanjan Falls

Filipino boats at Pagsanjan falls are designed nicely for white water and river work

After taking the canoe trip to Pagsanjan Falls in the eastern part of Luzon, Philippines one of my facebook friends Lita asked me “what do you think of the boats?”.

elegant local boats in the philippines.  You can see the wood heritage despite being fibreglass

My reply was 3000 years of evolution is seldom wrong.

The river has pools of smooth water between dams that have been made from loose rocks.  The loose rocks have channels or sluices through them – usually but not always there are two channels – one for upstream traffic – one for downstream.

boat about to go up a whitewater sluice at Pagsanjan falls in the Philippines

It is entirely a man made river flow but the environment itself is stunningly gorgeous.

Stunning natural beauty of the canoe trip to pagsanjan falls in the philippines

The advantage is that there are long sections of deeper water and little current for good travelling  This is punctuated by the sluices of faster moving water for both a fun ride downstream and abbreviated struggles against the current. The sluices are made of large rocks … so the boat scrapes and bounces.

Some of the sluices have wooden beams across so that the boat is pulled up over those rather than the sharper rocks. Making it easier for the boatmen. But many of the sluices the boatmen are acrobatic and are jumping from inside the boat to outside and pushing mightily with their legs against the rocks to defeat the strong current. Very athletic!

If you zoom down in this google map you can see the whitewater areas between the calmer pools. Each drop is about a metre or a bit more.

View Larger Map

The tourists (us) sit in the boats and relax and the boatmen push or even drag the boats up over some of the shallow sections.

The boats are super smart.  They are narrow and long for good paddling.  The upswept ends ensure that a collision with a rock will never do any significant damage as the boat will slide up on the rock rather than impact.

upswept bows are a design feature of canoes in the Lumban region of Luzon, Philippines

OK … wooden boats are my thing .. but you can easily see how the shape has derived from simple fabricated boats consisting of maybe 3 or 5 planks with a flat bottom section for stability, seating and large surface contact on any rock.  But now all the boats are heavy fibreglass rovings for a good working life.  The timber gunwales are easily replaced … probably yearly.

Flat spot in bottom is a design feature of the Filipino boats from east Luzon.

I did catch some photos of a wooden one from some distance away.  I was wondering about whether there were wooden ones still and where to find them but on my second last day a wooden one passed by the riverfront house I was in.

Some of the other boats have been fitted with briggs and stratton type aircooled motors and act as tow boats or go about their individual business. Small powerplant, but low drag hull and they really move along – maybe 7 to 9 knots.

Briggs and stratton copy aircooled engine in a filipino canoe

The rear curvature of the canoe is not ideal for the faster speeds under motor so small planing plates are added underwater so the water sees a flat bottom at the stern of the boat. If this is not done the boat will be much slower and also will motor with its bow high in the air.

Power canoe tows a bunch of paddling canoes back home after they have individually gone to pagsanjan falls.

The fee (2012) is Pesos1370 (about $33 each) and the boatmen might angle for a tip from the start of the trip but will be very helpful and chatty to give you a nice time. But hey … you are rich … right!?

(thanks Lita, Maida, Ria, Lani, Fiona and that huge extended family of yours! A real feeling of Filipino kindness and hospitality!).

6 thoughts on “Philippines Dugout Canoes for rapids and rocks – Pagsanjan Falls

  1. Interesting piece. I lived for three years in Northern Samar, the next island south of Luzon. I built a place on the beach where a river emptied into the sea.

    Banka in philippines large cargo outrigger

    Spent lots of time kayaking on the river. The dug out canoes that all the locals built were similar to the ones pictured, but I never saw one with any paint.

    Filipino dugout canoe.

    I owned two “Bankas”, which are larger, more seaworthy craft. The lower hulls are hollowed out mahogany logs and plywood topsides are added. Bamboo amas are added for stability. I owned an eighteen and a twenty-four footer. They both were equipped with small “briggs and stratton” motors. This basic design is used for even very large (up to sixty or more feet) boats.

    Large Banka or Philippines outrigger canoe.  Interisland travel

    Every where I traveled in the Philippines, I was struck by the diversity of small craft. Each island had its own particular style of working craft. Nothing fancy, no fiberglass, just plain, no nonsense home built work boats. Thanks, Michael, for sharing your PR experience. It brought back fine boating memories.


    (If John doesn’t mind we might collaborate on a longer story with more photos)

  2. do they use any ballast in the dugouts? on a recent visit to Plimouth Plantation in Plymouth, MA I spent time in the Native American encampment where modern day Wampanoag Indians get paid to practice some of the activities being done at the time of the Pilgrims. One of them was an area where they make Mishoon , the old mishoon found in the lake is similar to the ones being made at plimouth plantation, however the modern ones look much more like the ones you rode. Two of the native men there have actually taken one out on Plymouth harbor, they had to deliver one over to the Mayflower II where it is displayed as part of the story boards you read on the way to the ship.
    I got to talk to one of the men, he said they put hundreds of pounds of rocks in the bottom for ballast and that made the dugout very stable, with just the two of them paddling they got the Mishoon up to a good clip and it was nice and stable out side of the break water in Plymouth Harbor, in fact they liked it so much they took the long way around staying to the outer edge of the harbor, crossing out in the open water and then finally heading for the ship. There is a good picture of them coming up to the pier with a good wake.
    There are records of english ships sighting mishoon far off shore, crossing cap cod bay, and out to Islands off cape cod. The trees back then were bigger though and the off shore dugouts were much wider and deeper, even up to 8-10 feet across, with many paddlers.

    • No Ballast Josh,

      The idea of ballast maybe is quite a western one. The solution for getting more stability for these slender hulls in the rivers of the Philippines is simply to add outrigger hulls.


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