Here it is…the oft delayed and much anticipated final installment of our Borneo or Bust saga. In this segment we go from El Nido, Palawan, Philippines to Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia.
May 1-25, 2018: We were all ready to up anchor and continue our route south from El Nido when we learned that Tom and Coco (Mokisha) would be arriving. With no schedule to follow, we opted to stay put for an extra night so we could catch up. In hindsight, that might not have been such a great idea, if only for health reasons.
We met up with Tom and Coco and Sie for a pleasant evening recounting our cruising exploits and plans over curry at Gandhi’s Revenge. The next morning, Chris wasn’t feeling well, but we still pulled our anchor and got underway by 0700 after making coffee and feeding kitty. Nukaat still doesn’t eat or drink once we’re on the go, although he always perks up for treats.
It was a fairly smooth run down the west coast of Palawan after we exited Bacuit Bay. We spent the night anchored in a beautiful small bay near White Island, where we’d been told the diving was good. Unfortunately we had to give it a miss, as Chris was still under the weather. As I was cleaning MOKEN’s waterline that afternoon, Matt and Karen (Yume) arrived from Port Barton and anchored closer to shore. We found out later that Matt was also feeling crook.
We had some crazy rain, thunder and lightning overnight, but the next day was an easy run to Port Barton. It was overcast on our way in to the anchorage, so it wasn’t great for reef spotting, but we took it slow and made our way toward another boat anchored in the bay. Once on shore, we weren’t super impressed with the beach. There were loads of squealing kids, some trash, an incredible number of dogs running about loose and an equally incredible number of dog poops on the beach. Watch where you step! Fortunately, Port Barton grew on us despite our initial impression.
That same afternoon, Richard arrived for the weekend from Puerto Princessa. Dinner was at Mojito’s, a stylish outdoor restobar with great fish tacos, a wide range of tasty mojito’s, welcoming owners Rob and Jackie (from Victoria no less), super cute and cuddly PacMan kitty and equally friend Mo dog. Immediately it was our new fave spot.
With Chris still not quite up to par, it was up to Richard and I to go diving the next day with Aquaholics. We were joined by Mathus from Slovakia and our guide Cal had an impressive eye for finding small stuff. It was a three-dive trip to the outside of the bay. (I took a ton of photos, so more on this in the next post.)
Sie (Freebird) arrived in the afternoon and we found out he’d also been sick. It appears that Gandhi really did get his revenge. We later found out that many travellers passing through El Nido this year were getting hit with some form of food poisoning or bacterial infection. We never had any problems on our previous visits.
Soon it was time for Richard to head back to Puerto Princessa. I caught a ride to town with him to do a bit of provisioning. Later that evening we met Chris’ niece, Nadya, at the airport. She’d just flown in after volunteering for a few weeks in Bali. It was too late to trek back to Port Barton, so we overnighted and caught a van early the following morning. (Nadya spent a week with us on MOKEN, but I’ll tell you all about that in another post.)
The morning Nadya left was fiesta day in Port Barton. We watched as the members of San Isidro Parish Catholic church carried their patron saint down to the water. From here it was loaded onto a banca for a tour of the bay. Most of the local tourist bancas and the Coast Guard boat joined in the procession, and so did we, along with Ian and Marilyn (Songlines).
We spent another week relaxing around Port Barton, getting MOKEN ready for our first big crossing en route to Malaysia. Whenever we’re getting ready to move on, there’s always a lot of preparation, cleaning and provisioning to do. We got our Garmin inReach updated and ready to use offshore. Chris made sure all our systems were working and cleaned the hull. I shopped and prepared and froze some meals ahead of time for easy food prep underway.
It wasn’t all work. One afternoon we took our drone to starfish island, only to find out it didn’t work. Sigh. Together with Sie, one day we visited Songlines, Ian and Marilyn’s 50 foot Lagoon catamaran, for sundowners. Although their boat is roughly the same length overall as MOKEN, the amount of space inside and on deck is enormous, with four full staterooms and more fridges and freezers than I could count. Most evenings, we’d meet the gang at the Happy Bar, hang out with the owner Rizza, watch the sunset and decide where to eat dinner.
