Friday 28th September
So here we are in the Philippines sans trikes and the plan, if it comes to fruition, is to take a 6 month break from cycling . There are a number of factors that led to this cunning plan but ultimately our desire to cycle through China was the driver. But for that we need a Chinese visa. We had researched getting the visa from Seoul but even if successful that would have meant cycling in China during November and December and would have been highly restricted – possibly single entry for only 30 days and actually what we want is the flexibility of a multi entry visa so we can visit Mongolia, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
I won’t detail the entire 6 month plan which is likely to change repeatedly but here’s phase 1, October and November, we’re on a 65ft trimaran, ‘Hot Buoys’ sailing from Puerto Princesa to Phuket, Thailand. (www.hotbuoyssailing.com) For those wondering how this came about there are numerous sailing sites such as Findacrew, Crewbay, Crewseekers and probably many, many more designed to link crew with boats both sailing and motor. In most cases a contribution is required. I created a profile and hoped someone would ask us to crew for them but the reality was that I trawled through hundreds of adverts, applied for many and received numerous rejections. However I saw an advert on Findacrew and they said yes and the contribution is well within our budget.
In the early hours (3am) we flew out of Seoul to Manila then to Puerto Princesa and then to Cebu. A 3 flight day and why??? Because we fxxked up and didn’t read the ‘Hot Buoys’ website properly and knew the boat was moored in Puerto Princesa so we booked a flight there but then realised that immigration required that all boat crew book out at Cebu. So then we booked a flight there. And then everything changed and apparently it’s now possible to book out at Puerto Princesa. However by this point the stage was set and having landed in Cebu, 4pm on 28th we had until 2nd October to see Cebu Island.
With only a few days to see Cebu we decided to make the most of our time and despite being absolutely shattered to head to Oslob (140km) the same day. Why Oslob -well we want to swim with whale sharks. The Oslob whale shark aggregation is not entirely natural. Itinerant sharks first began showing up around artisanal fishers who were collecting krill at night time, presumably for making shrimp paste. Over time the fishers learned that they could hand feed the sharks with portions of their catch and eventually the fishers began retaining the catch from the night before and taking tourists out during the day and baiting whale sharks with krill.
We bought a local SIM card with data (900 pesos), withdrew cash 5000pesos = £74.81 and caught a local bus from the airport. On the bus Alan, a young Filipino, asked us where we were heading and warned us to be very careful and to trust no-one. Oh dear that sounds very discouraging. Since our bus was heading into town and we needed another bus or taxi to reach the South terminal bus station he offered to share a taxi with us. And having taken his dire warning to heart – ‘trust no-one’ we immediately accept. We arrive at the South Terminal at 5.45 pm. It’s already dark and the place is chaotic. There are tiny stalls on the streets selling snacks, sweets and cigarettes. There are street dogs everywhere. Initially it seems very much like India. We enter the bus station and see signs for Oslob. At the very back of the bus station there are rows of chairs and all are occupied – this is the Oslob queue.
From the Internet we expect a bus every 30 minutes so it’s going to be a long wait. We take our seats – the only ‘whiteys’ in the entire bus station. We get a few curious glances but these quickly turn into kind smiles on eye contact – not so like India where I was repeatedly scrutinised by the ‘death stare’. Every 5 minutes or so someone walks the aisles selling various snacks. There must be more buses than the Internet suggested because the queue quickly disappears as people are waved forward to a bus but then we discover this is the overflow area, there’s another queuing area in the actual bus terminal.
Apparently this queue is typical of Friday and Saturdays, had we arrived on another day there wouldn’t be a queue. Around 7.45pm we finally get a seat on an air-conditioned bus. It’s 200 pesos per person, that’s about £2.99.
The seat controller had decided on our behalf that we didn’t want a bus without air-conditioning and had decided we needed a seat; at least a dozen people are called forward to stand in the aisle on each bus. Now we’re on our way we can find accommodation on Booking.com. We find a hotel near Oslob (750 pesos, £11) and get dropped right outside at 11.15pm. We sleep like the dead. In the morning we pack our bags but luckily the owner let’s us leave them there and she flags down a tricycle (motorbike with sidecar) and a 12km journey through Oslob and we’re at the whale shark area.
I want breakfast but we’re told we don’t have time. It’s only 10.30am and I read that this is open from 6.30am to 12.30pm so I’m a bit annoyed that Daz won’t let me eat. We register, pay 1000pesos per person (£15) and watch the mayhem. There are people on the beach waiting for boats, people getting dressed and crowds listening to the brief. OK I’m going for a coffee and to find a locker.
