Against the Winds and Currents aka from Puerto Princesa to Kudat (Part 2)

Although we managed to avoid the two reefs in the mouth and in the middle of the bay, we motored too far inside the bay and hit the reef stretching from the far end of the Clarendon Bay! We tried to reverse and get out of the reef using our engine, but this time it didn’t work. It was clear that we needed some external help…

Luckily for us, soon after we entered the bay, we spotted a couple of local fisherman in wooden canoes. One of them was nearby so we called him to come closer to our boat. He couldn’t speak English but using hands and gestures we somehow managed to explain to him that we were stuck on a reef and that we need him to row our stern anchor back to deep water and drop it there. We would then try to winch ourselves off the reef.

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The skinny fisherman readily took our anchor, though when Petr was handing it to him while he was balancing on the bow of his canoe, I was convinced that they – i.e. both the fisherman and our stern anchor – would soon end up on the bottom of the bay. However, our fisherman handled it without batting an eye, rowed the anchor to approximately 20 meters off Janna’s stern and dropped it. Petr pulled hard on the anchor line to set the anchor properly. Then he lead the line through our stern fairlead and onto one of the winches in the cockpit, that we normally use for genoa sheet. I handed him the winch handle and after few turns Janna healed, I pushed the engine into reverse and not even 5 minutes after we hit the reef, we were back in deep water!

So in the end it all turned out well, though both of us felt a bit shaken for the rest of the afternoon, just as we did after our last close encounter with a coral head in a bay on Linapacan Island. Originally we planned to hike to a nearby lighthouse – there’s supposed to be a path that leads you there from Clarendon Bay. But now, our appetites for taking a walk were successfully ruined. The only consolation and excuse for our lack of vigilance might be the following confession of two Japanese sailors, whom we met back in Coron. Both of them were seasoned sailors and before venturing into Filipino waters, both could boast of never hitting a reef in their whole lives. Yet, before they finally anchored in Coron, they managed to hit a reef three times in one day! Their example clearly shows how treacherous the Filipino waters, and above all the not exactly well-charted reefs really are!

As a token of our gratitude, we emptied the rest of our Filipino pesos into our rescuer’s stretched out hands and presented him with two packs of sugar – before we left PP, our Kiwi friends, who already sailed through here to Kudat, wrote us email saying that we should stock up on sugar and similar commodities, since these are very appreciated in these remote regions. They said that locals would approach us and try to trade these for fish or their home-grown vegetables. Our rescuer then gestured to us that he also wouldn’t say no to T-shirts, shorts or a wet suit. We gave him several of our older T-shirts. As for spare shorts and wet suits, these were unfortunately currently “out of stock”.

And then the stream of visitors really started! One after another, the locals approached our boat in their small wooden canoes. First came the fishermen. With the first one we traded a pack of sugar and a pack of rice noodles for two nice little fish for our dinner. The second one try to offer us a tiny tiddler, but our dinner was already cared for, so we politely declined and gave him a pack of sugar simply as a present. This fisherman spoke some English and was kind of nosy. He made us feel a little uncomfortable when he started ask questions like: how long are we going to stay, how many people are aboard etc. Petr quickly answered that we sail with our child, but that the baby’s sleeping right now inside the boat. He was probably no gangster, but since Filipinos really love their kids, we thought a little white lie could do no harm…

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Once the importunate fisherman was finally away and I put the fish on the griddle pan, we had a first child visitor, a small boy. Petr invited him to cockpit, where they chatted for a while using simple English – turns out local kids go to school (i.e. literally “go”, as on their feet) twice a week and their school is in Balabac town, 4 hours by foot! The boy asked us if we had any English books for kids or a vocabulary. Unfortunately all we could give him was a notebook, pencil and a ball pen – a real hit! Plus some sweets, of course. He also took a piece of the grilled fish but obviously wasn’t very impressed with our chick peas salad that he quickly spat out over the side!

