March 2018 (3) Night passages to the Philippines

Early in the morning of Wednesday March 21st we waved Ian and Marilyn off from the anchorage at Kaoua and soon afterwards, set off for Ulugan. Ian had told Paul the forecast was for little wind and we had a bit of a choppy start to the passage with no sail to stabilise us on the waves. Now that we’ll be doing more overnight passages, and especially as we’re more likely to encounter rougher conditions the further north we go, our ‘grab bags’ were filled. Like several things on a boat, they are something you have on board but hope never to use. Waterproof bags are placed near the hatch, ready to grab in an emergency (when we’re preparing to board something else we never hope to use, for instance: the liferaft!). Inside one bag, we placed passports, boat’s papers and bank cards. The other bag contains sachets of water, seasickness tablets, torches (one of which is clockwork) an epirb (a device which informs of our position) a hand held VHF radio and GPS .  The waves increased as night fell, and although the wind picked up it was in the wrong direction for sailing. Our night watches now have us life jacketed and clipped on as we stumble around doing checks. It’s one of my biggest fears that in rough seas, Paul has to clamber onto the coach roof to adjust sails and poles while being thrown around. The likelihood of him slipping in rough conditions is all too real for me and the first thing I do when I wake is to check he’s ok.

Our last anchorage in Malaysia

The boat rode a switchback of high waves all through the night, which causes a decidedly ‘drunken’ gait when moving around. Bruises appear on knees, thighs and arms from being shoved into hard edges, and like monkeys, we grab overhead rails to propel ourselves along. Apparently it wasn’t supposed to be this rough and Paul was sure it would improve shortly. Before that happened, though a few items left their shelves, flew through the doors and scattered all over the floor, including a box of washers and a container full of provisions we’d bought for the Pacific crossing. Paul got covered in diesel while attempting to fill the tank, and had to turn the boat into the wind to stabilise it. Worst of all, my shelf of books overturned so that the spines were hidden and only the pages were showing – a nightmare for me to look at and to be unable to rectify.


Making a coffee or eating anything more ambitious than a cereal bar or bags of snacks, biscuits etc was not possible and a timely reminder that I need to prepare things in advance for these passages. The day blurred into both of us alternately sitting, lying, sleeping, checking conditions, course speed and direction. Paul made us pot noodles – or the Malay equivalent – for dinner which, with the addition of bread made an ideal easy passage meal. The squall arrived just after midnight!

Hoisting the Philippines flag

It was terrifying at times. The sails that had helped our speed were banging and flapping in the wind. The wind vane had been doing so well but the wind changed direction and caught us off guard. It increased in knots very quickly and I watched anxiously as Paul crawled along the port side to sort out the sheets while the boat was listing and crashing into the waves. I struggled to hear the instructions he was yelling above the roar of the wind and the banging of the sail block. I had to turn the deck lights on, switch the autohelm on, change the course on the dial above the hatch – all of which meant trying to locate my glasses, and a torch in order to see where the switches were, while trying to remain upright in the rocky conditions. The rain was coming down in sheets and I looked at Paul, all lit up by the spreader lights as he brought the boat back on course, soaked with rainwater and dodging the waves that were crashing into the cockpit. ‘Are we in grave danger?’ I asked. His response (which reassured me) was that he felt in grave danger of going insane if the alarm on his phone wasn’t switched off soon! This is the alarm he uses to wake him every 20 minutes while he is on watch! I hadn’t even heard that in the background with all the other noise. That example is par for the course on any passage and never seems such a big deal once it’s passed. It didn’t stop me from sleeping to be ready for my watch, but only after I extracted my usual promise that Paul would clip on if he had to go on the coach roof. By the time I took over at 5am, all was calm and I took pleasure in watching the sky go through a fabulous range of colours before the sun peeped up on the horizon.

