North to the Philippines
In September Henry returned to England to go back into school. Marie and I decided to leave Sandakan for Puerto Princessa, the main port on the eastern shore of the island of Palawan in the Philippines. The voyage was around two hundred or so miles north but there were two good anchorages on the island of Balabac and the southern end of Palawan. The area to the east of our proposed route north is a known pirate area, the risk being higher the further eastward one goes. Our route to Palawan was not dangerous but the Philippine island of Mindanao in the Sulu Sea is not to be taken lightly. There is piracy in the Sulu Sea, there have been a number of attacks against foreign sailing vessels in the southeastern Philippines and the northeast Borneo coast, I remembered Neil’s tale, told to all of us in the Chinese boatyard, of being held by pirates when on a scuba dive to recover his lost anchor – he surfaced to find three armed men had taken over his boat and were waiting for him to surface. He was fine when the pirate boss realised Neil was an old friend.
We returned to Kudat from Sandakan, we could exit through Malaysian immigration and customs there, the route from Kudat would also avoid the worst piracy areas of the Sulu Sea. From Kudat it was an overnight sail to Balabac where we could then anchor for a night or two, we had the benefit of a nice following breeze from the starboard quarter to make six to seven knots. We found the anchorage deserted and precarious, so the next morning we beat it against a northeasterly wind up the eastern Palawan coastline. There was plenty of wind now, we were beginning to encounter the north-pacific trade winds which blow relentlessly east to west with the consequential big seas that go with it. We made good progress even though it was hard going, but the wind died as we approached the bay entrance to the sheltered port of Puerto Princessa. As we skirted the big protecting reef to the south side of the bay I turned on the engine – which then promptly died. Marie and I looked at each other worried, not the frigging engine again! The current was pushing us slowly towards the reef, there was no wind and we’d already furled in our sails – unfurling them again wouldn’t do much good. I jumped into the engine hatch – once again this was bad fuel and diesel bug, just like the problems we encountered between Singapore and Labuan. I ripped the fuel filter out, it was clogged full of shit, I would need to replace it – and I was gonna have to replace it fast. Marie called down for me to hurry, we were nearly on the reef. Bleeding the engine using the little fuel lift pump was a laborious process, it took around fifteen anxious minutes to get the engine started, by which time we were only five metres or so from the edge of the reef, the engine was running as rough as a duck’s arse but enough to skirt us around the north-side corner of the reef into the bay. The engine then died again, I suspected it would but by now we were clear of danger. We unfurled the head sail, there was suddenly enough breeze in the large open bay to make around two to three knots of speed – it would be a slow three hours to once more drop anchor under sail around two cables off the Puerto Princess ‘yacht club’…
Mike, an ex-pat Australian who runs the local Abanico yacht club is another close friend of Neil’s back in Borneo, Neil had told us to head there. It’s not a yacht club in the way many westerners would regard a yacht club, it’s more of a drinking and eating den where any visiting sailboat can get good hospitality, showers, maintenance and a useful safe anchorage while undertaking Phllippinian immigration and customs. We’d hoisted our yellow Q flag signifying that we had not yet cleared customs and quarantine into the Philippines, and while on anchor Mike’s boys came out in their skiff to see to us. They arranged a taxi ride to take us into the port to see the harbourmaster and immigration. It was all easy enough until we got to health quarantine – the young lady there clearly wanted an ex-gratis payment – commonly known as a backhanded bribe. We’d earlier been warned that officials were corrupt in the Philippines, a common problem in a number of third-world countries we’d sailed into. Now we had a problem, without quarantine clearance we could not complete customs nor could we get the required vessel entry permit from the harbourmaster. Marie argued the toss with the woman, she wanted a couple of hundred bucks – no small amount. Every time this happens I leave things to Marie, it stresses me out. I sat in a backroom chair listening to Marie saying her piece, I knew Marie would not give way. The woman wanted to take our passports for ‘official’ reasons but both Marie and I knew this would be a big mistake – we’d have to pay the bribe to get the passports back. Fifteen minutes later Marie came out the quarantine office holding the completed vessel health quarantine clearance form, signed and stamped as it should be. She had not paid the bribe, she’d demanded a full receipt inclusive of the proposed bribe to take to the harbourmaster – the usual quarantine fee was around fifteen bucks. With all our official paperwork completed we headed back to Mike’s. ‘It happens all the time’ said Mike, he smiled and gave us beer on the house. The food cooked by his wife was simply superb.
