It took nearly six months to repair, but finally, after getting seriously damaged by a Chinese vessel one fateful night off Reed Bank, the Filipino fishing vessel GEMVER1 has sailed again.
The destination is the same – Reed Bank, where it all happened. Reed Bank, where – after hitting the GEMVER – the Chinese crew of the vessel Yuemaobinyu 42212 took one last look at the sinking Filipino ship, and sped off. Reed Bank, where the GEMVER crew was found floating in the water, clinging to drums of water and debris.
It is not so much an act of defiance as it is an act of need. Reed Bank, also called Recto Bank, is the only viable source of catch and livelihood for fishermen in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro where the GEMVER crew is from. The five months it took to repair the GEMVER translated to five months of severe hardship. And if it takes a return trip to Reed Bank to end this dry spell, so be it.
“Kung may iba lang na hanapbuhay dito, di dapat sana, dahil natatakot uli na mag-laot uli sa pangyayari na yun,” said Richard Blaze, the GEMVER1’s cook. Blaze was the crew member who was awake when the Chinese vessel hit them.
(If there were other jobs here, we would not [go there anymore]. The incident has made us afraid to go out to sea.)
“Wala na sanang Chinese na mag-dayo sa area na yon. Maraming Pilipino doon, baka maulit pa uli.”
(Hopefully, there are no more Chinese in that area. There are many Filipinos there, it might happen again.)
There are new people joining the GEMVER crew, too. Joan Gadores is the new boat captain, bringing with him the excitement of leading the team, and fear of what the crew has told him.
“Masaya siyempre, kasi unang-una may hanapbuhay para sa pamilya. Umpisa na kami. Pero nandun yung kaba doon sa nangyari sa kanila,” he said.
(I'm happy of course because it means livelihood for the family. We're set to start. But the worry is there after what happened to them.)
After strong public condemnation over the incident, the Chinese embassy in Manila issued a statement identifying the Chinese vessel as the Yuemaobinyu 42212, saying it left the scene because “it was suddenly besieged by 7 or 8 Filipino fishing boats.”
Satellite imagery and eyewitness statements have since proven this false – the GEMVER1 was the only vessel anchored in the area at the time. As a matter of fact, it took the survivors several hours of rowing before reaching the nearest vessel – a Vietnamese boat – who rushed to their location and rescued them.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a Washington-based defense think tank that closely monitors activities in the South China Sea, said that based on trackings and behavior, it is highly likely that the Yuemaobinyu 42212 is part of the Chinese government’s maritime militia – a large fleet of civilian vessels deployed by the Chinese government as force multipliers to its Navy and Coast Guard fleets.
It took more than P2 million to rebuild the GEMVER1, a hefty amount that took a while for the owner to come up with. The amount given by the Filipino Chinese community was not enough, and the owners said that after all the promises made to them at the height of the controversy, no other financial assistance actually arrived.
“Mahirap palang maniwala sa pangako,” said the couple Felix and Fe dela Torre.
(It's difficult, apparently, to believe in promises.)
Several months ago, the Department of Agriculture distributed small fiberglass bancas that were only suitable for fishing in municipal waters. The income the GEMVER crew earned from these small boats paled in comparison to what they earned from voyages to Recto Bank.
The Chinese community also gave them an old boat named Peng Yu – which means “best friend” – but this broke into pieces during the last storm, before it could even be used. Before departing, the GEMVER crew had to pick up the Peng Yu’s debris.
While the crew was busy filling the boat with supplies for 20 days at sea, there was a familiar face at the beach, busying himself with painting the side of another boat. It was Junel Insigne, the GEMVER’s captain when they were rammed.
Due to personal differences with the owner, Insigne is no longer part of the crew. He now does side jobs to tide him over while waiting to be offered another boat to man.
“Kaya ako nagtrabaho dito para may panggastos. Nag-aano ako dito ng arawan,” said Junel, with running his rolling brush up and down the boat.
(I work so that I have money for daily expenses. I work here every day.)
He said he was still looking to work for another boat that would fish in the Recto Bank.
"Kung may bakante sana, makakalaot uli ako. Kaso wala pa eh.”
(If there's a vacancy [for a crew member], I can sail again. But there's none yet.)
Insigne said he harbors no ill feelings toward the GEMVER owner, and wishes his former crew well. He said he is worried, though, that the problem at Reed Bank remains.
“Pag marami pang mga China don, baka maulit uli yun eh (If there are still many Chinese there, it may happen again),” he said, referring to the ramming.