Calm after the storm

Our progress was slow but steady throughout the day, but we were burning more fuel than Paul anticipated due to not being able to sail as much as we’d wanted to. Nature’s elements take on increased relevance at sea because of their impact on our comfort and progress. We’re constantly checking the wind speed and direction, looking for dark clouds on the horizon, the height of the waves as well as what phase the moon is in and when it will rise. I can also see why sailors get inspired to learn about star constellations and planets. That night, after a dinner of sausages, potatoes and beans I sat in the cockpit admiring them. Because it was such a clear night, with no light pollution or obstructions, they appear beautifully vivid in the blackness and are quite mesmerising.

The islands of the Philippines in sight

The next night, I had to wake Paul a few times to sort out various incidents with the sails. Once, the topping lift became disengaged and the boom was ramming against the solar panels. I watched as he attempted to retrieve its rope with a boat hook while it was flying around fairly high up. He had to get in some precarious positions while the boat was rocking, which had me mentally rehearsing the man overboard procedure until he retrieved it. We ploughed on through high waves in an up and down motion, consequently not making much headway: our average speed was 3 knots instead of the desired 6. There was also a lot of sea spray coming over the sides, which certainly wakes you up when you’ve just come on watch all groggy, and stick your head out for a quick look around!

Making coffee down below one morning, I was shocked when I noticed a boat alongside us from the window and rushed up to see it. It turned out to be the first of the many fishing ‘bancas’ we would see in the Philippines. Three men were on board the wide, raft-like vessel which is distinctive for its balancing wooden contraptions on each side of the hull. It seemed they had simply come for a closer look and waved and smiled at me when I appeared in the cockpit, then motored off into the choppy waves. I marvelled at how far out they were; land, in the form of Palawan, was a long way off and it looked too flimsy to withstand the increasingly rough water but really, what do I know  ;).

A Philippine fishing boat (banca)

Despite Paul’s repeated assurances that it would soon get calmer, it never really did for the whole of the passage, but at least he provided me with the hope that it might, and it was nice to feel justified in lying around reading because it wasn’t possible to do much else. On the morning of Saturday 24th March we watched Ulugan Bay get closer. More bancas began to appear and in the lee of the hills the sea finally grew calmer. Finding a spot to anchor in meant tackling the dreaded coral. Even with two depth sounders and me at the bow looking out for the shallows, we still managed to scrape along a bit of coral – a horrid sound indeed. We meandered around for a while practising spotting it and attempting to determine if the bed was mostly sandy. So many factors need to be right, and all at the exact moment. It gets very stressful, especially after not much sleep and the intense heat beating down. Still, we did it on our second attempt and were secure by 1 30 in a peaceful and picturesque bay on the west side of Palawan Island. Paul went ashore on his own a bit later to check out the procedure for immigration while I got myself and the boat shipshape. He returned to state that it resembled parts of The Anambas Islands in that it was very basic. He also said he’d arranged for a tricycle (which I found hard to picture) to take us to Puerto Princesa in the morning.

Looking for a spot to anchor
Paul setting out to find the immigration building

Ulugan Bay looked gorgeous just after sunrise the following day, surrounded as it is by lush green hills and pretty mangroves, with only a few fishing boats on the calm water.

Sunrise from our anchorage

Our approach to the little dock in the village of Macarascas was watched by a few curious and smiling faces who continued to stare as we tied the dinghy and unloaded our bags for the day trip. The village is primitive as Paul said, but it looked lovely, and had a friendly vibe. I thought it was charming, and I liked the fact that the villagers hang out at the waterside, chatting, smoking, children playing nearby. There were a number of dogs too. Once the guy who’d dealt with the trike hire had been found, we were led to the tricycle – which turned out to be a motorbike with a sidecar.

On the way to the village
More fishing bancas
Leading the way to the trike
Typical Philippine trike

These are like taxis in the Philippines and each one is customised and decorated according to its owner’s taste. I had no idea how long the journey would take and once we’d squeezed into the surprisingly small seat and the engine started, I couldn’t ask because the noise was deafening. Puerto Princesa is located on the east side of the island, directly opposite Ulugan so our route traversed the middle of the island. It seems the custom is to honk the horn at anyone coming towards you, whether it’s a car, bike or trike. Unable to talk, there was plenty to look at. If I was expecting the Philippines to resemble Malaysia and Thailand I soon discovered that it differs from them in ways that are hard to pin down. I couldn’t take pictures on the journey but took as many as I could during the stops. The houses we passed looked very much like chalets, each one different but all quite small.

