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Old 07-30-2001
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Doreen Gounard is on a distinguished road
Philippine Routing Dilemma

This is latest report on life in the Western Pacific from a family of four cruising on a 33-foot catamaran. The Gounards left San Francisco in December 1999.


Anchorages come with a wide variety of desirable characteristics when the going gets rough, but a stable political climate may be chief among them all.
A strange thing happened during our stay in the Philippines this past May. A Muslim nationalist group Abu Sayyaf took 25 tourists and resort workers hostage from a beach resort on the east side of Palawan Island. It was an act that left several people dead and seriously hurt the Philippine tourist industry. But for us on our 33-foot catamaran Imani, it meant that we would have to carefully consider our route out of the Philippines to both avoid the Philippine military's attempt to capture the terrorists and of course to avoid becoming additional hostages.

Once the tourists and workers were taken hostage, the Abu Sayyaf took them across the Sulu Sea to the muslim stronghold Basilan Island of the Sulu Island group. To say things were tense would be something of an understatement. The Philippine Navy set up a naval cordon and 5,000 army troops were stationed on land searching the dense jungle for the Abu Sayyaf camp—less than ideal conditions for cruising nearby.

Our intention has always been to avoid southern Mindanao and the Sulu Sea due to that area's reputation for pirating. So we set off from Lilo-an, on Cebu Island on June 20, 2001 heading north to cross the Visayan Sea to Boracay Island North of Panay before reaching northwest Palawan. But the next two days presented a new concern independent of geo-poltical structures—as we reached the north end of Cebu, an early typhoon was developing to the northeast.


The route of Imani as it threaded its way through the numerours islands of the Philippines.

Rather than duke it out with King Neptune, we decided to hide in large Bogo Bay. There we attempted to anchor twice, but the anchor would not hold. The bottom was silt over a hard bottom, and our Delta anchor just could not dig in and hold. We ended up side-tied to the municipal pier—where we quickly became the afternoon attraction. It seemed as if the whole town came down to the harbor to peer at us and smile. Luckily, the wind subsided the next morning and the storm tracked away from us, and we departed for a two day run to Boracay.

Prior to our departure, we had experienced very little wind. In fact, during the two months we were in the Philippines we had motored more frequently than we had in the last year-and-a-half crossing the Pacific. The northeast monsoon season was over and the southwest monsoon was not yet established. Yet it seemed that as soon as we began our journey the southwest monsoon settled in strongly—a little early as most of the locals explained to us.

We were happy to reach sunny Boracay on Sunday morning, June 24. There we rested and snorkeled the beautiful reef and left the following day heading for the northwest of Palawan. The wind was mostly south-southwest and slowly built over the next three days. Despite the idyllic conditions, it was no time to let our guard down. We received a weatherfax that indicated another typhoon would affect us for the next three days. So, again we found a good place to hide, this time in Linapacan Island's Pula Bay on the east side of the island. Pula Bay, (N110.25, E119.51) is a good bay with excellent holding in sand and a mountain that looms up providing protection against southwest winds and swells.


If you have the option, it's always better to wait for the weather to turn in your favor rather than go head to head with King Neptune.
For the next three days we stayed on the hook, as the wind outside blew 35 and 45 knots. We felt safe in our little Pula Bay, and from time to time said hello to the fishermen who paddled near us to fish everyday in the lee of the mountain, while we sat waiting out our second typhoon in less than two weeks.

At this point we were debating if we really should venture down the west coast of Palawan to reach Borneo along the South China Sea, or whether we might find better weather protection on the east side of Palawan, yet run the risk of encountering the Abu Sayyaf. Our routing decisions were coming down to deciding who scared us more, the militants or Mother Nature? The night before we left Pula Bay, I asked all the gods who would listen, to send us a sign. Which way should we go?

The next morning the wind abated and according to Rowdy's Mobile Maritime Net for the Southeast Asia region, (broadcast daily 0000 UTC on 14.320 USB) the forecast was good. As we were about to raise the anchor a 'banca' approached us with two men on board—one driving and one standing up with an automatic rifle slung across his body. The guy with the gun smiled and waved to us before throwing us a line. On the side of the bright red 'banca' were the words "Trust in Christ" in the shape of a cross. Marc and I smiled in return and took his painter.


Local authorities helped informed the author of the local political climate, and how to stay out of harm's way.

"I am from the National Police," he informed us."Where are you folks heading?"

"We're on the way to Malaysia and Borneo," I replied.

"Which route—along East Palawan/Sulu Sea or the west side in the South China Sea?"

"That depends," I responded. "What's happening with the Abu Sayyaf? We haven't heard any news in the last week."

