Virtually every school child on Guam has at least once attempted to draw a picture of the Guam seal. It is a relatively easy thing to do: first, draw a coconut tree; then, the shoreline with the Agana River emptying into it; next, an outline of Ritidian Point; then finish it off with a little white boat.
This episode is about the little white boat on the Guam Seal. The Chamorro boat called the proa, was held in awe by early visitors to our island. They were not tourists easily impressed with something unusual. They were explorers, navigators, and hardened sailors whose lives depended on their knowledge of the seas and mastery of the boats sailing them. While the latte stones garnered attention, the legendary proa captured the imagination of seasoned mariners.
Diarists and journalists on early expeditions were so entranced with the design, swiftness, and beauty of the proa that none other that the great navigator himself, Ferdinand Magellan, memorialized their sighting. The initial name he gave the Chamorro islands was Islas de Las Velas Latinas (the Islands of the Lateen Sails ), owing to the triangular shape of the proa's pandanus sails.
Expeditions frequently reported being greeted by dozens and dozens of proas playfully circling and following alongside their ships at faster speed. This picture of landing crafts heading toward the beach during the liberation of Guam roughly approximates what it might have looked to be greeted by a hundred proas as ships enter the harbors of Guam during the Age of Discovery.
The proa received so much attention because, as one journalist put it, "The construction of the proa is a direct contradiction to the practice of all the rest of mankind. For, as the rest of the world make the head of their vessels different from the stern, but the two sides alike, the proa on the contrary, has head and stern exactly alike but her two sides are different. The boat can change directions without turning around by simply shifting the sail at which point, the stern becomes the bow and the bow serves as the stern. The outrigger provides counter-balance to the sail to keep the proa on an even keel for the safety of the crew and cargo."
Reports on the size and speed of the proa differ widely in accounts by observers. It would appear, however, that the three distinct uses of the proas determined their size. They varied in length from ten to forty feet but were all disproportionately narrow for their length. A small proa was used for inside the reef; a medium size one was for deeper waters beyond the reef; and, a large one for inter-island travel. Some observers reported speed of the equivalent of 20 miles per hour or more under favorable wind and sea conditions.
By way of comparison, the surfer rides the waves and is at its mercy. Similarly, an ordinary boat bounces like a cork in choppy waters. The proa, on the other hand, was designed to glide over the surface much in the manner that a jet ski does. The proa was also known to travel swiftly like a flying fish; hence, the name, flying proa. A flat rock bouncing over the surface of the water illustrates the fabled ability of the proa to skip the waves rather than be subdued by them.
Tragically, by 1817, about three centuries after the sensational reports about the proas, the Chamorros had completely ceased to build them. Diseases brought by visiting ships and warfare against Europeans had taken their toll on the natives. The skills required to build them were not passed on to the next generation. Dependency on colonial administering authorities replaced the challenge to master the sea and harvest its resources. This is a 1996 picture of Agana Bay, the model for the design of the Guam seal. It shows a young coconut tree growing vigorously behind a dying one, as nature regenerates itself. Lamentably, the precious little white boat, once the envy of international seafarers, perished from human neglect. It is now but a footnote in our ancestral history, a fate that awaits many things dear to us naturally and culturally unless we prevent making the same mistake - neglect.
Finally, for those who challenge the utility of the outrigger that our ancestors attached to their little white boats, you don't need one if you happen to be on calm sea, just ten yards from shore, in four feet of water.