Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Hunkering Down

It was not our intention to be in the Philippines during the typhoon season, it just ended up that way. At the beginning of the season the typhoons historically track more west and north, so that the Philippines is generally skirted and does not receive the full brunt of the typhoons damaging winds and pelting rain. As the season wears on, they tend to track more direct west from the Guam area and the Philippine eastern islands take the full brunt of the tropical force before the storm has crossed enough land to de-power. Having experienced the enhanced monsoon winds from distant typhoon Neoguri/ Florita at Boracay (Cat 5 - 130kt winds), we had now sat out typhoon Rammasun/ Glenda at Port Carmen (Cat 4 - 120 kt winds) and were watching as typhoon Matmo/ Henry blasted north and west of the Philippines. The El Nino year can see a rise in the development of tropical storms or typhoons in this part of the world, as the cyclic warm wind and warm surface water travelling west across the Pacific Ocean builds forming a circular moving motion with the Coriolis effect to culminate in one hell of an exciting* time to be in the region and travelling on a boat. We watch as the systems develop and build, we watch three or four weather forecast systems each day and see what the latest predictions are and whether the speed/ direction/ intensity of the systems are changing for the worse. Every day's decisions are based on those predictions and information about sheltered anchorages could the wind spin around the dial and come from a different direction as the systems move on.

*bloody scary

Grib file showing the wind and rain prediction - the darker the ticks the stronger the wind, the dark grey
patches indicate rain. This swirling pattern is typhoon Matmo/ Henry, just north and east of the Philippines
(the small green box is where we are located)
We intend to leave Surigao to make the 600nm eastward journey to Palau, crossing the Philippine trench, where the water depth plummets from 200m to 5000m. This is likely to be a point where there are strong currents, choppy and sloppy seas and we will be doing it all keeping a close eye on the tropical weather systems and whether we have to make an abrupt southward turn to get to safety.

But right now we are hunkering down as the strong wind systems blow through every day and some squally rains fall. So, what to do? It's not all sunsets and cocktails, I mean it mostly is, but somedays we have to do... chores, bread making, mould cleaning, food stock review and rotation, catching rain, clothes washing. This anchorage has a ground hog day feeling about it. The town ashore has a good fresh food market and some super tasty restaurants dishing up some chicken stews and fried chicken delights (certainly a Philippine favourite). But we don't need to get fresh food everyday. Our friends on SV Shah and SV Shanghaied abandoned us 3 days ago in search of new places and nice water for snorkelling. We had been spending most mornings luxuriating aboard Shah-bucks, enjoying some western style coffees and talking all thing politics and sailing. 

One day was taken up as we endured the epic journey to Cebu city from Port Carmen. Thankfully the sailmaker - Marlon from Hyde Sails, came to the boat to collect our shredded sail, and we caught the 1.5hr long car trip in with him to the Mactan Island tax-free industrial zone to inspect our sail and decide on its future. We had spent the previous two days desperately trying to dry it in the constant drizzle, without it getting ripped up in the rigging when the 20kt gusts blew through. We also had nowhere to lay it out, so the sail loft was going to be perfect. We arrived and walked up to the third floor of the enormous sail factory. A level dedicated to spinnakers and mainsails, a level dedicated to lasers and dingys sails and a level for canvas and shade work. If we have to draw a positive from exploding the spinnaker, it would be that we did it 30nm from one of South East Asia's prominent sail lofts with skilled expertise, modern technology and machinery (and guys who could fit us in at the last minute!). The loft was located in a special tax free zone that enables the businesses to import materials and export products free of Philippine tax and they also have a 7 year income tax exemption period. Such a significant bonus for any business. Though it does seem that a lot of manufacturing is undertaken here and the cheap labour is the driver for international production.

Hugh and Marlon inspecting the various pieces of the sail
(in the background are the huge laser cutters for racing sails)
Thankfully the guys decided that the spinnaker could live again and set to work patching and resewing the seams that had burst. Hugh showed the sail guys the rope burn the spinnaker sock had done to his hand as he had let it go just as the full 35kt wind impact hit him and started to lift him from the deck of the boat, they were very impressed! The might of the wind in a huge sail is very impressive, we were lucky nothing else broke (including Hugh)!

