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Boy watches Oruwa outrigger fishing boat

Boy watches Oruwa outrigger fishing boat

Year: 2013, Month: January

Sri Lanka > Western > Negombo

A small boy watches as the crew of four prepare to launch their traditional Sri Lankan 'Oruwa' outrigger fishing boat from the beach at Negombo, a busy fishing town 30km north of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

I was in Sri Lanka on assigment to photograph a range of images for a new brochure needed by the friendly people at Taprobane Seafoods (Pvt) Ltd., a modern seafood processing factory near Negombo. One of the photos that they wanted was a shot of a traditional outrigger, which the locals still use to catch Yellowfin tuna and other types of fish in the Gulf of Mannar. We hired a boat for a few hours, just as the sun was starting to go down. I was taking photos of the boat as it was being launched from the beach, when in a serendipitous moment well suited to the original Isle of Serendip (as Sri Lanka was once known before it was Ceylon), a small boy came and stood right in front of me. Quickly recognising that his figure was just the thing to add depth and perspective to the shot, I grabbed a couple of photos before someone, thinking he was was in my way, asked him to move off. Luckily, I had the image I needed, and although it would have been nice to get some more shots whilst the boy was in the frame, it turned out that the ones I had were sufficient to please both the company and me, and earn a place on the front cover of their brochure, and their main publicity at a big U.S. trade show.

I have many more photographs of fishing boats and fish-processing in Sri Lanka - please visit the galleries.

Oruwa Fishing Boats - some background
It doesn't take long for any visitor to the busy fishing town of Negombo to spot one of the traditional outrigger fishing boats, known locally as the 'Oruwa'. These hardy vessels have been made in the shipyards of Negombo and surrounding villages for many years, and are still in regular use by local fishermen to catch Yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) and a range of other seafood. Until recently the oruwa was made out of a single log from the jack-wood tree (Artocarpus heterophyllus), and users would typically expect that a craft built from this most durable of woods would last up to forty years. These days, though, the supply of jack-wood logs are becoming increasingly scarce as owners of these trees prefer to keep them alive for the production of the tasty and valuable jack-fruit, considered to be the king of Sri Lankan fruits. To protect the fruit trees, all new oruwas are today made from fibreglass and polyester resin (FRP), which the fishermen find to be advantageous because of lighter weight and a lower maintenance cost.

Though similar in many ways to the Pacific Outriggers of the Philippines and other countries, the Oruwa, or more correctly the 'Bala-Oruwa', uses a different rig: a combination of two masts, usually made of bamboo, and a single large rectangular sail who's base can be moved to either end of the vessel. This means that effectively the Oruwa doesn't have a 'bow' or a 'stern' in the recognised sense, and can just as easily be sailed forwards or backwards depending on which end of the boat the base of the mainsail is tied to. The outrigger is always kept to the windward which means that what was the bow on one tack becomes the stern on the other tack. To prevent side-wards drift there is a leeboard midship, and for steering there is a rudder at each end of the main hull. When the bow rudder is being raised the helmsman has to move from one end of the canoe to the other. The helmsman sits and steers the rudder with his foot.

To get an idea what it is like to sail in an Oruwa, I would recommend that you read the excellent .pdf article with extensive photographs and diagrams: Sailing a Sinhalese Outrigger Logboat External link opens a new Browser window by Gerald Grainge, published in The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 2012.

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