"The situation is not good." he said. "Some of the hostages have been killed and others freed for large ransoms. If I were you, I would go along West Palawan in the South China Sea. There are sufficient typhoon holes on that side if the weather does not hold up. I would not tempt my fate by moving through Abu Sayyaf territory."

We thanked him for his advice, interpreting it as the message I had asked the gods for. We completed picking up anchor and headed to the South China Sea where we found the southwest monsoon blowing between 15 and 20 knots as we tacked our way south along the coast.

On July 2 the wind began to drop and we decided to stop in Port Barton to get more fuel. As we entered the bay a large squall followed us in. Imani slipped behind the island of Albaguen and we set the anchor just before the black cloud dropped piles of water and kicked up a lot of wind. Again, we were just in time.

As the sun set and the squall finished we were pleased to be anchored in front of a very picturesque fishing village. It was then that we noticed that we were anchored a mere 50 feet off a large patch of coral. However, according to our charts, everywhere else in front of this island it was quite deep, 70 to 90 feet. In the end we decided to stay put overnight and move onto Port Barton proper in the morning.

"While he was gone it became apparent that the 'squall' was building into a typhoon. That evening sustained winds blew between 35 and 45 knots. We experienced several extremely high gusts that barrelled through at 50 to 75 knots. "
The best laid cruising plans are ultimately subject to the whims of weather. By 8:00 a.m. the next morning, I was listening to Rowdy's net and learning about another typhoon. This one was very large and heading our way. Outside, another squall began. But instead of quickly passing, this squall carried on all day.

The wind built throughout the day. We were not able to pick up anchor and move to Port Barton as planned. Two local fisherman let us know that we were welcome to use the mooring that was in front of us in 75 feet of water. We decided to run a line to it to use as a second anchor to assist our primary anchor—the 35-pound Delta with 150 feet of chain lying in 22 feet of water dug into a bed of sand.

Once all anchoring was complete, Marc went to Port Barton with the fishermen to obtain some food and the fuel we needed. While he was gone it became apparent that this "squall" was building into a typhoon.

That evening sustained winds blew between 35 and 45 knots. We experienced several extremely high gusts that barrelled through at 50 to 75 knots. While Imani was protected from any big seas, we had plenty of wind. Even in the comfort of retrospect, it was an incredibly scary evening and a very long night as Imani swerved, clung, and danced to both anchor and the mooring.

The next morning, we put out one more anchor—our Northill—as another piece of insurance. Marc then strapped on a tank and dove on all our moorings and came back to report that there was no chafing anywhere. The Delta was deep in the sand and the chain was free of any coral. It all looked very good after such a night, but it wasn't over yet. All that afternoon and evening was more of the same—gusts that could knock a person over and horizontally flying rain. Yet we felt better having three anchoring points holding Imani off the reef. In the midst of the action we failed to notice it was Independence Day. "Happy Fourth of July" we told each other as the sea raged outside.


With the forecast calling for clearing skies and a decrease in militant activity, the cruising family prepares to head out for the next chapter of their nautical adventure.

By July 5, the rain had stopped and the wind had dropped to 25 knots. We celebrated by jumping in the water and scrubbing Imani's waterline. The next day the wind had dropped into the 15 to 18-knot range, blowing east-southeast. Hooray! For a refreshing change we had good wind to head southwest. We retreived all our anchors, chains, and lines and left to get back out into the South China Sea. But once out there we were disheartened to encounter what we had already had enough of—southwest winds blowing 25 knots and huge seas left over from the typhoon. With spirits back in the pits, we turned tail and returned to the bay and this time headed to the town of Port Barton. Here we would contact family and friends and let them know that the weather was keeping us from reaching Singapore by the end of July and pass along the dispiriting news that plane tickets to meet us there should be cancelled. We also made the conscious decision to slow down, and only move when conditions were right to do so.

After a few days in Port Barton, where we were again told by locals that these early typhoons were very unusual, we were assured that the usual typhoon months are August and September. Obviously this year that has not been the case.

We waited for a good weather window and departed Port Barton on July 12, experiencing light and variable winds that found us motoring some of the time. This lasted all the way down the rest of Palawan before the weather gods finally cut us a break and gave us some beautiful sailing days with flat seas and winds from all kinds of unusual directions for the southwest monsoon.

As we tiptoed past the bottom of the Sulu Sea—20 miles offshore, we had to shake our heads in wonder—which is really scarier, the Abu Sayyaf or Mother Nature's fury? I imagine that running into the Abu Sayyaf while en route to hide from a typhoon would probably be the scrariest scenario by far.


Suggested Reading:

Crusing Adventures in Nuie by Doreen Gounard

What We Learned Sailing the Pacific by Doreen Gounard

Entering Foreign Waters Liza Copeland

 

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