We stopped after about 30 minutes at a place called Salvacion. Here, we were supposed to get a bus to Puerto Princesa. We hadn’t even got out of the trike (not an easy task when you’ve been scrunched up in such a small space) when we were approached by guys from a roadside café who urged us to try their wonderful coffee while we waited. He was very proud of his coffee and rightly so as it happened. We sat at a table where dogs were snoozing under the chairs. We  sipped strong Americanos and chatted to the owners about where we were from, going to and so on.

Salvacion Village

Coffee in the cafe, Salvacion
The cafe’s beautiful back garden!

The owner had promised to let us know when the bus arrived but I did wonder, noticing one drive off if perhaps that was it. We’ll never know because not long after a guy came over and said the bus was full and the next one was an hour away. We were offered the chance to take a trike for the rest of the journey with this guy’s friend who happened to be free. After a bit of haggling we agreed a price and were led to our second trike. Paul suspected we might have unwittingly helped the mate get some business as we had no way of knowing about the bus times or availability but it hardly mattered anyway as long as we got there. We hired him for the whole day and he would be taking us to the immigration building, the yacht club where we would be meeting Ian and Marilyn and back to Macarascas too so it was a better deal really. After the tank was filled with fuel from a stash of coke bottles, the journey resumed on bumpy, gravelly roads through rural Palawan. Tiny villages were set back from the main road, bordered by lush vegetation with rolling hills beyond.

Rural Palawan

Some parts of the route were steep and I wondered if the trike would make it when the engine juddered and we slowed right down. Undeveloped land was littered with signs saying ‘No Trespassing – land belongs to…’ suggesting there are plans for construction right across the island. Every single shop we passed was named for its owner; ‘Lhily’s Store’, ‘Franky’s Store’ for example. I saw no brand name shops in the villages, but I guess that could change if planned development takes off. There were several churches of various denominations along the way, and we were reminded that it was Palm Sunday by groups of people waving the traditional branches around as they came out. Gradually, larger and more industrial buildings began to appear, along with gaudy signs for local karaoke bars, night clubs and restaurant and I knew we must be approaching Puerto Princesa. Our driver stopped a couple of times to consult with people for directions, but we came upon it almost by accident –both of us recognising it from the google images. It was a complex of three shops on a busy street in the centre, but there was no immigration building there. A handwritten sign adorned with smileys informed us that it had relocated to a shopping mall, which was closed on Sundays. Checking in would have to wait until El Nido.

Our next mission was to find an ATM. Quite a few wouldn’t accept our cards and Paul ended up changing some US dollars at a money changing kiosk. Puerto Princesa is a busy, traffic-choked town, quite a contrast from the rural idylls we’d driven through. On our way to the yacht club, the thin metal sides of the side car radiated heat as we queued in traffic and it felt like we were being boiled as the journey went on. It was worth it when we found the place though. Situated by the waterside overlooking the bay, there was a cooling breeze and a bar offering food and drink. Soon, Ian and Marilyn were dinghying over to join us from Songbird and we had a pleasant hour or so eating lunch and catching up with them.

Paul, Ian and Marilyn,Puerto Princesa Yacht Club
Puerto Princesa

We called our driver (we really should remember to ask names) and got him to take us to a mall so we could stock up on a few things and then readied ourselves for the return journey. This was a lot less uncomfortable because the heat of the sun had waned by then. Back at Macarascas there was the expected interested group of people at the quay watching as we parked up to load our things into the dinghy. The plan was for me to wait there while Paul got our driver to take him to a petrol station to buy fuel (a one hour round trip). Thankfully, a helpful guy, overhearing this, pointed out that the shop right next to us sold diesel. The lady owner poured 60 coke bottles full of it into our containers which we loaded that into the overcrowded dinghy. To the accompaniment of children waving and shouting farewell and dogs barking, we set off back across the bay to figure out our plans for the next leg.



