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Manaotao Sanlagu: Mario Reyes Borja

  • 7 min read

By Manny Crisostomo

Over a decade ago, Mario Reyes Borja and San Diego area CHamorus, many in their 60s, used scaling data and traditional and modern handheld tools to bring a 1742 drawing of an ancient CHamoru flying proa into reality in a makeshift canoe house in a Southern California backyard.

A 47-foot single-hull, single-outrigger CHamoru sakman carved from a large California redwood tree was completed in 2011 and christened “CHe'lu.” Three years later the 5,600-pound sakman — the largest class of CHamoru canoe — was in Guam waters with over a dozen traditional island canoes that triumphantly sailed into the Hagåtña marina to open the 12th Festival of Pacific Arts in 2016.

“We were happy to be out there and to be celebrating the union of canoes, every sail pointing into the sky meant that we had one purpose — to catch that wind. Our bows were all pointed into the channel, that meant we had one direction,” Borja recalled. “We were fugu, we were tearful. I was proud to be there, I was proud to be a CHamoru and proud to be a seafarer. I wanted my ancestors to be proud of what we had done.”

That seminal moment has stayed with Borja, and his passion for all things canoe remains unabated. He is taking that same 280-year-old British naval archives drawing, titled ”’A Flying Proa,” and updating it with artificial intelligence, 3D renderings, and holographic, virtual and augmented reality applications.

“We’re taking the canoe’s front, side and top views and we’re adding five more views,” he said. “We want to look at it from a 180-degree isometric perspective and also from a 360-degree perspective. Looking at the very structure of the canoe, how the curves meet up, and how the hidden lines become exposed. We want to look at every little component and how things were jointed; we want to explore that because all these little bits of data that are important to the survivability of the construction of the canoe are missing.

“From there, we’re going to study the canoe and the sail from a different perspective via a wind tunnel,” he added. “We’re going to do 3D printing of the canoe, (then) building small handheld canoe models — three foot or even an eight foot … — that we can use to teach children.”

Beyond 3D models for hands-on learning, Borja has to launch an analog and digital canoe building and seafaring culture to anyone who is interested.