Next round of visitors were also kids – a boy and a girl, possible younger siblings of the boy that just left, because they came in the same boat. Just as their older brother before them, they offered us some kind of pumpkin/melon, but since we already had two, we told them to keep it. The little girl was a bit shy, but her brother directly asked us for some fishing line. Petr dove into one of the cockpit lockers and found one for him, including some fishing hooks. That probably gave the little boy an impression, that our boat is some kind of a magician’s hat, that will readily spill out anything you ask for. So instead of thanking us, he simply cried out: “Television!”

“Sorry, we don’t have television aboard,” was our bemused reply. Instead we gave them notebook, pencils, ball pens (of course!), crayons and each of them a hat against the sun.

Luckily for us, when they left the sun also went down and the stream of visitors ceased, otherwise by morning our boat would be completely empty!

But let’s not forget the crocodile adventure! After we managed to winch ourselves off the reef back into deep water, Petr was getting ready to jump into water to inspect the hull for any potential damages (we were driving real slow, so we didn’t exactly hit the reef, it was more like we comfortably “sat” on top of it, but a visual control means extra points to our black box). He was already putting on his fins when I spotted a dark shade moving in the water just behind his back. I immediately recollected the warnings of couple of fellow cruisers that rivers in the south of Palawan are brimming with crocs. I wasn’t exactly sure that “my shade” was really a crocodile, but if they are in Palawan, which is just “next door”, so to speak, then they might as well be here on Balabac, too! We decided to postpone the visual control until we get to some safer waters, just to be sure. We haven’t seen any crocks there, while we were there, but when we asked our little Filipino visitor if there are any crocks in Clarendon Bay, he replied that they often have them for dinner! – i.e. the fishermen the crocks, not the other way round…

Since we spent the previous night at sea taking turns on watch, we slept like babies, despite the shock after hitting the reef and the possibility of crocks swimming around the boat. The alarm clock woke us up at 5:30 next morning and since there was still no wind, we decided to pull up the anchor and have breakfast later on the way.  Not a smart move! Sure, it was really calm inside the bay, but once we stuck our nose out of it, we immediately got slammed by the first wave and before we even finished our breakfasts, we spotted the first squall approaching. We quickly devoured the rest of our porridge and poured the still too hot coffee into a thermos. Before the first gusts hit us, we had just enough time to pull on our raincoats and put a reef into both our mainsail and headsail.

Balabac Strait is infamous for strong currents and since at least two currents running in different directions meet here, it’s not uncommon to experience big waves and confused seas here. We can only testify to this because that’s what we had to deal with for the rest of the day.

At first we thought that the squall will soon pass away and enthusiastically showed each other whenever a new bright spot appeared in the otherwise overcast sky. Truth is the sky never really brightened and in the end we had at least five squall similar to the morning one. On top of that, the head winds and waves constantly pushed us towards the shoals southwest off Balabac Island. Our goal was to reach the sheltered waters between Balambangan and Banggi Islands, that lie 30 miles south of Balabac I., preferably before nightfall, anchor there for the night and during the next day sail the last 30 miles to Kudat, a small Malaysian harbor at the north-east tip of Borneo. In order to maintain a better course towards our anchorage and to reduce the leeway, we decided to motorsail.  Also, after one of the gusts during the first squall lay us abeam – fortunately everything inside the boat was properly stowed, so the only thing that fell out were the books from the starboard bookshelf, because we forget to set up the bracket, that’s suppose to prevent just this from happening – we put another reef into our main and took turns by the tiller.

