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The History of the Panga
The panga was simple — no inside floor, no cockpit, no extraneous beauty marks — but it had superior handling and capacity.
Why Pangas Matter
So, really, what’s the big deal about pangas anyway? To find out I met with Fermín Reygadas, a professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur. Reygadas’ main area of research is the archaeology and anthropology of Baja California Sur, and his specialties are the vanished Pericú people and the peninsula’s enduring ranchero culture.
He brought me back a few centuries to Chiapas, where locals built canoelike boats called cayucos that allowed the native people to transport goods. The boats featured lateen sails to speed the travelers across the sea, and they quickly became critical lifelines — particularly in La Paz after it became the main center of commerce for miners and ranchers. It also became ground zero for the pearling boom in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“People who came to dive for pearls would use the sailing boat as a platform and small rafts for the divers,” Reygadas said. “That sailing boat was the ancestor of the panga.”
Here’s how modern fiberglass pangas changed the world: They could be mass-produced quickly and cheaply from molds rather than crafted from wood, were incredibly durable and could handle an outboard engine — like the 40 hp one that Yamaha happened to be marketing to indigenous commercial fishermen around the world. Pangas could run in all kinds of conditions, and the large bow worked great for hauling nets. With cheap boats and power, local fishermen could run farther and faster to bring their fish to market, changing the local economies of coastal areas around the world. Places like La Paz.
Today, the panga is changing the world in a different way, as we saw on our sea lion trip. In La Paz and all over the world, the panga is now the boat that drives the tourism industry. The sturdy little boats are carrying anglers, sea kayakers, divers, snorkelers and whale-watchers — and all the requisite gear.
Ben Gillam, owner of La Paz outfitter Baja Outdoor Activities, recognizes the pangas’ usefulness. “We have three pangas, all of which have 200-horsepower, four-stroke engines or bigger for high-speed transfers to the island,” Gillam said. “A traditional panga is suitable for running right up on the beach, so it’s ideal as our support vessel for loading and unloading expedition gear. Even under heavy load, they draw very little water, allowing for entry into all the shallow bays.”
The ecotourism boom and the ability of the panga to help support it ensured that the local population, including ex-fishermen, had a new way to make a living.
How fitting: From its pearl-diving ancestry to Mac Shroyer’s fiberglass panga, this versatile, unstoppable boat has once again saved the day.