We left the sail loft and were overwhelmed by the amount of construction and activity going on in Cebu city. Guarded high grade condominium developments being erected right next to small shanty villages, isolated shiny malls plotted along a dusty highway with expanses of fields between the next development and guys with woks full of scalding hot oil deep frying anything you want to snack on (chicken wings, hotdogs, strange pink balls of something). Certainly a city of dichotomies, on the one hand lunch in a small bambo hut of fried chicken for 50 cents or buying a new ipad for $1000 next door. It was obvious that there was a great gap between the rich and the poor in this city. But as a result of the development, the city was a dusty, noisy and congested place. 

Our taxi driver took us to the old Fort San Pedro, which apparently has had many uses including as a prison and zoo, but now has some tasteful gardens and interesting photo gallery depicting some of the last 120 years of Philippine society. Momentously, it was here that the Spanish lowered their flag and left in 1898 to leave behind the country as they reluctantly handed it to the USA. We made the short walk inland to the Basillica Del Santo Nino (church housing the famous Philippine statue of baby Jesus - Holy Child of Cebu), where thousands of devoted Philippine Catholics flock to get a chance to see the statue (which is housed in a glass box). The church has a huge outdoor auditorium where the annual Santo de Nino festival kicks off its services on 21 April. The emotion of the people at the church was quite something, and to witness the fascination of a ceramic relic that was purported to have arrived here on Magellan's ship in 1521. Conveniently located next door to the church is the Magellan Cross, a huge timber cross which is said to house some remnants of the cross that the famous navigator and evangelist erected just before he was slain by the chief of Mactan Island, before he was able to garner full Cebu support for a Catholic Philippines (he tried to use the age-old negotiation technique of shooting the locals).

All this touristing had developed in Hugh a hunger and Maccas across the road was the winner. The appropriately named 'Magellan Macdonalds' was sporting all the latest in Macdonalds interior fitouts and I believe that that is truly what Magellan would have wanted upon his discovery and attempted colonisation of the country before his unfortunate (and unsuccessful) negotiation with Chief Lapu-Lapu. 

A quick wander around one of the malls and we were ready to make the long journey back to the boat. 2 hours in a very full bus, complete with a bloke and his fighting cock (they LOVE fighting roosters here), all we were missing was the pet goat to accompany us. We made it back to the boat and collapsed after a busy day of checking out Cebu city. Now to look at the weather prediction and see where we should hunker down next.


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Wind, It Is Always About the Wind

Our whistle stop tour of the Philippines continues, as we sail east, this time leaving Palawan and making our way to Panay and the northern island tip of Boracay. A beautiful small island that has been completely swallowed up by tourism on steroids. A place that receives 1 million visitors per year and where you can go parasailing, sailing on a small bamboo trimaran, roll down a hill in an inflatable ball or just blitz yourself at the hundred plus beach bars that compete with each others sound system for the loudest venue.

We decided to come to Boracay to wait as typhoon Neoguri blasted its way west, some 200nm north of the Philippines. While we were well out of its path, we certainly experienced heightened monsoon winds and rain, 30kt squalls and sheets of falling rain battered the boat for the best part of 3 days. While I had a cold, I hunkered below as any trip ashore was quite an unattractive option given the big winds and chop that they developed over the sea. On day 3 the sun peeked its head out and we hung out everything to dry and stretched our arms and blinked in the light, deciding to take the dingy on the long expedition to shore. When we arrived there all we found was street after street flooded as we waded through, up to our shins in water. Business and shop owners were vainly pushing water from their premises to the street. Many shops were built at a lower level than the street, so it was a circular process of flood management. We learned later that these types of rains are not uncommon in the wet season, and this flooding happens every week for 5 months of the year. With the low season still seeing thousands of tourists visiting Boracay each week, there was little down time to manage any large infrastructure projects and the governing council did not have the political will to make it happen. Such is the case with so many desperately needed projects in the Philippines, whether it is tax syphoning, lack of political stamina or outright corruption, minor and necessary projects just do not get done. In addition to the flooding, the other obvious issue with the weather (the southwest monsoonal wind and breaking shore) was the erection of 4m high plastic walls on the west facing side of the island by restaurant owners to try and protect their attractiveness with high winds buffeting them for the next 5 months. Instead of sending patrons scurrying for cover when gusts blow bullets of sand into their eyes (and more importantly their cocktails), patrons wander around behind the huge screens looking more like zoo animals. It was a bizarre experience. 