As one of our last duties before we could exit the Philippines, we had to get clearance. This meant another trip in to Puerto Princessa by van. Sie ferried us to shore in his dinghy and agreed to feed Nukaat as we’d be away overnight. Richard met us at the other end and lent us his car so we could get to immigration and customs.
The actual process of clearing out was far easier than we anticipated. First we had to go to the Bureau of Immigration at Robinson Mall. They wanted copies of our crew list, boat registration and photocopies of our passports (photo page and most recent Philippines visa page). I had to get an exit clearance, as I’d been in the country for more than six month. Chris didn’t need this as he’d recently been to Thailand. The only fee was for my exit clearance. The immigration officer gave us a document to turn in at the Bureau of Customs. Customs was on the other side of town and the traffic was slow. Once there we had to get a photocopy of the form from Immigration at a little shop down the road, and then hand over copies of more of the same assorted documents. After paying a 120 peso fee, we were issued with our clearance document. We’d completed both stops in less than 90 minutes. Easy peasy.
Later that day, we met up with our Subic friends Peter and Betty, who had just done the same Tubbataha dive trip that we did last year. After lunch in town, Rich went back to work while the rest of us headed to Nactabon Beach for the afternoon. We found it dramatically different from last year. There are no more beach huts and all the vendors have been pushed back off the beach as a result of the Philippines curb on unpermitted beachfront development. In some ways it was much nicer, but it also meant there was no shade and it was super hot, so we spent a lot of time cooling off in the water.
That evening we caught up with the local guys that work at HNZ who wanted to see Chris before meeting up with Angelo, Mary, Subic John and his birdwatching friend, also John, at Captain Ribs.
We did a quick shop in town for the sorts of stuff I couldn’t find in Port Barton (cheese and crackers, chips, deli meats, granola, yoghurt, etc.) before getting picked up by the van earlier than expected and right in the midst of our farewell pizza lunch with Peter and Betty. Then we spent an hour in a van as it drove around looking for (but not finding) other passengers before going to the bus depot. We left late and had to endure the ride back to Port Barton with a fast, crazy driver.
Our last few days in Barton were spent stowing our gear, cleaning, updating our Malaysia cruising info, revisiting some of our favourite eats in town, enjoying some of our last Philippines sunsets and saying farewell to our new friends Brian and Joven (Stella), Sie, Rob and Jacks, Keith, Martyn and Babs.
May 22 was a big milestone for us. Not only were we finally leaving the Philippines after being in the country for the last five and a half years, but MOKEN was leaving the Philippines after living at Subic since the previous owner brought her over from Hong Kong in 2009. This was also going to be our first multi-day crossing and our first international crossing. Next stop Malaysia.
It seems the Philippines didn’t want to let us go too easily. It took extra effort to release our anchor from the sticky mud, before we could get underway at 0750 hours. I’d already prepped our evening meal (chicken and root vegetables set on low for eight hours in the crockpot), tied down loose items in the salon and stowed everything for heading offshore.
A light early morning rain had left the skies overcast but the temperature was already 30 degrees as we made our way out of the bay, rounded Shark Point and set a southwesterly course for our run down the coast of Palawan. It was great trawler weather. The seas were calm and the winds were light. Even Nukaat was unfazed.
Our plan was a straight run of about 360 nautical miles from Port Barton to Kota Kinabalu on the northwestern tip of Borneo. At an average speed of five to six knots, we expected this would take us between 60 and 72 hours. We decided to go non-stop for two primary reasons. One being that the charts for the coast of Palawan south of Port Barton are notoriously inaccurate and there are lots of poorly charted shallow reefs. The other reason being we’d heard that Abu Sayyef had training camps in southern Palawan, so we didn’t want to go anywhere near them and risk an encounter. Instead, we opted to head about 30 nautical miles offshore and skirt the area well off the coast in deeper water.
