Tag Archives: boats

Building the River’s Monsters

River traffic passes the shipyard in the early morning on the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

River traffic passes the shipyard in the early morning on the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

After the boat problems we’d had a few days earlier, we decided to take another shot at locating a large shipyard we had heard build and repaired some of the largest vessels around Ben Tre. Fearing another engine malfunction that would leave us stranded on one of the delta’s myriad canals, we called captain the night before to ask if he truly believed his boat was up to the task. Rising to the challenge, he responded with confidence and a touch of indignation: “I’d bet my life on it.”

Getting out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness for what felt like the hundredth day in a row (despite having been on the road for only a week), conversation was at a minimum as we made our way towards the riverside jetty where our boat waited for us. The boat yard was more than an hour’s drive, said the captain, and if we stood a chance at arriving in time to catch the best of the morning light we had little time to spare.

True to the captain’s word, the boat’s engine battled steadily against the Mekong’s current without even a trace of smoke.

River Monsters, Reborn

“Do what you want, just let us have some tea first,” said the manager of the shipyard, Muoi. His was translated as the number Ten, literally referring to the order in which he was born in relation to his siblings. If there was any underlying resentment from his nine older brothers and sisters about his position authority over them, Muoi chose not to share it with us. We had arrived at the facility just a few minutes after sunrise, surprising the dozen or so bleary-eyed workers who were congregating around a small wooden table to take in a few doses of morning caffeine; they seemed neither pleased, nor annoyed to see us.

Shipyard workers drink tea before the day's work begins. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Shipyard workers drink tea before the day’s work begins.

As no one in our team had been able to adequately satisfy our respective coffee addictions, we empathized with their groggy indifference and kept our cameras low until they seemed sufficiently awake to tolerate the intrusion. Even after photographing the intimate details of people’s lives full time for nearly five years, I was still aware of how violated I would feel if three strangers had arrived at my place of work and shoved a camera in my face. And so we drank tea.

It was nearly an hour before the first signs of movement started. Rising from sagging wooden benches, the workers, now numbering around twenty, moved a few metres away and squatted in a rough semi-circle under the shadow of a large and decrepit looking ship. Muoi stood in front of assembled men and women, standing rather than haunched in the dirt, and delivered the day’s instructions. Though we didn’t bother asking our translator, Mi, to relate the exact words being spoken, the message was clear enough: Today we will build and fix boats. 

Shipyard workers receive instructions about the day's tasks in the early morning. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Shipyard workers receive instructions about the day’s tasks in the early morning.

The crew listened to Muoi’s speech in silence punctuated only by the flinty sound of flicking lighters as they smoked cigarettes. When he was finished, the workers rose and spread throughout the shipyard, presumably starting where they’d left off the day before. The once quiet air was almost immediately filled with the screeching of poorly oiled power tools, and the morning stillness transformed into a frenzy of activity.

Most of the work seemed to involve patching holes on the hulls of ships that looked to have seen at least twenty years of hard service on the Mekong. First, workers attacked the rotten areas with iron pickaxes, gouging out soggy splinters to expose the metal ribs underneath. Electric grinders were then used to completely excise the abscesses, creating jagged holes that looked straight into the cavernous cargo holds. These were covered by sheets of barbed wire which were secured with nails.

Nearby, another man was tasked with the unfortunate duty of hand mixing fibreglass paste in a repurposed plastic petrol can, his face periodically obscured by clouds of yellowish powder – no doubt wreaking havoc on his respiratory system. When the substance was blended to his satisfaction, he carried the container to the patching teams and slathered the mixture over the mesh, theoretically sealing the holes. With next to no knowledge of marine engineering, we assumed the ad hoc technique was effective, otherwise the ten or so ships in the dry dock would surely have taken their business elsewhere.

A shipyard worker uses hand tools to carve out rotten sections of wood from a ship's hull before a patch can be applied. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A shipyard worker uses hand tools to carve out rotten sections of wood from a ship’s hull before a patch can be applied.

A shipyard worker clibs a ladder to access a cargo ship's hold. Around twenty workers staff the yard each day. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A shipyard worker clibs a ladder to access a cargo ship’s hold. Around twenty workers staff the yard each day.

Women work to seal cracks in a ship's hull using handmade glue and pitch. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Women work to seal cracks in a ship’s hull using handmade glue and pitch.

Everywhere there was movement. Those who weren’t patching holes applied copious amounts of glutinous resin between hull planks or used handheld saws to fashion replacement beams for wood that was too far gone to be salvaged. A group of what looked like the strongest men in the yard waded into the river to retrieve sunken logs, attaching them to a steel cable and heaving them ashore. All the while an extended family of dogs was circling the area, looking for shady places where they wouldn’t be stepped on and skittering nervously whenever a human drew too near.

With two photographers and a videographer combing the area for interesting visuals, it required constant situational awareness to ensure that I didn’t accidentally include Pablo’s shaved head or Gareth’s tattooed arms in my frames. I’m sure they were both having similar difficulties, and without a doubt more than one curse was directed my way as I stumbled unwittingly into their frames.

Workers move to their stations before work starts in the early morning. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Workers move to their stations before work starts in the early morning.

A worker winches a length of steel cable in an attempt to pull a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A worker winches a length of steel cable in an attempt to pull a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong.