Hugh, the prolific Boracay zoo tourist

With glee we left Boracay and headed south to visit the towns of New Washington and Kalibo managing to sail for half the day with the light winds puffing out about lunchtime. We had been traveling with Will and Trish off SV Shanghaied and we had also befriended an English sailor Andy on his boat SV Shah who had been doddling his way around the Philippines for three years. Andy was playing the role of tour guide for us, and introduced us to his Filipina friend Megs who worked for a charity group that raised funds for cleft palate surgery for Filipino children. She provided some really interesting insight into the challenges that she faces being the logistics manager for that organisation and we had long discussions about the current state of the country. After lunch with Megs and a tour of a mangrove sanctuary we took the long tricycle ride into Kalibo and visited the enormous fresh market. The museum had some interesting facts about how the island of Panay had been settled by Malaysians from Sabah and the anniversary of that arrival in the Philippines is marked with a huge fiesta in January (shame we missed that one!). The center of town was crowded with tricycles and was a busy connection point for people getting off planes and catching the boat to Boracay.

Following the wind we kept on sailing (more like motoring) around Panay and stopping in at the picturesque island of Bantayan, where we anchored just a short 3nm dingy ride from the tourist town of Santa Fe.  

The sun was beating down and showing off all the gorgeous
colours of Santa Fe when we arrived.

We wandered around town, surveying the damage that typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) had caused in November 2013. A number of businesses were closed (never to reopen) but others had new roofs and walls. The local churches had new roofs or were undergoing complete and detailed renovation. The locals told us that the streets were comparatively bare to this time last year, as many trees were uprooted or their foliage shredded in the storm. After hiring bikes and making our way across the other side of the island we got to see that the inland part was dedicated to agriculture and chicken farming. Along the way we could see the flattened landscape and we visited several communities that were undergoing repair work and were adorned with UNHCR tents and tarpaulins. The locals had a stoic attitude about it all, every year some part of the Philippines is devastated by a natural disaster, it just depends on the location whether the same place will be damaged again. The Filipinos just pick themselves up, dust off and get back to it, such a resilient race amidst such gloom! We also visited a social housing project funded by a mainly European charity – Gawad Kalinga (GK), where dozens of houses were being built in an effort to alleviate poverty for Filipinos. The design was reminiscent of my social housing days and we all talked about how they would fare over time and whether they would become ghettos. Whatever the opinions, the people had a roof over their head and the housing development also included a farming component, so that the residents had something to do and also a way to make money/ feed their families. The most positive aspects of the development were the piped sewer and neat (and safe looking) electricity. The GK employees also talked about the education and training program that they put the budding residents through so that they understood their obligations and responsibilities in the village and home ownership and their contribution of 300 hours sweat equity.

Social housing development which had suffered damage from Yolanda,
proud homeowners give us a tour of their village
Continuing our cross-island odyssey, directly west we found the town of Bantayan a working port with an enormous fresh market (with shredded corrugated iron roofing) still bustling at 7pm on a Sunday night. After having a refreshing beer and watching the sunset, we made our way back across the island to Santa Fe. Upon arrival we found that our dingys were stranded as the spring low tide had exposed the rocky beach for hundreds of meters, we figure 2 hours ought to do it and went to find some dinner. The dingy trip home was not as pleasant as the ride in, as we were battling a rain squall with water bullets stinging our eyes as we searched for protruding reefs that would bring us unstuck. But we made it back, and of course upon arrival at our yachts, the rain stopped and the moon shone through. 

