The last week has been tough. Amazing, but tough. On facebook I will soon be able to post phenomenal photos. 9 days on the water, five of us, camping on empty beaches. The scenery has been incredible. The sunsets majestic. Crystal clear waters and rich reefs teeming with life.
But the wind has been fickle, ocean swell menacing, tides frustrating, and looking after the boat has been a nightmare.
I once saw a TV show about a guy who rode an elephant across India. It seemed so intriguing and enticing. What it didn’t explain was what he did with the elephant when he wasn’t riding it. Where do you park an elephant?
Boats are the same. Wild animals.. Tenuously held in place by string and a metal hook… Constantly trying to break free. Easily persuaded by the winds and swell to tug for their freedom. Willing to inflict bodily harm to themselves on any rocks that may be at hand.
Boat owners on their home turf find safe places to tie up their boats. They know the good spots where an anchor will hold, they can place mooring balls attached to barrels of concrete, or pay for space to tie up at docks. The wandering sailor must figure this out anew every night. This leads to sleepless nights wondering whether the anchor will hold. Gusts of wind interrupt thought. Changing wind direction interrupts dinner. Are the the waves building? Will the retreating tide put the boat in the surf zone?
Bigger boats live in deep water. Their owners shuttle to land on little dinghys. Flash is too small to carry a dinghy. So we bring it to the beach every night. But it is often too heavy to push up the beach. So it lives at the interface between the ocean and the land… a dangerous place indeed.
Surrounding every beach here in the Philippines is a fringing reef, breaking the surface at low tide. Jagged coral heads, battered by the elements. Teeth ready to eat chunks from carelessly handled boats. When the tide is over 0.7m we can happily sail Flash over them and to the white sand beach beckoning on the inside. At 0.5m, we must be more careful, approaching slowly with pole out and paddles at the ready. By 0.4m we expect some contact.. crew are ready to jump and push. Below 0.3m we are stuck on one side or the other. At low tide every white sand beach is actually a rocky and dangerous shore.
Inside the reef fringe is usually an area of deeper water with sand and rock bottom. On an ideal night we sail onto the beach, collect some driftwood for rollers, heave the boat up a little and call it quits for the night. But you can only do that if the tide is going down and isn’t coming back. Invariably this is not the case. A 2am high tide requires more thought and usually a beach anchor.
Beach anchoring seems simple enough. Drop the hook off the back on the way in, and then tie the boat to a tree. The boat should float perpendicular to the beach with the surf rolling under it.
At night I sleep on the boat. This means you are on hand and wake up when things start to go wrong. Let’s just say I haven’t had much sleep this last week.
On the west side of Coron island we landed on a white sand beach and watched a beautiful sunset on a calm sea. But at 1am the wind started blowing. At first it was fresh puffs which quickly grew to constant billowing and ever increasing gusts. Soon the boat is swaying to the side. She wants to sail. And with wind comes swell. Even small waves have tremendous push. Flash is soon jerking up and down, banging the ground with each wave at the edge of an angry sea.
I am now standing on the shore wet, staring at the trap I’ve been lured into. The beautiful sunset replaced by a ‘screw you’ from Mother Nature. I’m tense and worried as I watch the boat bounce around and bang the bottom. Will the stern anchor hold? What if it fails? – the beach is small and Flash would be blown sideways onto rocks. I tie off extra side ropes to trees to prevent this and then I pace around in the dark as wind, sand and spray whip around me. Eventually I bed down again, but it’s a struggle to get any sleep as the wind curses at me and Flash fights for freedom.
The next day when we escape the beach, I swear never again to park the boat facing open water.
That night we sail over to Culion at the other side of the bay. We ghost into town under a starlit sky and with no idea of where to park. The waterfront is fringed with houses on mangrove stilts, and rocky walls. We invite ourselves to tie up to the stilted dock and buildings of Rolly, a boat carpenter and an exceptionally generous man who kindly moves his boat to make room for ours. He then allows us to pass back and forth through his house to get to the street outside. The generosity of people here can be incredible. We eat out at the only restaurant in town, have a wonderful dinner and I retire back to the boat to sleep.
