By Bruce Curran
A real sailboat is a true work of science woven into art.It takes a remarkable designer to produce something that harnesses nature to move from one place to another.
That is all very well, but in the reality of the day it is down to nature as to what comes your way when you are out there cruising through the islands.The glossy image of the beautiful tropical Philippine island is always revealed in its blissful glory on the best of days in the best of its moods.
Last Wednesday afternoon I glided smoothly into waters shallow enough to anchor off Bagambamgan Island off the northern side of Palawan.The boat sat at anchor half a mile offshore, and I settled down for a classic tropical sunset and a quiet night in this paradise.I was all alone on my 43-foot ketch, at peace with myself and at one with nature.
Nature though, had other plans.At 3:30 AM the wind veered around to the north.It was the amihan with a vengeance.I could not stay on anchor in these conditions in my exposed position, and the boat began to toss and turn and heave noisily on the anchor chain.The boat became a prison from which there was no escape, except to move on.
I was determined to wait until dawn so that I could see what I was doing.It was an agonizing wait, and the minute hand moved infinitely slowly.Time has a nasty habit off slowing to a standstill when you are in need of a real hurry.
I hung on literally and metaphorically, and at 5 AM I began the ordeal of raising the anchor. The engine pushed the boat towards the building seas and I leapt to the foredeck as it rolled from side to side, and begun to pull madly on the rope leading into the murky grey mean looking waters of the Sulu Sea.I ran back to the steering wheel and changed the heading and ran forward again.The anchor chain appeared out of the water and I placed it hurriedly over the metal anchor windless.Twenty minutes is an eternity in the heat of a worrying moment, and miraculously the anchor broke away from the seabed on a rising wave and the boat was immediately slung round and started drifting towards the rocky shore.
I pulled and pushed on the windless handle, and huffed and puffed till the anchor itself appeared like a silvery gift out of the waters.The hard work was done and having tied it down I ran back to the steering wheel and headed out to sea away from the angry noise of the waves on the shoreline.I stood sweating and puffing and thoroughly worn out by all the activity.At least now I could rest again building strength before raising sail to carry me away towards Dumaran Island further to the southeast.
The day had dawned gray and grisly and between me and Dumaran lay many islands and reefs out in the middle of the sea.I checked the charts and set a course.There is no rest for a sailor, because there is always another task, and one cannot simply switch off or get off, since it is nature that tells you when to act.
After a recovery period I set three small sails, all of which could cope with stormy conditions without putting too much stress on boat and boatman.The front sail was the ‘storm jib’, the main mast carried a ‘triple reefed mainsail’, and the mizzenmast carried its full sail.The boat ambled through the seas ducking and diving and ploughing like a workhorse on its way to another unknown destination.
There is something romantic about the unknown.At sea there is always the added mystery, and an undercurrent off Dumaran Island left me sore and tired.However, I knew that there were many rocks and shallow shoals in this area, and since I did not have the detailed chart of this particular area to effectively and safely find an anchorage, against all my wishes and desires, I decided to push on into the darkness of another night.I thought it best to drop all sail and motor through the black hours of a moonless night.
So here I was, shattered, alone and starting to feel the inner rush of loneliness.No one else to take on any of the responsibility, no rest from the movement, and no choice but to press on.This was to be a very, very, very long night, and I thought of the many glossy images of these tropical islands and cursed my predicament for which I only had my self to blame.Then the seas subsided and nature was giving me a break.
But passing treacherous areas of shoals and shallows unseen is a spine chilling experience, and you somehow go around and around in circles checking that your thoughts are correct, and analyzing that your compass heading is the one to choose for safety.
The boat sat silent for 30 minutes on a flattened sea, and I took the luxury of another cup of tea with honey and milk and watched the beauty of the next tropical sunset over the tops of the Palawan mainland.The ordeal before me was set aside for what seemed like a moment of intense luxury and pleasure.
The night came fast and was as black as the ace of spades, the stars were mercifully twinkling in their thousands, and amongst them I recognized some old friends from many journeys past.At heart I felt an intense loneliness, and began singing to myself and talking to the boat like an old friend.After all, Cape North had been with me for 14 years, and truly has been a good friend.
Keeping yourself awake and on an exact course of 230 degrees on the compass, when all you want to do is lie down and sleep the blissful sleep of the gods in an ordeal on its own.The first hour seemed eternal, but then there were another 10 to get through before the sun would give some relief with daybreak again at 5 AM.
Eternity was stretched to its limits, and each time my body slipped away my mind would fight back and remind me that it was course 230 degrees or else the bottom of the sea for me and my boat!
Half images of people on board flicked before me, past experience flashed vividly within me, and together as one my boat and I ambled on through the night with the regular beat of the faithful engine.
At last it was time for dawn, but did not come like that routine tropical sunrise.It chilled me to the bone with a herd of black clouds and rain.The sun sat far away and cast but a little light into the day.The winds began to build again and I scurried on towards my yet unseen destination.
I had made it to another day untouched by shoals or reefs on 230 degrees.But still I had 40 miles to do until Puerto Princesa in Palawan.The minutes turned to hours, the day turned to blissful sunlight.My lips burnt, the biggest foresail gave me the thrill of a rollercoaster ride, playing with the seas, surfing down the rollers, flying at 8 knots across a sparkling sea.
In three hours of blissful fantasy I played with the sea and ran into the ecstasy of sailing.It is a boatman’s lot to balance the agony with this ecstasy, but there is nothing quite like it on earth when it comes.
My loneliness turned to life in all its essence and I smiled and cackled the sweet laughter of life itself.I had taken on nature and come through terrified, defiant, successful, conquering, humbled and glad the ordeal was nearly over.
I ran through the harbor entrance, on to a predetermined anchorage and was met by three foreigners in a small boat.The anchor hit the bottom, the boat stood fast and they ran me ashore to a bar full of fellow foreign boatmen.
My tales of ‘how big the sea serpents were’ were swallowed in the moments of camaraderie and newfound instant friendships.I had been at sea, alone and lonely for 39 hours without sleep or a full meal, and I quickly ate like a horse while smelling like a sea serpent, before slipping away to a hotel room on land and falling into that sleep you long for after a long exhaustion.I was asleep before my head hit the pillow, and disappeared within my dreams from being alone and lonely.