The following day we upped the anchor and to our surprise there was wind! Out comes all the canvas and we are off, making our way around the island of Cebu. There was a tropical storm on the brink of becoming a typhoon that was predicted to track west into the Philippines, so we were keen to find a cyclone hole to put the boat while it passed over. As the day wore on, we realized that we would be parting company with our friends as we made the overnight journey to Surigao, 140nm south and east. We popped the kite and were going along nicely with a light wind of 5-8kts with no seas. We gybed a few times and made our way through the Cebu shipping channel when a squall developed right behind us, as Hugh was struggling to pull the sock down to smother the kite, a 35kt gust ripped through and blasted the kite, shredding it horizontally into two pieces (but leaving Hugh on the boat thankfully). Oh dear. The boat had stopped moving and the pieces of the kite were being retrieved, the squall and its sudden downpour moved off, THANKS! This was not what we were hoping for as we would likely need our spinnaker for the 5 day leg to Palau. Conferences with our friends on the VHF and Andy the tour guide advised us of a great sail maker in Cebu. A change of course and we were headed south to Port Carmen where we would lick our wounds and take the kite the 1 hour tricycle ride into Cebu (the second largest city in the Philippines) to have repairs done. 

At 12:01 am the anchor was down and another day of adventure on the sea was finished. The wind…


Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Pirates Off (Waaay Off) The Starboard Bow

So it was that our route planning changed dramatically. We had been reading about recent incursions and covert missions by the filipino islamic group Abu Sayyaf (ASG) to kidnap visitors in the north-eastern part of Borneo since 1985, but frequent incidents over the last 2 months conspired to takes us the long way around the Sulu sea.

Our original plan had us sailing east from Sipadan on the far east coast of Borneo, dipping under the Jolo Island in the Sulu Sea and sailing some 2000nm over the north of Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands. We needed to get back to the east coast of Australia, a notoriously challenging trip for those Aussies who stray far enough west into South East Asia. Other routes included backtracking the way we had come through Indonesia, except bypassing Darwin by crossing east through the Torres Strait to get to the Coral Sea and the eastern side of Cape York.  Once upon a time, we had planned on sailing south down the west coast of Australia and under Victoria, before turning north to make it back to Sydney, but that is just laughable and even less appealing than other options. Even the thought of continuing west and south under South Africa before conquering the rest of the globe was a tantalisingly attractive option!

Differing routes east to Australia and their distances
Map Source: openstreetmap.org

Our east bound trip was always going to be epic and we may have had to make some emergency stops in Indonesia or PNG to top up on fuel or fresh food. The thought of spending up to 6 weeks at sea was not all that appealing and they do not call going east around the world (against the trade winds) as 'the wrong way' for nothing. Hugh's research into other destinations that we could get to in the same amount of time, landed us in Hawaii or Alaska and this was not sitting well with us. Dreams of much different adventures were getting in the way of resolving the issue of getting back to the east coast of Australia. The direction that the wind and currents move can really help or hinder you when you are route planning. Much umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether it was worth the risk to sail via Sipadan was entered into. Many cruisers would say that we overreacted by altering our course so dramatically, but who wants to be looking over their shoulder for pirates? For that matter, who wants to spend 8 months being held captive in the Philippine jungle waiting for a ransom to be paid? The royalties from the book that I would write would be nice, but right now we had better things to do!


So more detail about the group and their motivation; ASG have a drive for an Islamic republic state in the eastern Philippines, separating it from the mostly Christian country and also a land rights claim for the north of Borneo (the state of Sabah). The most recent and troubling of the piracy reports for us was the disappearance of two German cruisers in April from their yacht off the eastern side of the Philippine island of Palawan. With little reporting on the matter, the rumour was that they had been taken by ASG to Jolo in the south-eastern group of the Philippine islands. This is not a new hobby for ASG, as the first of these kidnapping exploits occurred in 2001, when some 20 people (mainly westerners) were kidnapped from Palawan and held captive on the Philippine island of Jolo for 8 months until a ransom was paid per head for the release of the victims. 

*Oct 2014 post script: The German couple were released alive and well by ASG, for a reported ransom of $5.6M.

The East Sabah Security Command (ESSCom) was set up by the Malaysian government in mid-2013 as a collaboration between the police, Armed Forces and Maritime Enforcement Agency to create a super department to tackle the issue of kidnapping and invasion in the Malaysian areas close to the Philippine islands. The area covered by ESSCom extends from Kudat in the top northwest to south of Semporna in the east. The area is large, not densely populated and the constraint on the Malaysian authorities is the number and availability of boats to patrol and have a presence in these expansive waters.