At 1am I feel breaths of wind on my face. It tickles my bedsheet which flaps in surprise. Then the boat starts to gently rock me awake.
Culion is fairly protected at the nose of a bay, but it still faces out into open water, and it turns out that wind and waves will follow a channel and wrap around headlands. Rolly’s dock doesn’t change this. 20 minutes later I’m back standing on the dock. Flash is dancing around and the winds and waves are building. The jerking gets stronger and stronger; Flash is bouncing around and begins noticeably tugging at the stilts; the dock shudders with each pull. Soon Rolly is awake too, and it becomes painfully apparent that Flash is trying to pull his house down.
At this point I have no idea how to solve this. Flash is hemmed in between houses on stilts. We can’t realistically get her sailing in the dark into a gusting wind and all sorts of obstacles beyond. To cut the bowline would only allow Flash to drift down onto the neighbors’ house. I’m at a loss.
Philipinos are an incredibly resourceful bunch. The jerking increases more and more, the house is shaking, and a solution is as necessary as it is urgent. Rolly asks if I have extra line? Yes, I have at least that. I clamber back aboard Flash and dig out 30m of extra line. Rolly leads this over his dock and attaches it to the concrete pilings of the neighbors house. The concrete pilings are more solid and spread the load. The house is no longer shaking. Disaster is averted. We breathe a sigh of relief. Flash dances… bucking back and forth.
It’s 1am. Rolly starts to make coffee, which I happily accept for the taste before realizing what he is inferring. We sit and watch. 10 minutes later we start to notice the stern anchor slipping.
The outriggers and bamboo ‘swimmers’ of Flash present a challenging shape for a dock. You cannot park her sideways. Instead, you have to tie the boat perpendicular to the dock and get on and off at the front. The stern anchor holds the back out.
If the stern anchor is not held tight, the boat can move forward and sway to an angle. The boat will move around more and the swimmers can hook underneath the dock. Add movement to this and either Flash will break or the dock will. Flash yaws sidewards and back and forth, the swimmers coming close to hooking the electrical wiring that runs underneath the house. Once again I’m trying to save Flash, Rolly is trying to save his house.
The wind is brisk, and the surge of the surf powerful. My job is to sort out the stern the anchor. I climb back aboard the boat, which is now a bucking bronco. On my first attempt to walk to the back, I’m thrown and rope slices the skin on my fingers as I struggle to hold on. The following ten minutes are a blur. I’m astride the back of the boat, retying and tightening anchor lines, Rolly is up front, holding the boat away from his house waiting on me to act. Lines are tangled. I fall into the cockpit hatch and narrowly miss breaking bones. Tightening doesn’t work, and the anchor slips more. I have to reset it. I swim out in the water, stepping over who knows what to reset the anchor. Then I’m back aboard tightening things up again. Eventually Flash comes back under control, still bucking, but held away from anything on land.
I dry out back on the dock and we watch. Rolly makes coffee again. It’s 2am. He’s concerned about his boat. He’s concerned about mine. I just sit there and feel humbled and stupid. For the next two hours, we stay awake, talking quietly in broken English and shining a flashlight to and fro between the boats. At around 4am Rolly allows me to fall asleep but he still keeps an eye on things until the wind begin to lie down at dawn.
It was a narrow escape at Culion. Every day I fear it will happen again. If you want to sail from island to island on a little outrigger canoe, it’s very hard to find places to stop that are not exposed. Each day we push out from the safety of land and make progress on our journey, with the timing of the changing of the tides as a limit on our time on the water. I use satellite images from Google maps to try and pick out safe landings and bail or spots, but it’s never a sure thing.
The wind, waves, tides, sun… sometimes friends, often enemies.
The following nights I become wiser, and the tides more favorable, and I sleep better, but I always worry. We tackle reefs with ocean swells brought down from storms up north in the sea of Japan. We face more challenging reef exits and entries. But we make it, and Flash makes it, and we have a ton of great photos and memories for it.