We’re only gone 5 minutes and the place is now almost deserted – I have a momentary panic that we’ve missed our slot but it’s OK we’re pointed onto the beach and wait for our canoe with outriggers. Our boatman paddles us out and then we’re in the water but only within the outriggers and we watch the whale sharks feeding and swimming passed. It’s incredible, they are monstrous beasts with huge mouths sucking in gallons of water and krill.
After this incredible experience we visit Tamalog Falls. Time to catch a lift on the back of a motorbike .
Then the church in Oslob, the oldest church in Cebu.
Mid afternoon we return to our hotel and flag down a bus to Bato. Well we try to flag one down but fail miserably and need the help of our hotelier.
Then we change for Allegre. We’ve booked a hotel here and we arrange to go to Kawasan Falls for canyoning.
Saturday 29th September
We’re up at 6.40am and our canyoning guide, Ronauld, picks us up. It’s 3s up on a motorbike but that’s common in the Philippines. He takes us up into the hills to Badian River. We leave the bike on the road then walk 20 minutes through the steamy jungle down into a deep gorge and our first sight of the river.
The waters are a creamy blue and deliciously refreshing after the jungle. Our guide soon has us wading and floating in the waters and we shortly arrive at our first jump. We’ve got life jackets on and a helmet. Time for me to screw up my courage and get my shaking legs to take 1 more step… into thin air! It’s about 3 meters but it takes me a moment to convince myself I can do it, and then I’m freefalling and a second later splashing down into a deep pool. I climb back up for another go – I need to teach myself that I can jump and not to stand looking at the drop until my legs start shaking and I bottle it.
We continue down the canyon and there’s more jumps and even a slide. It’s a fantastic experience and Ronauld is great. It’s advertised as a 3 hour experience but we’re in the Gorge for 5 hours stopping at the Falls for a photo shoot and lunch. I even manage my biggest jump ever – 10 metres!
From Allegre we catch a bus to Moalboal. We’ve booked a really cheap hostel but there’s only a shared bathroom and there’s no running water except between 9pm and 5am when it’s possible to shower, but only with cold water. However we settle for a bucket wash. We head to the beach and hire snorkeling masks because there’s supposed to be turtles and sardines here. We see huge shoals of sardines and some beautiful fish but no turtles.
There’s a thunderstorm coming in and soon the sea is really choppy and the visibility is really reduced so we decide we’ve had enough excitement for one day. In the evening we find a lovely restaurant and chat to a group of youngsters from Canada and later a couple from Amsterdam.
We even meet a guy from Liverpool but he doesn’t want to talk to us but despite the obvious signals and comments ‘I’m thousands of miles from England and I still can’t avoid the English!’, Daz still persists in asking numerous questions which are either ignored or receive a monosyllabic response.
Sunday 30th September
Today we catch a bus back to Cebu, 2 actually as the first bus breaks down halfway to Cebu and we arrive in a torrential downpour. We were planning to sightsee but instead head for our hotel. Later we head to a mall for dinner, waxing ( me not Daz) and a little retail therapy.
The Filipinos are tiny and I need XXL -how embarrassing and that’s me at my thinnest. As for my attempt to buy a bikini, well it’s a disaster, there’s no way I can wear any of these in public without being reported for public indecency!
Monday 1st October
It’s time to head back to Cebu Airport and our flight back to Puerto Princesa. It’s been an adventurous few days and we love the Philippines and despite several warnings to take care and trust no-one everyone has been kind and helpful and most speak excellent English so travelling from place to place and arranging our excursions has been remarkably easy. Having landed at Puerto Princesa we get a motorbike sidecar trip to Abanico Yacht Club, it’s like no Yacht Club we’ve ever seen before, just time for a quick beer and something to eat before the boat taxi takes us out to the trimaran.
Lift out to trimaran
On board there’s Philip, the skipper, Noli his husband, Susan and Brian from Seattle, Ed originally from the US but currently living in Manila and Lars from Switzerland. Philip shows us the yacht and gives us some idea of what’s expected, the schedule and chores required before we set sail on Thursday.
One of 2 toilets (this one is out of Order) and communal area
Tuesday 2nd to Thursday 4th October
Over the next few days we prepare for our epic voyage (LOL).
Daz and I repair a hole in the trampoline . Daz is in the kayak underneath to feed the needle back up.
