The Historical Gravity of the Panga

I once took a bonefishing trip out of Belize City. I was there for other reasons but the concierge said she had a cousin who could take me out. He picked me up at a pier about three blocks from the hotel and we started for the mangrove cayes off the peninsula. He worked the tiller of the old outboard to steady us on the ride; wind catching the high profile of the bow made the boat wobble. This is a common problem with pangas.

Chris Santella’s article on Punta Allen in the New York Times reminded me of this, mostly because of its striking color photo (by Matt Jones) of  anglers on a panga variant. Anyone who has ever engaged in back country travel to a desolate stretch of foreign water has thrown flies from a panga at some point, likely unaware of the significance found in the cheaply laid fiberglass under his feet.

There is debate over who really created the panga*, but Yamaha Motors developed and mass produced the modern version in the 1960s, desiring a low cost work boat with a flat transom that could hold the outboards it was selling. Inspiration came from traditional Japanese fishing boats, as well as from cast netters in Central and South America, Africa and Asia, who launched their long, narrow wooden boats through the surf.

It’s designed to get in and out of the breakers without rolling, with a flattened keel for pulling onto the beach. They original panga was 22 feet long and five and a half feet wide, with that rounded rising bow for extra buoyancy. A Delta pad underneath helped it hop to life with little horsepower and skip like a stone on top of a bay chop.

Here’s how pangas changed the game: They could be quickly molded from fiberglass and with their long, narrow, efficient shape they could run forever on a small tank of gasoline. Seeing their economic value, the World Bank got involved, working to distribute pangas and outboards to net fishermen in Asia, Africa and South and Central America, and to teach their owners how to fix a carburetor.

Over the years they’ve evolved into water taxis, freight haulers, drug runners, dive boats, marlin chasers and flats skiffs, like the dark green one I sat in as we glided over the water between Belize City and the bonefish flats.

My guide picked up his homemade push pole and stood on the back bench. He’d crafted a casting platform from plywood, roughly cut and planked across the bow. From there I had a higher vantage point than he did–he didn’t have sunglasses anyhow–and I saw the shadows moving across the flat first. He staked off and I made ready to cast, another small transaction in the history of a boat that brought waters all around the world within reach.

*(See comment below.)

7 thoughts on “The Historical Gravity of the Panga”

  1. Cool, didn’t know the World Bank connection at all. I’ll be panga-ing it up in Belize in Sept.

    Like the new layout, too. The two-column format looks sharp.

    1. Thanks Matt. I should add an update about the debate about who created the modern panga. Mac Schroyer, an American, built a fiberglass panga in La Paz, Mexico, in 1968. He had a contract from the Mexican government in the 70s to build pangas for Mexican fishermen. Some people you talk to say Yamaha ripped him off. That’s a story for another time (not a brief 200 word blog post) but either way Yamaha’s desire to sell its 40-hp outboard was the driving force behind taking the ‘glass panga global.

  2. This blog post should really be turned into a book length history. Just throwing that idea out there. You’d have a buyer here. I’m fascinated by boats in general and the development of the panga in particular.

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