Palawan 2015: The Home Stretch

March 19-22, 2015: It was time to leave the protected waters around Busuanga Island and continue on our way north. I was dreading this moment. We had about 200 nautical miles ahead of us to reach our home base in Subic. As we fully experienced coming south just a month before, this stretch of water can be notoriously rough. On top of that, without a functioning auto pilot, it would be four long days of hand steering. That didn’t sound like much fun.

We pulled out of Coron harbour and wove our way around the obstacle course of shallow reefs to the east, heading directly into the hazy morning sun. This made reef spotting more challenging than it had been on our way in the previous day, when the sun was high overhead. I made for the roof of the pilothouse with the binoculars, while Chris took the helm. A parade of bancas was also on the move, taking tourists on day trips to places like Barracuda Lake and divers to the wrecks.

Before leaving the area for good, we decided to take a peek at a very protected anchorage that we’d heard about. Situated directly to the east of Coron town is a little island guarding a wee cove on Coron Island. With a narrow entrance and shallow reefs jutting up close to the surface of the water on either side of us, we carefully inched our way inside. It was nerve-wracking when the depth sounder suddenly jumped up to 15 feet, but only for a moment, and then we were back in deeper water inside.

This spot would make an excellent anchorage, protected from all but westerly winds, with easy access by kayak or dinghy to one of the lakes on Coron Island that’s a mega hit with snorkelers. Maybe we’ll have to come back here again. The only downside would be bancas cruising by all day long.

From here, we reversed our route of a month ago through Coron Passage and along the eastern coast of Busuanga to Tara Island where we planned to anchor overnight. Actually, this was our plan B. Originally, we wanted to go park on a mooring buoy for a night or two at El Rio Y Mar Resort, located at the northern end of Busuanga. We had visited on each of our last two trips to the area and really liked this yacht-friendly resort. We were really looking forward to a day spent lounging by their pool.

Alas, times have changed. When I called ahead to make sure a buoy was available for us, they told me they had new rates. It used to cost 200 pesos per night to use the buoy. With that you got free use of the pool and showers and great discounts on food and beverages. Not so anymore. The mooring fee was the same, but they’d added a 500 peso entrance fee. Per person. And done away with the discounts. That’s a whopping 600+++ per cent increase. We refused to go on principal. I even sent an email to the resort expressing our disappointment, especially since I’d been telling other yachties that it was such a good value. But I still haven’t heard anything back from them. I guess they really don’t like us yachties after all. Just money.

To compensate, that night we went all out and made a roast chicken dinner complete with gravy, roasted root vegetables and footlong green beans. Yum! I’d hoped to have leftover chicken for lunch the next day, but it wasn’t to be. We polished off almost the entire bird. I realize it was small, but still.

It had been surprisingly calm as we made our way from Coron to Tara, but the real test was still to come. In the morning, we left Tara Island just after dawn and aimed for Apo Reef and Mamburao beyond it on the west coast of Mindoro. Once again the weather and the seas were on our side. For most of the day, the seas were almost glassy, only developing a bit of a swell as we closed in on the Mindoro coast. A rather uneventful crossing that made for easy hand steering.

We noticed big changes when we anchored in our usual spot in a small bay near a fishing village, north of the main town of Mamburao. Since last year, they’d built a large concrete wharf and a huge warehouse that dwarfed the rough huts that make up the rest of the village. We learned from a couple of guys who rowed out to MOKEN in their wee banca (and then decided this was a good place to go for a swim) that it’s owned by the San Miguel company.

That afternoon, there were a number of impressive fishing bancas anchored in the bay, each with a dozen or more men on board. As the sun dipped closer to the horizon, one by one they manually hauled their anchors and headed offshore for a night of fishing. We discovered that they fish with a number of bright lights to attract the fish, shutting them down one by one until only one remains. That’s when they deploy their nets to scoop the catch. At dawn, as we were readying to head out ourselves, they were coming back in. You could tell which boats had done well but the number of birds circling overhead as the fishermen tossed up small pieces of fish.