There’s personal preparation – shopping; snorkels and some 2nd hand clothing to swim in; haircuts and other niff naff and trivia. Wednesday and Thursday is boat prep: scraping the keel, fitting the propeller, fetching fuel, drinking water and washing water; grocery shopping, cleaning and packing away provisions and for Brian, well he’s tasked with being ‘The Fixer’ and has to sort out the VHF radio, the depth gauges and the Open CPN navigator.
During these chores a couple of things become apparent :
- Usually a yacht has a small dinghy / inflatable to be used when achoring off shore. This trimaran has a wooden dinghy which has an engine but no way to connect the fuel to the engine. So its parked on the trimaran. Instead to reach land we have to paddle across in 1 of the 2 available kayaks. However with full jerry cans of water or full fuel containers it’s sometimes possible to use the service boat (essentially a water taxi provided by the yacht club).
- There isn’t a fresh water maker on board.
- There’s no fridge or freezer.
- The 2 showers don’t work.
- There are 2 toilets aboard but one is already broken. The other breaks within a few hours. All toilet requirements are to be met by hanging the appropriate appendage over board. For me and Susan this means leaning out against the davit. Paddling to use the yacht club’s toilet is optional. Brian and Philip fix the toilet but it’s out of bounds for 48 hours whilst the sealant sets.
- The yacht club is 400m away and in order to visit the yacht club or complete chores we must paddle one of the 2 kayaks ashore. We have five 20 litre water cans that need to be filled with washing water. Daz and Lars paddle these across on the kayaks, fill them then paddle back. We take on board about 400 litres of water, you do the math, but that’s a lot of paddling!
- There’s no air conditioning aboard.
- Most of the equipment doesn’t work. There are 5 navigation aids but only one is accurate. None of the LED displays can be read without a flash light. Only 1 VHF radio is functional. 2 solar panels don’t have a controller and therefore the batteries can be overcharged or the panels will drain battery power if left on at night.
- Philip may suggest a 7am briefing but if people are up they will be tasked with chores even before managing even a coffee let alone breakfast. Also any time estimates are wildly inaccurate. If he says we’re leaving for immigration at 9am we actually leave at 0730hrs and if he says he’ll be in 2 hours, it’s usually closer to 5.
- Philip is hugely particular about some aspects aboard. In fact I think he definitely has OCD and yet bizarrely so much aboard isn’t working.
- There’s a 10 point check required before the engine is switched on. The ignition key is corroded into its slot and so bent it looks like it might snap off at any hint of too much pressure.
- The mast is only a third of its true height and between that and the lack of appropriate sails and sheets it’s actually impossible to sail this trimaran.
On Thursday Philip heads off to immigration to book everyone out but unfortunately some paperwork is incomplete so we’ll all have to visit immigration on Friday.
Friday 5th October
Due to the immigration problem yesterday we were unable to leave as planned but after we all visit immigration on Friday and Philip deals with customs we finally set sail Friday evening, 1745hrs. Actually more bad news; we’re not actually equipped to sail and we’ll be motoring from place to place. So by Friday evening we’re all starting to question why we signed up for this ‘sailing’ adventure.
Ed and Lars
Fortunately there’s a great bunch aboard and so far we’re having a good time but will it last???? Ed is the oldest in the gang at 72 and actually he’s a little unsteady on his feet but he has no interest in contributing to the chores. He says the website says it’s optional and he’s happy to opt out and as this voyage continues I recognise the wisdom of his choice. Throughout the day he can be found in different parts of the boat but always horizontal, asleep and snoring!
Having left Puerto Princesa we’re heading to Bala Bac Island. Philip estimates a sailing time of 36 hours so we’ll be sailing through both Friday and Saturday nights. A bizarre ‘watch’ system is devised: 10pm until 2am; 2 until 4 am and finally 4 until 6.30am.
Daz and I take first watch and since we’re on auto pilot we just need to periodically check our course and also watch for other sea traffic and take evasive action if required. Philip sleeps in the pilot house during the night and is to be woken if there’s a problem.
Sunday 7th October
Bala Bac Island
We sail through Saturday and apart from a seeing a pod of dolphins and a few flying fish it’s pretty uneventful.
Early Sunday we carefully navigate into the harbour at Bala Bac Island and drop anchor. There really isn’t much to see here, it’s a small Muslim village. We do take a run ashore but it’s totally underwhelming. Most of the village is on stilts along the waterfront, ramshackle wooden huts with shops every 5 meters, it seems overkill for the size of the village!
We’ve been tasked with getting more fresh water (remember we have no watermaker on-board), but as it’s Sunday the water shop is closed, fortunately Philip manages to find some when he goes ashore later. It would be great to have a swim here but apparently there are salt water crocodiles in the bay so we decide to give it a miss!