Passage to Japan

I will write more about the trip through the Philippines at some point, but now we are in Japan I wanted to get an update down before I forget it all.

Leaving the Philippines

We checked out in San Fernando La Union on the North west coast of the main Philippine island of Luzon, we had a lovely stop there, a local fisherman rowed out to us in his banca and offered to do any jobs we wanted, he took my diesel jugs ashore and returned with 60ltr of fuel, he also got us 30ltr of drinking water and finally he went to the timber yard for me and brought back two freshly sawn planks I could use as fender boards, I had heard they were a must in Japan. He did all of this with a smile and didn’t want very much for his time. The people there were very poor, they lived in a small shanty like town on the edge of the beach, and although very basic, the people there seemed happy.

The End Of Luzon

It was some 500 odd miles to the southern islands of Japan from there and we called into Basco port on Batanes Island, which was a days sails out of San Fernando. On the way we had an engine problem, it’s only small I think, some gas escaping on the cylinder head, it may be a gasket or the injector seating as that was a problem before. However I don’t fancy finding a mechanic in Japan, or paying his bill. We will have to see. Anyway the winds were good so we hoped to sail the rest of the way. We anchored just into the harbour, and had hoped to get a nights sleep in without any fuss, but the coastguard had other ideas and ordered me to visit him in his office, which was a right pain, as I had stowed the dinghy and outboard away, not expecting to need them before we got to Canada/America. Ashore he went over all my papers and passport and after 30 minutes of questioning I was told everything was fine and now I had to visit the port authority to get permission to stay. Eventually I was back on the boat and checked the weather, using our sat phone. Things were planned to get worse in 3 days time, so I suggested to Kathy we leave now, and try to beat the bad weather, as it was coming our way anyway, so off we went. We didn’t beat it.

Although the first night was calm, early in the evening I smelt a familiar smell, that of a battery gassing, our batteries are sealed and so can’t gas unless they are in a very bad way, I looked at the battery monitor and could see the battery volts to be very low, and given the strength of the smell I assumed things were not good. In a controlled panic sort of way we emptied pots pans, clothes , two bicycles, and much more junk out of the quarter berth, and removed the mattress to get to the battery bank. As I thought one of the batteries had gone into thermal run-away. I wasn’t quite sure where this might lead, but batteries can explode, I wondered if they can catch fire, so I very quickly unbolted the connections to it, and saw the battery voltage rise on the other 3  120AH batteries in parallel with it. I lifted the faulty battery out of its wooden box and let the air flow around it, it was too hot to touch. I think we just caught it in time. Kathy went to bed, and I continued with my watch.

The next morning we put the quarter berth back  together, I replaced the faulty baterry with the engine starter battery, which was from the same batch. A few hours into daylight Kathy pointed out an approaching dark patch, the temperature was already dropping and it was a very grey day, within another hour it started raining then the wind hit us, we were now in the 20 knot range and the seas started to build quickly. I had hoped it was a squall, and the radar seemed to confirm this, yet when the rain passed, we still had grey skies, strong wind and building seas. A few hours later we were being thrown around something wicked.

Not long after this A pigeon landed on the boat and made it his home, shortly followed by four more pigeons.They were all ringed, so presumably they were on their way home.  Kathy loved it, and tried to feed them some nuts and cereal, but they seemed fat enough and all it did was to create even more mess for me to clean up later. That night was difficult, there was no moon and with a cloud covered sky it was black. The wind was on the nose, the waves were about 10ft – 15ft high and we were going north, but a starboard tack sent us SW and a port tack sent us SE, so we were going backwards, and getting beaten up. In the end we tied the rudder midships, left the mainsail reefed and went below for the night. The boat moved along nicely at about 1.5 knots and we tried to get some sleep. At one point a very big wave lifted the boat up and spun us through 90 degrees or more, so that when we hit the water again we were on a different tack, but as we only had the main up we left it like that for a few more hours, perhaps the wind knew best.