Workers haul on a length of steel cable, attempting to salvage a piece of submerged lumber from the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers haul on a length of steel cable, attempting to salvage a piece of submerged lumber from the Mekong.

Workers prepare to attempt to salavge a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers prepare to attempt to salavge a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong.

Engines of Commerce

“Water is water,” Muoi said blandly, clearly not thinking much of my question. The sun had risen nearly to its apex, and the with light far too harsh for aesthetically pleasing colour photography, I had attempted to draw him into a conversation about the Mekong’s importance. “Everyone needs it for different reasons, but we all need it,” he concluded.

Though Muoi’s answer was not the emotional statement of love for the Mekong we had hoped for, he had gotten to the heart of the matter. While people in this part of Vietnam used the river in different ways – such as the coconut farming or shrimp ponds we had seen visited earlier – everyone relied on it in one way or the other.

Workers repair the floor of a ship's cargo hold. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers repair the floor of a ship’s cargo hold.

Ben Tre lacked a major port facility and so river boats, such as the ones being refitted at Muoi’s shipyard, were the only economically viable way for people in the area to send their products into the markets beyond. These lumbering ships were so important that at least seven other facilities of comparable size operated year-round to keep the flow of commerce moving. For Muoi and the twenty other family members employed in the yard, their livelihoods were no less tied to the Mekong than the delta’s rice farmers.

Different reasons, needed by all. Without meaning to, Muoi had summed up our entire journeys on the Mekong to date.

As we shook hands with Muoi, who was doubtlessly happy to see us leave and get out of his workers’ way, an Indian Myna bird (a species known for their ability to mimic spoken language) squawked at us from his hanging cage.

Cam On, Cam On. Thank you, Thank you.

———-

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Water Festival Returns to Cambodia

Racing boat crews climb down the river embankment to their boats. Crews from all over Cambodia bring their own entourages to the festival, turning the river banks into makeshift villages. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boat crews climb down the river embankment to their boats. Crews from all over Cambodia bring their own entourages to the festival, turning the river banks into makeshift villages. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River – an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture.

After a three year hiatus Bon Om Touk, or the Cambodian Water Festival, returned to the Kingdom last week. Meant to mark the the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap river – and the associated fishing and agricultural fertility that brings – the festival is one of the biggest holidays in Cambodia. Over three days of races, long boat crews from all over Cambodia converge on the capital, seeking to win honour (and hopefully a piece of the prize money) for their home towns.

Despite the historical and cultural importance of the festival, the tragic stampede incident in 2010, which saw roughly 250 dead and 750 injured led to the suspension of the event for three years – though strong arguments could be made that the government, fearing large gatherings of people during the past year of civil unrest, had ulterior motives for cancelling last year’s celebration.

Political agendas aside, it was clear from the lower-than-normal turnout that the memories of 2010 have had a stigmatic effect. In past years the estimated number of attendees was somewhere close to two million, whereas this year – despite having very little in the way of official census information – it was widely agreed that not even one million were present. Fear of a repeat disaster, it would seem, has tarnished the festival’s popularity.

Diminished crowds aside, the festival is still one of the most significant events in the Cambodian calendar year, and worth checking out if you’re in Phnom Penh at the right time.

A boat crew dances on the first morning of the water festival. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat crew dances in the early morning of the first day of the annual Cambodian water festival, 2014. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Many event spectators have come from distant regions of Cambodia, and camp along the river banks for the duration of the festival. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A man watches the early morning practice sessions from his hammock. With such an influx of spectators, many of whom have come from the countryside to support their local racing team, parts of the east bank of the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh turned into an informal campground.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Racing boats moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat crew move aboard their racing boat in the early morning, warming up before the first of the day’s races. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A race crew receives last minute equipment from their supporters before beginning practice runs ahead of their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A race crew receives last minute equipment from their supporters before beginning practice runs ahead of their race. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat coach encourages his teams before their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A racing boat coach encourages his teams before their race.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boat crews are roughly 50 strong, and around 250 boats participated in this year’s festival. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Racing boats moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boats move down the Tonle Sap river. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

 

A racing boat crew warms up on the Tonle Sap river before their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat from Kampong Chhnang passes under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh before going on to win its race.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Water Festival Returns To Cambodia For First Time Since 2010 Stampede Tragedy

Racing teams speed down the Tonle Sap river. With nearly 250 boats participating, the boats are often moving in very close proximity to each other.

Two boats pass under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh during a race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Two boats pass under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh during a race. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap after having finished a race. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A racing boat moves past spectators after finishing their race.

Members of the palace guard escort Brahmin priests from the royal palace to the river where the day's races will be held. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Members of the palace guard escort Brahmin priests from the royal palace to the river where the day’s races will be held. VIPs, from the King to the Prime Minister, attended the races, often sponsoring teams of their own. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Children play in front of Phnom Penh's royal palace. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Children play in front of Phnom Penh’s royal palace. Though attendance numbers were much lower than in past years, the riverfront was still a buzz of activity.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Festival goers walk past a brightly lit portrait of King Norodom Sihamoni near Phnom Penh's royal palace.   Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Festival goers walk past a brightly lit portrait of King Norodom Sihamoni near Phnom Penh’s royal palace. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Fireworks explode over the Tonle Sap river.   because of the river’s role in previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Fireworks explode over the Tonle Sap river after the day’s races have finished.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

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