Monday 8th October
Bala Bac Island
Everyone is up by 0630hrs and Philip gives a 20 minutes notice to move, well technically 20 minutes until engine start but actually it turns into a cluster fuck with contentious dipstick readings on the engine oil and we’re not actually underway until 0830hrs. During this 2 hour epic some of us have had breakfast whilst others wait until we’re underway so we’re absolutely gobsmacked when Noli starts making lunch at 9am. Wow we’ve only just eaten. He’s making spaghetti carbonara and it’s just going to sit in the pans for the next 3 to 4 hours. Daz asks whether there’s any need to cook so early but apparently it’s the Filipino way. When Susan raises the issue of food hygiene Philip threatens the throw the freshly cooked meal overboard. So it’s a highly charged start to another day. Once underway Philip wants some additional sail power so we raise a new sail (we’ve already had 2 sails out) but since it’s not actually designed for this boat it doesn’t fit and so the foot of the sail which should be horizontal to the deck is actually perpendicular – “go figure??!!”.
Tuesday 9th October
Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Today’s planned schedule: arrive Kota Kinabalu, drop anchor, crew to scrape the underside of the trimaran whilst Philip and Noli paddle ashore to print a fake boat insurance document; move the trimaran into the Marina and tie off alongside; book in at Immigration ; free time.
Note: Philip hasn’t insured his trimaran; proof of insurance is required to dock in the Marina so Philip has ‘created’ a fake document. He needs to print this document and present it to the Marina. If its veracity, or lack of, is detected we’ll be evicted. As you can imagine there’s nothing in this scenario that promotes faith in our illustrious leader and yet he makes no secret of it.
The reality. We dropped anchor at 10am and Philip briefed us on how to scrape the trimaran’s bottom. We all go into the water with our scrapers and ready ourselves to start scraping. Just as we’re about to start the harbour staff approach in a dinghy and tell us we can come into the harbour. Philip refuses because he wants the scraping complete first. So we scrape and he and Noli paddle ashore. Thirty minutes later the scraping is complete but there’s still no sign of Philip. We play cards and it’s not until 1pm that Philip returns. He hasn’t managed to print the insurance document but he has completed the Marina paperwork. Apparently the harbour staff are on their lunch break until 2pm so we can’t move until then.
Another hour of card games and then I ask if we can start the engine and head into harbour. Philip agrees that I start the engine but then explains that we can’t actually move until the harbour staff visit us in their dinghy and call us forward. So we sit and wait. By 2.30pm our patience is wearing thin and Brian suggests we phone the harbour staff so we can get moving. Philip grudgingly agrees but explains he’s actually not in any rush! OMG – he might not be but we’re keen to get ashore and taste some freedom. We raise the anchor and head into the harbour. It takes us over 90 minutes to reverse the yacht into the largest parking spot known to man. Comparison: imagine your local Sainsbury superstore. It’s midnight and the carpark is empty except for one car parked in front of the automatic doors. You want to park next to it but in order to do so you start reversing at the carpark entrance and then reverse for one second periods only. After each phase of reversing you decide to walk around the car checking for hidden obstacles and check the route selected. The only difference in these scenarios is that once the trimaran is in neutral the wind and prop walk push it to starboard and towards another moored yacht and its securing lines. It’s the most frustrating experience ever. I’m on the helm and the harbour staff are telling me to reverse whilst Philip tells me not to. Lars is sent ashore in a kayak with a line which is then secured on the dock and used to winch the boat back.
During this debacle we have acquired a considerable audience as well as constant assistance from the harbour staff who use their dinghy to conteract the prop walk. Basically they’re pushing us on the starboard side to keep us straight. The audience on the dock ask Lars what’s wrong with our reverse gear and why we don’t just reverse in under motor? How embarrassing – there’s nothing wrong with reverse but Philip is rationing its use to about 2% of what’s actually required. Finally we’re alongside. Tempers are a little frayed now, we’ve just managed to make a very public display of our ineptitude.
Everyone goes ashore and waiting for us are 2 new crew members, Jojo and Shaun from Hawaii. Wow the Sutera Harbour Resort / yacht club is spectacular. There’s an Olympic size pool and numerous paddling pools, a bowling alley, restaurants, bars and fabulous views out over the Marina.