Mike and his Philippino wife Anji were leaving in their own boat the next morning, they were heading south to Kota Kinabalu to see Neil and other friends for around six weeks or so – he told us to make ourselves at home, his young guys and daughter would cook up anything we needed. This was a fabulously picturesque location with only half a dozen or so other vessels anchored nearby. Over the next week we got to know these other crews well, Australians and New Zealander’s mainly with a scattering of French. Mike also arranged for Aldo, a French mechanic living locally to look at our engine. This proved to be a good move – except that Aldo turned out to be the French version of a Greek god. Marie was smitten, even I could see this.
We got the engine running, then decided it best to leave Sänna on anchor under the care of Mike’s boys while we travelled the wonderful island of Palawan. Palawan is a wild gem, especially the remote western shoreline. It is easy to see why Palawan is often voted the most beautiful island in the world. Transportation is not easy, the islands roads being few and far between. Public transport is by means of incredibly ornate buses built from renovated American jeeps, they also have mind-blowing names – we were told to get the Golden Lion to take us across the island to Port Barton, a laid back small settlement that’s a favourite with the more intrepid backpacking travellers that Palawan attracts. It was a seven hour bus ride but, if you ever needed to disappear from the world for some reason, then Port Barton would be the place to go. It’s remote, set in an amazing location – and the perfect place to chill out. We made our way to the bus station in Puerto Princessa, there was no chance of not spotting the Golden Lion. We climbed aboard to find rickety seats amongst chickens, goats, various other paraphernalia and friendly locals who wanted to know everything about us. It was a five hour buffeting ride, then we had to change to take the Green Cockerel from an unnamed crossroads to Port Barton itself. The Green Cockerel was equally glorious in decorative adornment, I think it’s fair to say we experienced the most invigorating bone-shaking ride ever – we loved it.
We decamped into the rustic Ariana eco-lodge set beside the glorious beach surrounded by numerous small islands. None of the few laid back places to stay had electricity all the time, power was intermittent and uncertain but we easily coped with this. We could not have brought Sänna into this location to anchor because it is largely uncharted, there are numerous shallow reefs. Neil had warned us that it was difficult to sail the incredibly picturesque western shoreline of Palawan, it was safer to explore by land, he said, taking the glorious jeepny buses then the local small panga ferries up the coast, which is how the locals travel the remote parts of this large island. We were well settled in Port Barton and did not want to leave, but the best of Palawan was yet to come.
The four-hour panga ferry ride from Port Barton north to El Nido has to be one of the most incredible journeys we’ve ever made. Speeding through uncountable small islands in these tiny six person boats, loaded with live chickens and everything else across smooth oyster-green seas was an amazing experience. Just Google search Palawan, then click images – you will see what I mean. We beach landed in El Nido, walked a few metres along the picturesque seafront and found another amazing place to stay for a few days, our rooms’ porch doors opened straight onto the beach. All of this, and the same in Port Barton, cost just a few bucks a night. El Nido too did not have a regular power supply, electricity ceased overnight, it came on around seven in the morning for two hours, then was off until around three in the afternoon. There were many more younger backpackers in El Nido than in Port Barton, we immediately noticed their nervousness and panicky expressions as the powerless day wore on – then, when the electricity to the town was switched on these backpackers swarmed in swathes to the numerous internet cafes, they were desperate for their Facebook links. I talked with a local internet cafe owner, he told me these backpackers spent all their free time on Facebook, he said they visibly shook in panic when the power supply was once more cut in the early evening. Facebook is a new phenomena for ourselves, we have no concept of social media which these days seems to be a big thing for this younger generation – no doubt we will learn more as this peculiar internet based social interaction becomes more common. This world changes so fast.