The next day was still rough but we could make a little progress forward, during the night the wind sensor failed to work, it’s wifi and often looses contact with the sender, I need to investigate.  Also at one point the auto helm gave up against the seas and decided to send us back to the Philippines, I came on deck, stepping over pigeons to take control but found the wind sensor out, and worst of all the little LEDs that light the normal binnacle compass were out, so I couldn’t read it. In the total darkness, when you can’t see the sails, or the instruments, it’s very difficult to work out the course to steer. Also waves were making it into the cockpit and I had to have my full set of oililies on, and I was feeling cold and damp.I began to wonder what madness had driven me from Malaysia. Of course all was fixed with the help of a torch and a few resets on the wind sensor.

The next day was predicted to be calmer by, our source of satellite weather data. It did calm a little and the pigeons all took off in unison, there were two great big ships on the horizon and I wondered if that was were they were heading.

Soon we were in the lee of Iriomote, a large island we have to go around to get to Ishigaki, and things calmed right down. Kathy sailed us into the harbour were we headed for the best berth that I had been informed of by a local I contacted via noon site.

On arriving at the port, the berth I wanted was full, the berths here consist of huge concrete walls you go alongside, mostly designed for big ships. A man came out and waved at us to go to a space on a nearby wall, which we did, he helpfully took our lines and immediately 3 coastguard (CG) officials turned up and introduced themselves.One was the official I had been in email contact with to notify them of our arrival. Pre arrival notification, along with the 7 page forms you have to send is just the start of a prolonged check in process that takes a day or two. The CG was very polite but also vert very keen that we stay on the boat until formalities had been completed, he even seemed upset that kathy put a hand on the wall. We waited an hour while the CG made phone calls and chatted amongst themselves before we were told we had to move to another berth. Then they arranged for one of the big (200ft) CG vessels to launch a RIB to guide us to the dock next to us, something we could have found ourselves by them pointing to the spot. When we were in the new dock, much more foreboding in terms of concrete covered in barnacles, and also 6ft higher up than the decks on our little boat, the CG men reappeared, they were joined by several more CG staff. A regular occurrence over the next 2 days as we started the check in process. We were told to stay on the boat and Quarantine, customs and Immigration would be along soon. Sure enough they all duly turned up and I had 8 people in the cockpit taking turns to get me to fill in forms, customs, Quarantine and Coastguard. Immigration would be done later at the immigration office. While I was dealing with all of this the tide was dropping. I wasn’t allowed ashore to adjust the lines, and they had tied me off with little slack, I hadn’t noticed at first, but the boat was close to the wall, and some passing wake from a powerboat pushed us hard onto a big rubber fender bolted to the wall and smashed a chunk of caprail off, this is the very pretty wood that goes around the edge of the boat.I pointed this out to Kathy and she went and had a look and came back and told me the bowsprit was smashed up. Fortunately it was only the platform,This was on the replacement list anyway, but I expect it smashed when we slammed down into a wave on the passage. I have sellotaped it back together and hope it will get us to America. I may have to screw some wooden slats over it to make it more secure.

After a few hours they all left, customs did a search of the boat and took swabs from all the surfaces, Quarantine asked the usual question, did we have any dead animals on board, had anyone died on passage, were we ill etc. The coastguard wanted lots of documents we don’t have, Lloyds certificate, gross tonnage documentation, cargo description, last ten ports we called at! Had we ever been to North Korea? Later the Immigration officials drove us to their office were they very cheerfully gave us 3 month visas and drove us off to the port authority were we had to pay our dues for the concrete slab that was ripping our boat to bits. I paid for 5 days as I expected the boat jobs might take a while.

Thankfully by now I had rigged up fender boards from San Fernando and the boat was coping well.