Day three was the run to Lubang, an obstacle course through fishing buoys and small fishing bancas that paralleled the coast until we passed Cape Calavite. This was the really rough leg that we did in the dark on the way down. This time, in broad daylight, it was the polar opposite. Calm and uneventful as the prevailing north-easterly wind was nonexistent.

As we got closer to Lubang, the wind picked up, but unexpectedly it was coming from the west. That put a dent in our plans to anchor once again in Tagbac Cove at the western end of Lubang. Protected from the north easterlies that we were anticipating, it was very exposed to the westerly that we weren’t. On the way, we checked out another place along the south coast of the island where we had anchored two years before, to see if it might be more sheltered, but it didn’t offer much in the way of protection either.

We had a couple of options. Tough it out at Tagbac Cove. Go out of our way to Tilic Harbour on the north coast of Lubang or even further out of our way to Hamilo Cove on the Luzon coast south of Manila. Or continue on to Port Binanga, just outside of Subic; the longest option at eight to ten hours away.

Even though we wouldn’t get there until after midnight and we’d have to keep hand steering the entire day, the sea state wasn’t too bad, so we decided to go for Port Binanga, reaching the western tip of Lubang around four in the afternoon.

But before we could continue on our way, we were “pulled over” for a courtesy stop by the Philippines Navy. They asked us where we were from, where we’d been, where we were going and how many were people on board. All the while, one of the crew was manning a large gun mounted on the forward deck of their vessel. Then they wished us a good trip and waved us on our way. I guess they were bored.

I don’t cook much underway, although I guess at some point that will have to change. Instead we eat snacks and light foods that are easily prepared. Often salads, cold cuts, fresh salad rolls, raw veggies and dips, cheese, olives, chips, nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit and chocolate bars. Because we’d planned to anchor on Lubang that night and make dinner on the hook, I had to scramble to dig out more snacks to tide us over. Our supplies were dwindling by this point.

Once the sun set, it got incredibly dark. It was mostly overcast and there was no moon. Every now and then we’d spot the flashing light of a fishing banca far offshore, or the brighter navigation lights of a larger ship heading to or from Manila Bay. Or a flash of distant lightning.

Much of the waters on this part of the crossing are two to four thousand feet deep, but about halfway from Lubang to Binanga there is a shallow shoal that is only 100 feet deep. Even without our charts, we could pretty much tell where it was by all the twinkling lights of dozens of fishing bancas.

On our last night crossing through these waters last year, there had been just a couple of boats out on a bright moonlit night. Later on, we were told that the fishing is better on the darkest nights. And there was evidence of lots of fish along the way, especially along the coast of Mindoro. Earlier in the day, our depth sounder would frequently jump from “—” (more than 999 feet) to 35, 30 or even 25 feet as a school of fish swam beneath MOKEN. We really should have put a line in the water. But I digress.

In the meantime, these lights were blocking our route. Going around would put us way off course. There seemed to be one large group of boats off to our port side and another smaller group off to our starboard side with nothing much in between. So we decided to run the gauntlet.

That turned out to be a mistake. More bancas materialized out of nowhere as we drew nearer, suddenly turning on their lights, which were sometimes just a flashlight and sometimes a full set of bright deck lights. We slowed down to a crawl as one boat began to madly wave a flashlight. I guess they were warning us off, but we couldn’t figure out which way they wanted us to go. We didn’t spot their nets until we were practically on top of them. We turned around and went around the far side of that banca and soon found ourselves smack dab in the middle of more nets.

I was out on deck with a bright flashlight trying to find the end of the line. Some nets had floats with strobes at points along the way. Others didn’t. Finally, the nets minders came closer in their banca and led us out. Why they didn’t warn us off beforehand, I don’t know. Maybe they were sleeping. After that we skirted the whole mess of them and added another hour or two to our route.

We finally arrived in Port Binanga and anchored just after one in the morning and fell into bed exhausted. Despite the late night, we were up again at dawn, and with fresh coffee in hand we cruised the last few miles to our home base at the Subic Bay Yacht Club, arriving before eight.

Overall, it was a brilliant trip to Northern Palawan and El Nido, despite a couple of technical issues along the way. But that’s all part of the boating experience, right? Now Chris’ real work begins.

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