Salty wind, sea and Negombo’s ‘oruwa’ fishermen | Sunday Observer

Salty wind, sea and Negombo’s ‘oruwa’ fishermen

An outrigger canoe known as oruwa anchors in the Negombo lagoon.
An outrigger canoe known as oruwa anchors in the Negombo lagoon.

While I was photographing the Dutch Canal, better known as the Hamilton Canal in Negombo, several months ago, for my feature story to the Sunday Observer, my taxi driver asked, “Mahattaya, lagoon eke oru balanna kemathi nedda?” (Sir, wouldn’t you like to see the canoes in the lagoon?) “Yes,” I said.

Once I finish my photographic task at the Hamilton Canal around 9 am, the rest of the day would be available for me to explore the oruwa fishermen of the Negombo lagoon, with Stanley, my taxi driver.

Passing the bustling town of Negombo, we drove further on along the lagoon and reached the Dutch Fort Esplanade area. Beyond the green patch of the Esplanade, is a lagoon, a stretch of sandy, but much polluted beach, and small huts, where the fishing boats returned from sea with the day’s catch, which were sorted for the auction.

The Negombo lagoon and a small island called Duwa, is an ideal place to watch the fishermen at work. Each morning, except on Sundays, the fishermen of Negombo, brought in their daily catch of crabs, prawns, seer and other fish. Many make their homes on the island of Duwa, across the lagoon from Negombo, which is connected by a motorable causeway.

Although diesel-engine powered fibre fishing boats are an ubiquitous sight in the lagoon today, a few fishermen of Negombo have retained their traditional methods, particularly, the use of the outrigger canoe known as the oruwa. Also, one must watch out for the true catamaran-the teppema- a raft of logs lashed together, which is a rare sight in the lagoon today. But, the fishermen use fibre teppemas.

The oruwa (plural Oru) can be found along the coast of Negombo and sometimes, seen in fleets offshore.The arrival of the oru around10 am in late morning or at mid-day, after fishing in the shallow seas around Negombo, their brown rectangular sails, forming a sharp mosaic against the blue sky, is a sight not to be missed. Their arrival means imminent auctions on the beach, a common sight in the Negombo lagoon.

I clung to the bamboo platform lashed between the outrigger booms and watched the fishermen prepare to come up. One of them loosened a bit of the frayed line which held the steering oar in place, then nodded to the other, who was at the other end of the oruwa. The canoe was making nearly 10 knots so the timing would have to be perfect. The slightest error would have us windless and ready to spill over the top of the next big wave.

The two crew members quickly passed the ropes and the sail through the two masts. At the same time, one fisherman raised a steering oar while another lowered the other.

The oruwa, neither moved nor came up into the wind. It simply lost the way, stopped and bobbed in the wave for an instant, then as the wind caught the sail, the canoe began to move in the opposite direction. For the fishermen this is quite normal. Their craft, an oruwa, is designed to sail in both directions like a ferry. The log which forms the outrigger is not used for buoyancy, but rather as a counterpoise, or counterweight against the force of the sail. Hence, an oruwa always sails with its outrigger toward the wind. It also serves as a kind of lift raft.

If the oruwa capsizes, the fishermen can always cut the lashings and at least have a float, around which to cling.

Perhaps, the most remarkable feature of the oruwa is its method of construction. Except for a half dozen brass bolts used as thwarts, the various pieces of the craft are either lashed or sewn together. In Sri Lanka, the shipwright literally threads a needle and stitch by stitch assembles the craft.

To join the two parts of the hull, the washboards and the dugout canoe, holes are drilled along the edges, the seam is covered with coconut matting, then the pieces are sewn together with a simple cross-stitch. Hand-twisted coir rope is used for the lashing which bind the outrigger to its booms and the booms to the hull.

According to historical notes, these fisherfolk at Negombo, known as Karawa, claim to be descendants of a North Indian warrior caste who first came to Sri Lanka over thousands of years ago.

They and their fleet of catamarans offer a glimpse into a living culture as old as Taprobane, the name by which the historian Pliny knew Sri Lanka and such fishing fleets off its coast in 1st century AD. He remarks on how common these dugout outrigger sailing craft were then. Sri Lanka’s fisherfolk call them oruwa and it is said, the prehistoric evolution of the craft can be traced from Comoro Island, off Mozambique in Africa, to the South Seas.

Their oruwa, usually trawl for prawns several kilometres offshore, sailing back and forth, as they comb the muddy bottom with a drag net. After each sweep, the catch is dumped on the seashore and fishermen seated in the middle of it, sort the fish into one basket, mostly prawns in various sizes into another, while shells, seaweeds and an amazing collection of rubbish- bottles, sea snakes and plastic go over the side.

After the catch is sold and the money divided, the crews pull their oruwa and wash them with sand and water to clean off any marine insects. The oruwa is seldom painted, but once a week, generally on Sundays, they are given a protective coat of coconut oil.

The fisherfolk have their own lifestyle. They take life, one day at a time. Nobody thinks much of the future. Whatever they make goes straight to the market. Money doesn’t really mean much to them.

The oruwa of Negombo has recently taken on a new importance and attracted a great deal of attention. The boatyards that produce glass fibre launches are beginning to experiment in making the oruwa with the same material. But, the traditional outrigger canoe may well be the best way for the fishermen to sail into the future. 

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