Our first day out continued calm and uneventful. We ate dinner. We switched from one hour alternating watches at the helm during the day to three hour watches overnight. We ran without navigation lights at night except when we neared a few squid boats. We spotted a couple of freighters further out. Chris was at the helm for sunset. I got dawn.
On our second day we were off the coast of the southwesternmost islands of the Philippines. It was a bit breezier today and there was a slight swell from the northeast, but still great trawler weather. The water was an amazing blue and our main excitement was spotting large orange steel drum FADs (fish attraction devices) and wondering at a notation on our chart of an area called “Billard Room Insect Putty”.
Nukaat had a few firsts too. He ate and used his litterbox underway for the first time, but only after we moved his dish into the pilothouse and his toilet up to the cockpit. He wouldn’t go below decks while we were on passage.
By evening we had started across Balabac Straight. About dusk, a military drone began following us and this continued for several hours as we headed toward Malaysian waters. We found out later that both the Philippines Navy and the Royal Malaysian Navy use drones to monitor vessel traffic in the area. It did make us feel safer, as long as we didn’t wonder if they thought we might be pirates. We had to maneuver around a few commercial vessels crossing our path, and by this time the weather had picked up a fair bit. Now we were dealing with 25 knots of wind and more swell, but still mild compared to some trips we’d done between islands in the Philippines. The moon was fairly bright each night too, which helped.
By the morning of our third day, Balabac Straight was behind us and we were heading toward the northwest coast of Borneo. We used Mount Kinabalu as a reference for hand steering as the water was a bit rough for our autopilot. We spotted our first Malaysian fishing boats and the first of many offshore oil rigs.
About this time, we made a decision to alter our course purely for logistical reasons. At our current speed, we would have arrived at Kota Kinabalu in the dark. Rather than anchoring in the dark in an unknown anchorage outside the marina, we decided to head for Ambong Bay. We passed by Pulau Mantanani Kecil and Pulau Mantanani Besar, dodged a few fishing boats and dropped our anchor in 30 feet of water near a small fishing village. No one came out to meet us, so we spent the late afternoon following the shade around the boat. We had dinner and a nap before getting underway again around 0300 hours.
The 28 NM run down the coast to KK was an obstacle course as we tried to figure out a clear path through the fish boats and nets. This was actually easier before dawn, as everything was well lit in the dark and harder to spot in the early morning light. As we rounded Pulau Gaya, we took turns showering and slowed down so we’d approach Sutera Harbour Marina just after 0800 hours (72 hours after leaving Port Barton). We called in on the VHF (channel 72) and were assigned berth G15 where we were met by two dockhands who helped with our lines. We were quickly tied up and soon hooked up to power and water and directed to the marina office which opened at 0900. At the office we met Eleanor, who I’d dealt with via email, and Rick, the manager. We paid for the remainder of May and got security cards for the marina gate and guest passes for the club. We hit the ATM in the lobby and then jumped into a taxi with our passports and boat paperwork to make the rounds for our clearance into Malaysia.
Our first stop was Jabatan Laut (Malaysia Marine Department), followed by Immigration and Customs. Once again, the process was very easy except for the costly taxi ride. (Nobody uses taxis here. Grab is the way to go.) On our way back, we also stopped to get SIM cards and loads for our phones and change some money.
We were back at Sutera in time for lunch. This complex is huge. Aside from the marina and clubhouse, there are two huge resorts, several restaurants and pools, a golf course, a well equipped gym, tennis courts and more. It may take some time to explore all of it, but it seems like a great base for forays into Sabah, the northernmost state of Malaysia Borneo. But first, food. We headed to the beach bar overlooking the harbor and the marina for a burger, a fresh salad and a couple of cold beers. The rest could wait until later.