We enjoyed El Nido immensely. The Philippines and Palawan in particular is cheap living, the food is simply amazing and friendliness of the people outstanding. But we had a problem. Hurricanes slam into the Philippines year round, there is no defined hurricane season like in many other parts of the world – and there was a hurricane heading towards the southern Philippines right now. The owner of the guest house in El Nido warned us that typhoon Chaba was prediction to skirt Palawan in the next few days, I became extremely distressed about Sänna sitting there all alone on anchor off the yacht club back in Puerto Princessa. We needed to get back fast, we were warned that most roads might be closed by mud slides and become impassable in the torrential downpours that a full blown hurricane brings. We raced to catch the White Snake, a six hour bus ride to link up once more with the Golden Lion, which was then another four hour ride to Puerto Princessa. If we made it in time we could sail south ahead of typhoon Chaba back to Kudat in Borneo, which was safely located outside of the hurricane belt. It was a hairy ride, every man and his dog were crammed onto the buses, so we rode the rooftop clinging on to dear life as the White Snake careered around sharp bends with huge mountain drops to one side. Another memorable ride for all the wrong reasons.
Sänna was safe for now. We had three days before Chaba hit but the hurricane was now predicted to veer north. Even so we couldn’t be sure, so we cleared customs and immigration to head south to Borneo – our four weeks or so in Palawan had been an amazing experience and ranked as my favourite location anywhere so far. We also needed to move on, we had a rough plan to be in Darwin, Australia by Christmas. Typhoon Chaba provided big winds, we had a fast downwind ride over two nights back to Kudat. From Kudat we would again head to Sandakan, then across the infamous Sulu Sea to Tawau on the eastern side of Borneo. There we had arranged to meet up with our old English friends Robert & Jill on Fat Annie, if you read our website blog regularly then you will know Fat Annie, they were making their way eastwards from the Mediterranean just like ourselves.
Tawau was a dump of a place – another ‘yacht club’, another drinking den but this time for the local Chinese. We spent a good week on anchor with Fat Annie, it was so nice to meet up with them again, by now we were close friends. Marie had arranged to fly back to the UK to support Henry back in to school, so I sat on anchor with Sänna and Fat Annie. After two weeks Fat Annie left to sail up into the eastern Philippines, their plan was to head out into the pacific to the island of Palau, then make their way down to Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu – before they left we made a plan to meet up again in New Zealand. I waited another week for Marie to return. Tawau is a terrible anchorage, it is fast flowing muddy water littered with rubbish and debris, to make it worse Sänna’s generator coolant water intake clogged with a plastic bag, I was reliant upon the generator to recharge our batteries as I didn’t want to suffer the same fate with our temperamental Volvo Penta engine. Our solar panels weren’t generating much energy because of the constant heavy cloud – the rainy season was now developing well and truly. My only option was to don my scuba gear to dive the hull to free the intake – no mean feat in the five knot currents and murky rubbish strewn water. By waiting for the fifteen minutes of slack tide I could just about do it, but I had no safety backup being all alone onboard. If things went wrong with my timing then I would end up somewhere in the north pacific – I was nervous and scared to the extreme. I sat kitted up with my tanks, mask and fins watching the fast flowing tide. It began to slow, I lowered myself down the swim ladder then dived under, I could see nothing. Feeling my way along the prop shaft I made my way to where I knew the intake was located, this was a scary situation but so far so good. I felt the intake and also the tip of the plastic bag that was just protruding enough for me to grab it. It wouldn’t budge. I was worried that it would tear, leaving the main part of the bag still blocking the intake – but then one last tug and the whole lot of shredded plastic came away, the intake was clear. I felt my way back to the swim ladder to heave myself back onboard exhausted. Standing there dripping wet in my heavy sweltering scuba gear, I saw the tide suddenly rip, within a few minutes it was racing at nearly three knots.
Marie arrived back in Tawau from her time with Henry, our time had come to leave Borneo and the Philippines. Our malaria and yellow fever vaccinations needed to be updated before we could enter Indonesia, the local hospital outside of Tawau would provide these free of charge but it was located some way out of town for some reason. We could take a bus ride there but getting back was a problem, buses stopped running late in the afternoons. We were told this was to discourage the number of visitors to the medical facilities who were not ill, Malaysians have a habit of visiting sick relatives in large family groups – setting up camp beside hospital beds sometimes with their own cooking facilities. After receiving inoculations we made our way outside to the main highway hoping to hitch a ride – the first car driving by immediately stopped. It was a Cadillac, the local indigenous driver was an Elvis lookalike with Elvis music blaring from his radio. We then experienced the most memorable musical ride ever, all three of us singing Elvis songs at the top of our voices. Marie, never the most tuneful of singers, was in her element.
From Tawau, we sailed for Indonesia…