Saturday 24 November 2001
Peter Blake history
March 19, 2020

“So, the boats and the boating industry are a vital part of life here on the Amazon River and the vessels, like the people, have a character all their own. They add to the atmosphere and visual pleasantness of the surroundings as we travel the Amazon ourselves. ”
– Sir Peter Blake

Yesterday was Sunday – a day of rest – maybe.

But we had things to do that couldn’t wait.

By 8am both kayaks were in the water, tied behind the black inflatable dinghy – and we headed off to explore a small river behind the big island nearby. The main “find” of the morning was when an iridescent blue butterfly – a very large butterfly – came past shining in the sunshine as though someone was turning a bright blue light bulb on and off.

We also rescued a large but quite vicious-looking fish with very sharp teeth that jumped out of the water when chased by “something bigger”, but landed on the river bank.

We returned to Seamaster in time for lunch, before motoring across to the other side of the Negro to that great kapok tree that our Jungle Team had used for climbing practise nearly a month ago.

A troupe of many monkeys obliged by passing through the greenery overhead -stopping to look at us as they went by.

Now I am not a “tree hugger”, but this was an extraordinary tree.

8 of us joined hands and stretched out and went maybe a third of the way around the great buttressed base. This tree must be more than a thousand years old and probably 60 or 70 metres high, with the umbrella-like canopy of branches stretching 70 or more metres across.

Some green parrots looked down at us from the very topmost branches and as we were about to leave, a strange haunting sound was heard – quite quiet at first but quickly building – somewhat like a strong wind in a group of pines but louder and with more bass. The noise rose and fell several times without ceasing then quietly tailed away into silence again.

Bosco, our pilot, thought it was the sound of many howler monkeys in the distance.

Today we have been “on the road” down river.

We have seen a number of boats, from bongos to barges.

One of our crew, Rob Warring, is a boat builder- and has spent some time looking at the different river craft.

He comments as follows:

Boat-building on the Amazon

“The Amazonas river system is a labyrinth of inlets, creeks and tributaries and these are the roads of commerce and communication for the people who live on the river. And of course for the original inhabitants and right up to the present day, river craft have been the prime source of transport. The use and ownership of the boats is as natural to the people of the river as trucks, cars and bicycles are to us. The youngest children learn early to handle the small ‘bongos’, the Amazonas equivalent of the family car, and trade and fishing are carried out in traditionally built timber vessels and large steel barge-pushing tugs.

Consequently there is a thriving boat-building industry throughout the river system, from the ‘cottage’ bongo and traditional timber vessel builders of the out-lying villages, to the larger steel craft built in the major centres such as Belem or Manaus.

The village boat-yards and builders were of most interest to us, given our own boating backgrounds and particularly to me as a boat builder. The local ‘bongos,’ or canoes, seem to be based on the basic concept of the one-piece dugout, developed into a seven piece ‘kitset’ form made from rough-hewn slabs of timber. The larger timber vessels, ranging from seven meters through to thirty meters, are based on a nineteenth century European design concept – low-wooded, slightly raked stem, sweeping sheer and wide, round counter stern – a traditional and attractive look. The superstructures vary widely depending on need – the single level of the smaller fishing and trading vessels, to the three deck people-carriers and the even higher wheel-house configurations giving the barge-pushing skippers a view over their heavily laden charges.

We visited villages whose economies were specific to local boat building and we found hulls up to twenty meters in length being built under the trees, the timbers mostly hand-hewn with help from petrol powered chainsaws. The construction is very traditional carvel, with stems and keels chopped out with adzes, stepped scarves with ‘stop-water’ plugs, shutters around the turn of the bilge and prettily shaped and crafted counter sterns. We were quite taken with the level of hand craftsmanship and eye for a good line, given the less than ideal conditions the boats were built under. In fact, we were reminded of the early settler photos, in historical books, of large timber vessels being built on the beaches around Auckland in New Zealand.

But it seems that in spite of the level of craftsmanship, they are not built with longevity in mind. We’ve seen a number of good-looking vessels ashore amongst the undergrowth, sagged and disintegrating, the timber rotting and the mild steel fastenings rusting and popping. We’re speculating, but timber at the moment is a cheap commodity here in the Amazon for obvious reasons, steel fastenings are cheap and so is labour. We watched some bongos being put together, skilfully, but with four-inch steel flat-head nails. The selling price for a five metre bongo was a little over US$100 – which we thought was cheap, but again, perhaps the comparison can be made against our attitude to how we take our cars for granted, how well we look after them and how many wreckers yards there are down in the industrial estate.

So, the boats and the boating industry are a vital part of life here on the Amazon River and the vessels, like the people, have a character all their own. They add to the atmosphere and visual pleasantness of the surroundings as we travel the Amazon ourselves.“

Kind regards,


It looks like rain is on the way for tonight.

The lightning is getting closer with great flashes ripping the sky apart. Thunder is now heard like an ongoing drum roll.

The much cooler conditions today and the total overcast sky heralds a more permanent change in the weather, perhaps.

Tonight Charlie, Robin and Rob are sleeping in hammocks ashore. Their set-up looks good.

But I will be surprised if they make it through to the dawn.

When it rains here, it really rains.

This is the Rio Negro.

This is the Amazon.

All the best from the Seamaster crew.

Kind regards,


Photo credit: Don Robertson