Against the Winds and Currents aka from Puerto Princesa to Kudat (Part 1)

Everybody warned us: „You are too late!“ First we didn’t get it: „Too late for what?“

„Did they close the border to Malaysia?“ was the pretty much straightforward reaction of our Kiwi friends Jackie and Dave. The answer, of course, was much simpler – the South-west monsoon.

Once the SW monsoon sets in (roughly at the end of June, beginning of July), the boats trying to get from Palawan to Borneo have to fight not only head winds but also strong currents, which in some parts can reach up to 2 knots. On top of that, once the monsoon picks up, most of the anchorages along the way become inhabitable, so there’s basically nowhere to hide.

Of course, as relative greenhorns we didn’t dare to underestimate the warnings of the experienced sea dogs, nevertheless, during our one-month stay in Puerto Princesa we noticed, that the SW monsoon intensifies only for a couple of days, that are usually followed by a comparatively longer (e.i. in comparison to the NE monsoon) period of relative calm. When after 5 weeks of our stay in PP, one such weather window presented itself, we knew it was time to move to another anchorage.

20130715-145428-7.JPG

But first, we had to say our good-byes.

Both of us are kind of shy, and those of you, who know us in person, also know, that most of the times, we are perfectly satisfied just in each other’s company. So it took us some time before we started to really mingle with the local cruising crowd. But then, couple of cruisers invited us for dinner and the ice quickly broke. Soon other cruisers, that we already met in Puerto Galera and El Nido, arrived to PP and one week before our departure, couple of friends organized a big “Italian style dinner” conducted by Giovanni, who was brought up in Germany but whose father ran a high-ranking Italian restaurant there for many years. Other friends, Louise and Gev, greeted us once as “Here come the kids!” and soon everybody called us simply “the kids” – after all we were really the youngest in the crowd and usually the same age as “the kids” of our friends. When it was time for us to leave, we decided that it was highly in order to requite our friends’ hospitability by inviting them to a Czech feast, which, according to our view, involves some serious bread-baking!

We planned to leave PP on Wednesday at around 11 am, just after the beginning of the low tide, and so we invited couple of closest friends to the yacht club on Tuesday evening for drinks and some refreshments. On Tuesday morning we first baked two loafs of breads (thanks to our huge oven, we can bake 2 loafs at a time!) and then went to town for last round of provisioning. The next item on the to-do list was the dinghy. It needed scraping.

We thought this will be an easy job quickly done – we row next to the club house, pull the dinghy out of the water, turn it upside down and simply scrap the crust of barnacles and other sea creatures off. Half an hour should do it. Or so we thought. We couldn’t be more wrong! After all the dinghy was in water for more than one month and it should not therefore surprise us that at few spots the barnacles were so hard to scrap off that we should have brought a chisel and a hammer instead of just a scraper. After hour and half the dinghy was roughly clean but we nearly got sunstroke in the process. In the afternoon we went back to town, did some more shopping and then cleaned our folding bicycles and rowed them back aboard Janna. After that we quickly prepared fish and avocado spreads for the bread and rushed back to the yacht club, where everybody was already waiting for us!

The farewell party was a big success! Soon the tables sagged under the weight of all the food as other friends slowly arrived. Then, Cissy from the yachtclub surprised everybody when she suddenly emerged from the kitchen bringing two big pizzas on the house. The party continued well after the closing hours until about midnight, when it was really time to say good night and good-bye. Abanico YC is really the friendliest yacht club we’ve ever seen! Thank you, John and Cissy!

In the morning we were greeted by sun and total calm. We haven’t seen such weather for a long time. During the previous two weeks the sky was usually cloudy and it rained basically every day. We did a last water-round with our jerry cans, settle the bill after the farewell party, bought some ice and before we returned to the boat, we were literally soaking in our own sweat.

Whereas most of the friends saw us off with the usual: „Happy sailing!“ and „Fair winds!“, Phil, one of our Australian friends, half jokingly wished us „Happy motoring!“ It sure seemed he was right… Luckily Neptun took pity on us once again!

As soon as our dingy was on deck and secured in the chocks, a fine breeze started to blow, and when a couple of minutes later Petr heaved the anchor and I hoisted the mainsail and then also our hank-on genoa, Janna healed sharply and launched quickly forward. We continued tacking through the bay, slowly working our way out of the anchorage, that was our home for the last five weeks. It was blowing nice 15 knots – our Australian friend Dave, widely considered to be one of the most passionate sailors in the area, told us, that such conditions are really very rare here. Inside the bay, where Puerto Princesa is securely hidden, there usually is no wind at all… Dave is the proud owner of a gaff-rigged schooner Four Years, a replica of old, sea-proven fishing schooners from the 19th century, whose drawing he found in some old book about sailboats, got it enlarged and used it to build his boat (of course by himself). It took him four years, hence the name of his truly fine vessel. He has so many sails, that his boat sails well in even the flukiest of breezes. However, when we asked him about sailing in and out of PP, he frankly told us, that he never even bothered, because there simply was no wind at all, so he just fired up his engine! Apparently, we were really lucky to have such a nice breeze and fully enjoyed the challenges of sailing up the bay.

