As sea gypsies, the Sama Dilaut of the Philippines are known for living on the sea throughout most of the year. Part of the Sama ethnic group of Southeast Asia, they crisscrossed the islands of the coral triangle until recently when they chose more permanent settlements along the coast.
The Sama’s decision to live among the waves can be traced to the end of the last Ice Age when the rising sea levels provided opportunities to traverse the eastern Pacific on houseboats. It was a long tradition that touched the lives of the forefathers of some of today’s Southeast Asians.
In Tawi-Tawi, Sitangkai, and the Sulu Islands, the houseboat is called lepa and is considered one of the most beautiful traditional boats of the Philippines. The lepa is the most complex of the buggoh dugout boats, which can be paddled for steerage or poled by fishermen to get them to areas where they spearfish or dive. Buggoh construction differs from that of other boats in that the ends of the planking at the prow (munda) and stern (boli) are attached to end blocks (tuja) rather than to stem posts.
The lepa, designed to navigate shallow waters and to accommodate families living on the sea, ranges from 9 to 15 meters long and 1.5 to 2.2 meters wide. The primary resource used in constructing the lepa is the Teak tree (Tectona philippinensis). Different parts of the lepa are made from specific parts of the tree. The side of the felled tree that hits the ground is used to make the hull. The buttress root is carved to make the prow, and the treetop to make the stern.
Lepa sailing without the housing, passing Bud Bongao, a sacred mountain on Bongao Island, Tawi-Tawi, photograph taken in the early 1990s © Jesus Peralta
A shallow dugout, called tadas or lunas, serves as the keel, and it is wider than any one of the strakes. It is flat in the center and curves vertically towards the prow and stern blocks. The parts of the upper hull come from the tree trunk. Because the hull tapers smoothly toward both ends, it is necessary for the bow and stern ends of the tadas to be horizontally flat. This crescent-like shape is the source of stability for the lepa.
The strake that is next to and edge-pegged to the tadas is the pangahapit, which abuts the prow end block. At the stern end, the plank abuts the stern end block. The end block is a lingayat (carving). When it extends from the prow end block, it is called durung munda, and when it extends from the stern end block, it is called durung buli.
Next to the pangahapit is the bengkol (plank), which is also edge-pegged to the other subsequent planks. It extends like a long arm toward the prow. Okil (elaborate design) adorns the boat’s prow. While decorative, okil also protects the boat as it approaches a beach or goes through reefs. Tambuko (lugs) are on the inner sides of the planks and function as support for the sungkol (thwart), which can be pegged down or locked in by fitting wood pieces together with mortise and tenon joints. The lepa has additional planks that are edge-pegged to raise the side of the hull. For the plank caulking, a mixture of resin and fiber is used. On the sungkol, lantay sahig (detachable decking) can also be laid. With these parts, the lepa can be used as a fishing or cargo boat.
Patok, a traditional tool dating back to the Neolithic age and is still used to build boats today in Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi © Renato S. Rastrollot
The lepa’s sail is raised through a single demountable mast that goes to the forward decking (muhang) into a socket in the tadas. Y posts are added to the aft of the mast to hold up a central pole for the roofing, which is made by sewing nipa (Nypa fruticans Wurmb Arecaceae). The Y posts and roofing can be removed when sailing. For some lepa with permanent housing structures, the hull is integrated into the roofing.
Other lepa adornments include thwarts with ornately carved ends that protrude upward beyond the hull on the fore and aft, as well as Y-shaped branches on their upper surface to hold poles, fishing spears, masts, and other paraphernalia.
Presently, very few Sama communities in Southeast Asia live in the lepa (Abrahamsson & Schagatay, 2014). The Sama Dilaut ceased making the lepa some years ago. While lepa building is at a standstill, it is not too late to revive its craftsmanship. In some parts of Southeast Asia are lepa festivals that offer opportunities, and perhaps inspiration, to remember the fading houseboat technology of the Sama Dilaut.
Abrahamsson, E. and E. Schagatay. 2014. “A Living Based on Breath-Hold Diving in the Bajau Laut.” Human Evolution 29(1-3) 171–183.
Peralta, J. Ed. 2001. Prehistoric Links of the Sama Lepa of Tawi-Tawi. In Reflections on Philippine Culture and Society (Festschrift in Honor of William Henry Scott). Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press.