02 March 2011 | philipine islands
From Coron island we sailed overnight under a blanket of stars (some shooting) and the sunrise revealed the rugged yet majestic islands of the Bacuit Archipelago. Because the autopilot still wasn’t working we hand steered and even with three its still quite the tiring task and so as soon as I found a bay to shelter us from the 20 knot breeze we tucked in only to find unanchorable (steep to) conditions but managed to tie to a mooring ball just feet from where a 200 foot cliff face plummeted into the clear depths. The rock formations formed massive spikes (some protruding several hundred feet into the air) and after a look around one would imagine we had reached an island at the gates of mordor. Later that day on an exploratory hike I found myself lost in a maze of such formations and climbing out of caves using massive vines even the slightest error would have lead to bloody death on the jagged rocks but I pushed ahead as the surrealness of the surroundings lured me deeper.
Our next stop was the small tourist town of El Nido, a picturesque town on the northwest side of the large island of Palawan (a picture of the town even made the cover of the most recent lonely planet) surrounded by cliffs and jagged rocks but nestled in a bay with a lovely beachfront. We stayed for a few days fixing things, provisioning and getting to know the locals. I met one dude (wearing a bulldozer hat from Lowell, Indiana) who was the dj at the local dance hall and when we went to visit him one night we discovered it was also the ever popular karaoke bar (didn’t know karaoke could be dj’d like that).
From El Nido we continued south down the west coast to Sabang and the site of the world longest underground river. The bay was exposed to the north and thus rolly so we decided to see all we could in one day and get a move on. After paddling with a local over a mile into the cave river we saw huge stalagtites the size of a house, rooms that opened to a 150+ foot ceiling, countless bats, blind fish and even a cave snake perched on the cave wall. Getting back to the boat we weighed anchor in the increasing swell which now caused Bubbles to pitch and roll violently and not having much light left we motor sailed around the corner passing many fishing bankas along the way who stopped at stared at our strange boat as we started at theirs. With the sun set and the first bay too rolly we pushed ahead for the next using flashlights to avoid the multiple fish traps locals had set which are built of over a dozen bamboo poles each that go all the way to the bottom in 80 feet of water and taking up an area the size of a basketball court.
After finally getting hooked in ulugon bay we invited some local fisherman anchored next to us aboard and with them they brought a live grouper for us to feast on. After a tour of Bubbles they brought me back their 20 foot long and 4 foot wide wooden hull Bangka with bamboo outriggers and powered by an 18 horse power one cylinder diesel engine (the whole setup costs only 12K new). There were three aboard and captain Ben Franklin took me through their small vessel revealing their stores and how they live. For four days at a time they take the open air Bangka out into the south china sea (with no charts, gps or any electronics of any kind) sometimes anchoring in up to 1000 feet of water as they fished with artificial lures they make themselves made of rubber, horse hair and sea shells. For provision they bring only water, rice, a bit of oil/spice and charcoal for cooking. Captain Ben explained they were in this particular bay to collect stones that lined the beach and in the boat they had several old rice sacks full of handfuls of the stones wrapped in plastic for use as weights which he demonstrated by quickly tying to a hook and throwing overboard. They carry with them three foot square block of ice to keep the lesser of the fish they catch while the more prized stay alive in the bilge where he took a wood plug out to fill up. These live fish are then flown to Hong Kong where they fetch the highest price. I asked what he does when he has engine trouble out there and he pointed to the 10×6 tarp they use to stay out of the sun and said “I just like you, I sailor man.”
After a couple days of hull cleaning we went exploring the many inlets of the bay and found mangrove swamps, villagers living in tree houses, and resorts that had been abandoned. Could have kept exploring for days but we had to find a bay with a road to Puerto Princessa so we could go pick up Jimmy who was coming in from Antarctica to join as crew and so we sailed on to Fish Bay where we found a dirt road that lead across the island. The next morning on the way into town we passed buses with as many people on top as inside and learned that for the same reason I was arrested in Palau (for van surfing) riding atop of baggage in Palawan is actually encouraged by discounted fares. Surprisingly because each person is self-responsible they hold on tight and we heard no reports of anyone falling off.
Arriving in PP we caught news that Jimmy had arrived a day early. Off into the south china sea we go…