Ten, maybe 15 fishermen, bobbing silently on their boats on the Pacific Ocean. Their Peruvian hometown, Huanchaco, from which they launched this morning, is no longer visible. The sea around them is grey, the water temperature a chilly 15°C.
It’s a scene little changed over centuries, millennia even, save for the fishermen’s faded football shirts. Civilisations have come and gone, but the boats, the Caballitos de Totora, have remained the same: two hulls of plaited reeds lashed together, a bow that tapers at the front and towers over the waves, a squared-off stern.
The workday began at 6am, when the fishermen met on the beach, their boats having been drying, upright, overnight. The ‘reed riders’ looked out to a sea blanketed in fog, the result of the cold water colliding with air warmed by the sun. Sea and sky merged into grey monotony.
Today, the ocean isn’t quite as frantic as it had been for the past few days – the wild, high waves of the Pacific surging against the beach, whipped up by a storm out at sea – so the fishermen pushed their boats out into the water. They have little choice – they need the money brought in by their efforts.
Slowly, they rowed towards the breakers, which froth and foam not far from the beach. On reaching this restless line, they stopped, waiting for the approach of a smaller wave. Then, with the heave of a bamboo paddle, they pushed through the foam crown and into the calmer water beyond. But this is just the beginning of today’s journey, which will eventually take them as much as five kilometres from the coast.
Out at sea, the fishermen slowly feed their plastic nets into the water. Pre-prepared chunks of octopus, chicken and fish serve as bait. Sitting astride their boats (the name translates to ‘little reed horses’), they seem oblivious to the cold waters of the Humboldt Current, which flows around their boats.
They owe the current their living. Flowing northwards along the western edge of South America, it draws nutrient-rich water from the ocean floor and brings it to the surface. The nutrients encourage the growth of phytoplankton, which, in turn, supports the world’s most productive marine ecosystem – roughly a fifth of the world’s fish catch is drawn from the current’s waters.
Indigenous people living in the region appear to have known about the phenomenon for as long as 3,000 years; boats appear again and again in illustrations and myths that date back to this time, as well as in ceramic and metal artefacts.
From the centre of Huanchaco, a small road peters out into a nature reserve known as the Humedales. Located directly behind the beach, protected by dunes, the reserve contains 100 square metres of freshwater ponds. Here, the fishermen grow the reeds to build their boats.
Stick fences have been built by the fishermen to shield the plants from the constant wind and allow them to take root in the sand. The fences also protect the reeds from the high salt content of the sea winds.
The water that feeds the ponds comes from channels dug by the pre-Columbian Chavin culture sometime before 900 BC, while in 200 AD, the Moche Indians used the ponds for reed growing.
The reeds themselves, which are found primarily in the Americas (although they’ve made it as far as Easter Island – the seeds deposited there in bird droppings), have been used in South America since the Stone Age. For the pre-Columbian civilisations of the Totora, they were indispensable, used in the construction of everything from bridges to boats.
The reeds take about nine months to grow. After being left out to dry for about two weeks, they are brown and sharp-edged. They are then used to weave mats, baskets or boats.
The stalks – which can be up to three metres long – are hollow and extremely rigid when dried, making them perfect for use as struts in the boats. The fishermen weave them into narrow bundles for the hull and use string to pull them up to form the rafts’ towering bow. The air within the individual reeds gives the caballitos their buoyancy.
The boats, which a skilled fisherman can construct in about half an hour, last for roughly two weeks before they have to be replaced. After a few days, the sea water begins to soften the reeds. Moisture eventually penetrates the vessel’s structure, at which point the boat becomes useless.
Chocó, the burly owner of a small restaurant called Chocolate, has lived in Huanchaco since his birth 40-odd years ago. As a child, he used to play with the disused caballitos. ‘It was always great fun to sit on the boats,’ he says with a grin. ‘I’ve fished from them, too.’
It’s relatively easy to ride the caballitos, which constantly roll with the waves. Almost 100 local fishermen – including the forty in Huanchaco – use them to earn their living, unable to afford more durable boats made from metal or fibreglass.
SIGNS OF LIFE
The sun has replaced the morning mist in Huanchaco. Shops and small hotels open their doors, and a surf instructor wanders down to the beach. The streets are still dotted with puddles left by last night’s storm surge.
On the beach, a few unused reed boats stand erect, drying in the warming sun. A tourist passes by. ‘The first surfboards,’ she quips. It’s a joke to her, but for the reed riders of Huanchaco, these traditional craft are the very key to their survival.
This story was published in the November 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine