Fishers take forward step back to sailing

To reduce fuel costs for Asia's fishermen, a survey was conducted of old-style sailing craft which could compete with motorized boats.

A top choice: the Chinese junk.

''In experienced hands the Chinese sailing vessel is easily maneuverable,'' says John Fyson, a fisheries specialist with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. ''Turning circles are small and the vessels sail well into the wind. . . .'' What's more, the junk is well suited to combined use of sail and motor.

The junk, still used along China's coastal ports, may never become popular in other Asian nations. But sail's day in the sun may be returning, after being eclipsed by oil-driven outriggers and other craft.

''Everybody started with sails, went to motors, and now will have to go back to sails,'' says Kevin Muench, a fisheries consultant to the Asian Development Bank.

Only a few small starts have been made to reintroduce sail rigs to local fishermen, mainly for auxiliary power when going with the wind.

''In many countries, fishermen have lost their knowledge of how to use sails, '' says Art Woodland, director of the South China Sea Fisheries Development and Coordinating Program in Manila. ''We're reintroducing technology that the fishermen had before.'' In some countries, such as India, sail never really lost its use in villages.

In Sri Lanka, a foreign aid program has begun this year to put sails on a fleet of about 1,500 fishing craft now run with 30 horse-power engines. Fuel savings are expected to be over 50 percent.

In the Philippines, fishermen in several villages are being offered new-style outriggers -- adding a pontoon and a sailing rig to their present wooden monohulls to make them into a catamaran, or a twin-hulled and safer vessel.

(On a larger scale, the Japanese launched a sail-driven oil tanker in 1981 and now report it is extremely stable in rough seas, with fuel savings higher than expected. A second sail ship is in the works.)

Not only have fishermen grown accustomed to motors, but to motors far beyond the power needed. In Sri Lanka, the 28-foot boats only need 15 hp., but fishermen have slowly moved up to 30 hp.

''Fishermen are usually the lowest class in any Asian society. So when they get mechanized, it's hard to get them off it. They enjoy the speed, even though the economics are against them,'' says Mr. Muench.

Persuading a village to switch to sail can take a long time. Money is scarce, and knowledge of building a new craft must be taught slowly.

Marketing channels can sometimes work against a return to sail. In some commercial ports, the fisherman who reaches shore first can usually command a higher price for his catch. Those who sail into harbor later may be stuck with bottom-of-the-barrel prices.

Overfishing has left some ocean areas, such as the Gulf of Thailand, almost empty of fish. Large, motorized fishing craft have been forced to distant shores to survive. But for the smaller, village fisherman, the only alternative may be to return to sail.

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