Once on the open sea, we considered our situation and since we still had to cover some 18 miles before reaching the anchorage by Malanao Island, we decided to motorsail to avoid arriving there after dark. We approached the island just before 6 pm, passed the reef that forms the entrance into the anchorage – basically almost like a breakwater – and dropped our anchor right next to a big German ketch. Her owners were a bit too noisy for our taste, but we tried to ignore them as best as we could. We had an early dinner, finished last of the cold beers in our cooler and hit the bunks just before 9 pm to catch up on the lost sleep from the party night the day before.

20130725-101318-11.JPG

In the morning the weather was beautiful with a favorable north wind. We worked our way out of the anchorage and as soon as Janna passed the reef, we hoisted up the main and genoa. Our next destination was Rasa Island, some 25 miles to southwest. The whole day we enjoyed ideal sailing conditions. The sea was almost flat, wind was blowing about 10 knots and when close-reaching on the starboard tack, we were basically heading for our next anchorage. We only had to make two tacks and apart from that we just took turns steering and read books. Roughly around 4 pm, we already had the hook down and spent the rest of the day in the cockpit relaxing and reading.

The third day started with a dead calm. Actually it was not that surprising. According to the grib files there was not supposed to be much wind for the following two days, after which another surge of the SW monsoon was expected. We discussed our options and decided to sail overnight, in order to cover as many miles as possible (even if it meant motoring) and reach Kudat, our final destination, before the monsoon fully picks up. And so we set the course further away from the coast, which on one hand put us further away from other possible anchorages but on the other hand also put us into safe distance from most of the shoals and reefs. We connected the tiller pilot, launched comfortably in the cockpit with our Kindles and instead of sails and wind, we let our engine do the job. Admittedly, we had to listen to its roar and growl (even at night), nevertheless during the one and half days we covered more than 120 miles and on the second day in the afternoon arrived to Clarendon Bay, a small bay at the southern tip of Balabac Island, which is also the last anchorage in the Philippines before crossing the Balabac Strait to Malaysia.

An interesting experience during the otherwise quite uneventful 2-day passage was when we passed over the Wakefield Shoal. It’s one of the several similar shoals that lie in relative distance to the south off Palawan. They are surrounded by very deep sea, even more than 300 meters deep, yet suddenly you find yourself in places where there’s not enough 7 meters below your keel! We draw 1,4 meters, so for our boat crossing of these shoals presents no imminent danger, but it is still a rather unnerving experience. Imagine that your depth sounder, after not displaying any figures for nearly half day, since you are travelling in depths of hundreds of meters, suddenly springs back into life, first showing 20 meters, then 15, 10, 9, 8, 7…

In fact, sooner than through our depth sounder, we were alerted to the presence of the Wakefield shoal by several Filipino fishermen. Even from the distance, we noticed, that suddenly, quite out of the blue, outlines of couple of small wooden fishing boats emerged on the horizon, otherwise completely surrounded by the vast blue sea. At first we didn’t understand, why they are there but then it dawned on us, that it must be our shoal and that the boats belong to fishermen who fish in those shallow waters. When after a while we approached the shoal itself, we noticed that at least one of these small fishing boats didn’t even have an engine! It was basically a very crude canoe, a tanned Filipino fisherman with a long wooden stick instead of a paddle stood in the middle and waved at us enthusiastically. How on earth did the boats get there, we don’t know. Probably a bigger “mother ship” must have brought them earlier and would later return to pick them up with their catch and drive them back ashore.

If crossing of the shoals went on without any serious drama, the more dramatic was our arrival to Clarendon Bay. Both the cruising guides and notice we found in Navionics warned against two reefs stretching from the shore right to the middle of the bay. One of these we passed by the entrance to Clarendon Bay, the other one was supposed to be somewhere in the middle. We went slowly and every other second peeped nervously at our depth sounder. And still no readings! When the seabed is sand, rock or coral, our depth sounder works flawlessly, but for some reason it just doesn’t like mud. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what was below us in Clarendon Bay…

20130727-163354-20.JPG

We already passed the middle of the bay and still not even a blink on the display. In the end we couldn’t stand the uncertainty any longer and pulled out the good old lead line. Petr took it to the bow and in a minute reported: “10 meters.” I wanted to drop the anchor right there but Petr insisted on continuing further inside the bay. After a while, the lead line showed the depth was only 8 meters. “Just a few meters forward and we drop it,” said Peter.

Suddenly the cockpit was filled with a piercing sound of an alarm. I was a little shocked and it took me few seconds before I realized it was the depth sounder alarm. It was finally working! And rightly so! We were in 2 meters and soon enough were stuck on a reef. “Reverse, quick!” I heard Peter shouting. Unfortunately even this didn’t work this time. We were stuck fast. To make matters even worse, the tide was already ebbing. He had to do something and do it fast!

6 comments to Against the Winds and Currents aka from Puerto Princesa to Kudat (Part 1)

Leave a Reply to Yibo Cancel reply