The trigger to step-up defensive border protection by the Malaysian government came after the February 2013 invasion of the east Sabah town of Lahad Datu where 70 people died in a skirmish between the invading ASG militants and local police. Improvements were being made to the Malaysian mission by instilling forward operating bases to give ESSCom greater reach with offensive actions. A previous event in 1985 when pirates ransacked Lahad Datu resulted in 11 people being killed. The more recent occurrences of kidnap are touted by the Malaysian authorities as a money making scheme, as westerners are usually targeted and a large ransom sought. The terrorists do not seem to have any problem holding people for quite some time and despite the large security presence on land and the patrol boats in Malaysian waters, kidnappings have been occurring at an alarmingly increasing rate over the last 12 months (and 4 kidnapping events since February 2014). There are some distinct differences between the piracy/ kidnapping acts here and those off the coast of Somalia; there is little commercial shipping in the area (with the exception of some oil drilling and oil transport) in Sabah and there are no land rights overtones to the activity in Somalia. The level of communal poverty of the two piracy hotspots are similar and this is believed to be the motivation for the attacks. 

History and Land Claim

The 2013 ASG invasion of Lahad Datu was the most recent in a line of aggressive acts to try and claim their Sulu ancestral rights to the Malaysian land in northern Borneo. The Philippine Republic believes that the land in north Borneo was only leased to the British North Borneo Company in 1878 and that the land was never relinquished by the Philippines in that agreement. The Malaysians disagree, believing that the land was ceded in that agreement. However, every year a fee is paid from Malaysia to the Philippines considered by Malaysia to be a cession fee, while the Philippines consider it rent. But the involvement of Spain in the ownership of the Philippines makes everything very complicated because in 1885, Spain said it was okay for these lands to be in the ownership of the British North Borneo Company via the Madrid Protocol. The British North Borneo lands were all signed over in the unification of the Republic of Malaysia progressively until 1963. That same year the Philippine government asked the UN to wade in on the matter of ownership and the result was in favour of Malaysia owning the lands. Over the decades, various governments have considered the issue and not acted and some Filipinos disagree with their governments actions. Which leads us to those motivated groups and today.


Certainly the opportunity for pirate attacks in Sabah is great as the distance between the Philippine Islands and the Malaysian mainland are short, only 20nm at the shortest point giving the pirates a significant advantage and opportunity to outrun any threat or seek hideaway in the event of a chase. The pirates are using small vessels with low-tech high powered engines to pursue ships and plan ambushes. With the lower numbers of through water traffic the risk of being noticed and targeted is potentially greater, sailing boats like ours max out at a speed of 8kts (more usually 5kts) and the speed of skiffs or small power boats can be 25kts or greater. We could never outrun a threatening chaser. There have also been accusations from previously released kinappees that the Philippine government did not act on reports of kidnappings or work from the Philippine end to release those people, that there are sympathisers in the government that prevented resolution of the problem or any break up of ASG. 

It did not look like the problem was going to be quickly resolved. Even the East Malaysia Cruising Rally that was following in our wake was organising to have a Navy security escort while in this part of the country. This did not fill us with confidence of our ability to be unseen and quickly nip through the relevant islands to start our eastward journey. Thus our plan changed, and our new route had us tracking up the west coast of Palawan, east to Borocay and weaving our way south and east to Palau. That was a lot of miles north to manage our way through the complicated Philippine archipelago with no easy path above the Jolo islands. This northward climbing would negatively impact our future hopes of making it to Vanuatu and New Caledonia, as we would spend longer getting to Palau and sail the final 1000nm to the Solomon Islands. We would run out of time to get to those two destinations before the Queensland cyclone season would be upon us around November this year. But instead we get to enjoy the delights of the Philippines, drop into world famous Palau and plan to spend more time in the Solomons exploring their beautiful lands and meeting their folk.

Revised routing, avoiding the Sulu Sea
Map Source: openstreetmap.org
We sailed west and then north from Kudat up the west coast of Palawan, keeping a land mass and some seriously uncomfortable seas between us and any inspired ASG parties.