Behind the Club there’s an immaculately maintained golf course and driving range. We traipse after Philip to the reception desk. It’s nearly 4pm. After a discussion at the reception desk he comes over and tells us it’s too late to book in at Immigration and we’ll have to do it tomorrow. A crew revolt ensues. We want to book in today and not get involved in another Philip faff tomorrow which always sucks up a huge amount of time. Philip doesn’t understand what our rush is, he doesn’t realise that we’re already fed up that we lost 6 hours today between dropping anchor and getting off the boat. When Lars was standing dockside he was told that Immigration is open 24 hours a day but that appointments are necessary after 5pm. Daz, Lars and I ask reception to call the Immigration Office and check their opening hours and then book taxis. We’re soon on our way. BTW did I mention Philip has come on this trip without all the necessary currencies for our various visits so he has no Malaysian Ringits, no Brunei dollars, no Singapore dollars and no Thai bahts. So before taking taxis to Immigration he had to borrow some Malaysian Ringit from a fellow yacht owner. After booking in at Immigration Daz tries to speak to Phil about our frustrations but Phil just strops off and says there’s nothing that he wants to discuss. Very mature. Susan and Brian head off to find a hotel for the next 2 nights whilst Lars, Ed, Daz and I head off for food and a few drinks. We also find a night market.
Lars and Daz stay out and Lars gets lucky with a young German girl.
Wednesday 10th October
Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Today we have a full day off and first Daz and I visit the Kota Kinabalu wetlands with Susan and Brian. We were hoping to see lots of bird life but unfortunately it’s probably a little late in the day for them.
We do see Mud skippers, various varieties of crabs, Snowy Egrets, a terrapin, and a few unidentifiable small birds. After the wetlands we head off to do laundry and then relax by the pool.
In the evening we all go bowling.
Thursday 11th October
This morning Philip calls everyone (less Brian and Susan) to a briefing in the pilot house. We stupidly thought it was about today’s chores but actually he rattles on about Brunei, our next stop. Unfortunately Philip is both verbose and unable to stay on track so any discussion takes forever and I soon lose interest in trying to filter the relevant information from the dross. Finally Daz and I make our excuses and escape. Everyone is expected to be aboard by 1300hrs with an ETD (estimated time of departure) of 1600hrs. Imagine our surprise when we return to the trimaran at 1255hrs, 5 minutes before like the good institutionalised ex-soldiers we are, and discover the boat empty. We vacuum and clean the floors and still no crew or Captain. Then we discover our other crew members are sitting in the restaurant because Philip has failed to clear us from Immigration.
Lars, Jojo and Shaun
There’s a problem with Jojo and Shaun who flew and cleared immigration at the airport rather than booking in as we did on Tuesday. Jojo and Shaun are told to come to Immigration. Then there’s an expectation that they will need to show their boarding passes so I go back to the trimaran to search through the rubbish because at some point since Tuesday they threw them out! There’s no sign of the boarding passes but fortunately Jojo and Shaun are able to book out but then Philip wants to shop for more groceries so the crew and Captain aren’t aboard until 4pm. These fuck-ups have become almost a daily occurrence and the crew’s expectation is that hours will be wasted waiting whilst Phil attempts to sort out his shit. Once aboard we actually expect to leave but there’s 7 full diesel cans that Phil wants emptied into the starboard tank and the drinking water containers need filling. This is beyond ridiculous. Phil has had 48hours to organise these tasks and have them complete and yet he’s now in a panic trying to complete them and set sail before night falls.
This is particularly galling because once again I’m involved in the refueling chore with Daz and Shaun and end up stinking of diesel but of course we no longer have time to take a shower ashore. Phil’s planning abilities clearly reside with his brains – up his arse.
Friday 12th October
Yesterday we finally got underway about 1730hrs so not excessively behind schedule. We now have the 2 newbies to join the watch pattern which means each watch is only 2 hours. We’re heading to our next stop, Muera in Brunei. About 90 nautical miles. When Daz and I start our shift at 10pm Phil tells us to maintain our course. We don’t really need the navigation aids because there’s some lights dead ahead that Phil says are lights on land. Thirty minutes into our watch and we realise the ‘land’ is an anchored tanker and we’re on a collision course.
How entertaining! We take evasive action although in hindsight perhaps maintaining our original course might have brought a merciful end to this farcical, fantasy voyage. A new element has been introduced with our new crew, Jojo and Shaun. They are now sleeping in the Captain’s bunk so that means Phil sleeps in the pilot house and Noli sleeps in the salon so if Noli is sleeping that’s a sitting area which is no longer available to the crew. And obviously this is out of the sun and relatively cool with the fans on. Next stop, Brunei!