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And now one confession: in case we ever claimed here that our rigging doesn’t whistle, then we take it back. Maybe the whistling sounds are not that intense as on other boats but truth is after two squalls we quickly figured out, that although we don’t a dedicated wind meter, the whistling through the rigging is a unmistakable sing of an approaching series of gusts. An so as soon as we heard some whizzing around the mast, we let out a bit of mainsheet and tighten it back only after the whistling ceased. So you may say that it’s not exactly our rigging but our mast that whistles…

Although we were slowly but surely approaching our anchorage, we started to worry if we would finally make it before dark. Just when we were close enough to see the opening between the islands and started looking forward to our little shelter there, we spotted yet another squall coming right at us. It was nearly 5 pm, not even 2 hours before sunset. The gloomy squall line was quickly approaching and within couple of minutes our vision was completely obstructed by heavy rain. Instead of islands all we could see now was a grayish-white screen of clouds and rain. We didn’t want to risk another close encounter with a reef and so didn’t really have another choice but to tack and turn away from our destination!

What a frustrating experience! Luckily after half an hour or so the squall moved away and we tacked back on our previous course towards the islands. In the end we dropped the anchor just as it grew dark, right next to a fleet of big fishing ships. We noticed another sailboat in the anchorage but were too tired to lower the dinghy into the water and pay them a visit. We figured they must have left from Kudat and were heading the opposite way – i.e. to Philippines. We made spaghetti for dinner, took a shower and hit the bunks – the odd were that we would have to fight the same elements the next day and so we wanted to take a proper rest.

The alarm clock was set for 5 am. This time we didn’t want to take any chances and decided to enjoy a peaceful breakfast in the anchorage. We left our shelter at the crack of dawn. The fishing boats were gone and the other sailboat had the running lights on. Apparently they were also getting ready to set sail. The sky was much brighter than the day before. Were our fears groundless? According to the grib files (which admittedly were 5 days old now and therefore not very reliable anymore), the monsoon should gradually pick up  starting from just that day, so we were getting mentally ready for the worse just in case…

In the end we were once again lucky. For the first two hours the wind was still blowing quite hard and Janna was climbing up what looked like 3 meter waves, but right from the early morning the sun was shining through the dispersing clouds and as soon as we reached the “shadow” of Borneo, the sea calmed down noticeably and out went the sunglasses, hats and sunscreen lotion. For lunch we had a quick risotto using up the last of our Filipino veggies and just after 1 pm we already spotted the entrance to Kudat marina.

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It was still blowing more than 10 knots and so I must admit I was a little nervous before entering the marina. After all it has been a few months since we last maneuvered to a dock. Plus the pontoons inside the marina are really short and space between them so narrow that two beamier boat just won’t fit in… Later someone told us, that the marina was originally built for local coastguard and their small motorboats – that would certainly explain the dimensions! However, instead of motorboats, now the marina was full of sailboats, most of them yachts that were taking part in the Malay-Indonesian regatta and were waiting here for the two hosting countries to figure out some bureaucratic procedures. In fact, there was just one free spot in the whole marina!

Luckily, just as we approached the pontoons, we were spotted by Dave and Jackie, whom we met in PP and who were now waving at us, showing us where the last free spot was. They also stood by ready to give us hand with the lines. Petr was ready on the starboard with the bow and stern lines while I nervously held onto to the tiller. We just turned into a narrow space between two marina fingers full of boats. There, just to the left of us, was our spot. I steered to the right to allow myself more space for the final turn and just as I was getting ready to turn inside, a strong gust came in and we had to wait. Luckily we didn’t get blown on some other boat but it spoiled my original maneuver and I had to put the engine into reverse. Problem is, reverse is something Janna really doesn’t like to do… Yet this time it somehow amazingly worked and I managed to steer her right into the tiny slip by the pontoon and next to our new neighbor, who was watching the whole show with a fender in his hand. Phew! We were home and dry, or should I say by the pontoon and (almost) unscratched?

We tied the lines, greeted our friends and gratefully accepted each a glass of orange juice filled up with ice that Jackie offered us. So after 6 days we arrived safely to Malaysia. This time we survived the passage against the winds and currents almost unharmed. But what will it be like next week when we cast off to slowly sail towards Singapore…? Whatever comes, can’t wait to be back at sea again!

Map of the passage (including our current GPS position)

Map of the passage (including our current GPS position)

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