Next we headed into town for some dinner and our first experience of Japanese culture. All I can say so far, things are different here, I didn’t spot a single chain/brand here, so far I haven’t been to a large town aywhere in the world that doesn’t have a McDonnell’s or Starbucks, but I haven’t seen one here yet, no Body Shop, no KFC, no Pizza Hut, but lots of very individual shops, bars and cafes. Kathy will elaborate I’m sure. We found the post office and got some YEN out, wandered around the market, I saw some amazing tuna loins, then found a nice bar that did food and had an english menu, and had dinner.

WiFi is proving difficult here, it’s complicated to get a SIM card, and prices are high, most people rent a MiFI data modem, but that’s difficult for us, I’m going to see if we can get one here and return it up near Tokyo. Until then I’m using roaming on my Malaysian SIM, or we use cafe internet.

I asked the CG today if they could help me get some fuel, this ended up with 8 CG staff all standing on the quay discussing the problem. after 30 minutes they arranged for a tanker to visit and refuel me. However they couldn’t fill my plastic jerry cans due to Japanese law saying cans must be made of stainless steel. They all disappeared and 30minutes later another man appeared saying he would wait until the tanker arrived. Not long after 6 CG people arrived and discussed the fuel situation. Then two guys turned up from environmental  control, they advised that my boat could not be refuelled this way because of the chance of spillage from the deck filling point, given the ‘High Pressure’ from the truck. More flapping, more CG come and go, next a CG with some english explained that I could use my plastic cans with fuel in them to fill my tank and the lorry could fill the plastic cans, something that was  illegal an hour ago. So I went to fill the tank with the 6 * 20ltr jerry cans, when there was uproar about a possible spillage, I showed them I could do it without spillage and they relaxed, until the 4th can, when the boss CG sent a man onboard to monitor my fuel gauge, and as it was showing 3/4 full he told me I could do no more in case it overflowed. I argued and tried to explain the gauge is not linear, and 3/4 meant there was room for another 50ltr, but he got pissed off with me and said he would cancel my request to visit the closed port. We compromised on another 20ltr.

The truck didn’t arrive, but one of the CG took my cans to the petrol station and filed them for me.

After the fuel was sorted I had to go to the Department of Transport to register my intent to visit some closed ports. Basically Japan has several thousand ports, and for many years no foreign ships were allowed into these ports without special government permission, after WWII they opened Tokyo to foreign ships, and later a handful of the bigger ports were opened, like Ishigaki where we are now. However several of the ports we wish to visit are still closed so we have to apply, in person, the the department of transport, in a building out of town for permission. it didn’t help that two of the ports we are visiting aren’t on their list of open or closed ports, so I have been told to apply for them in the office nearer to them when I get there. Customs here have already made me sign a form to say I can get 2 years in Jail and a 2,000,000 YEN fine for going to a closed port without the permit.

We ended the day with a trip to a supermarket a bit out of town which had a fantastic range of fresh food and fish followed by a lovely drink in a cafe with very fast internet.

I just received an email from the CG asking me if I got fuel and if so, can I call into their office to fill out a form for Ships taking on provisions. They like their paperwork here.

To be fair, the officials have all been extremely helpful and courteous, and given the communications problems, I can’t fault them, I think it might help them to see that yachts travel all around the world with very little paperwork, and it doesn’t seem to cause any problems.

Paul Collister

Rushing through the Philippines

After a deep sleep we woke to a lovely Sunday morning, but there wasn’t going to be any chance of customs being open, we hired a Trike, which is basically a motorbike with a sidecar welded on. The whole construction seemingly made of re-bar. It was a one hour ride into Peurto Princessa (PP) where we were very pleased to meet up with Ian and Marilyn from Songbird, who had set off the same time as us from Malaysia, but had been more daring and gone up the east side of Palawan, spitting in the faces of the pirates, and they were able to sail right into PP. We had lunch at the delightful PP Abalinco Yacht club, and then hit the Mall for some real bread, wine, drinks etc. Then an arduous 90 minute ride back to the boat in the trike, and at the harbour/jetty I was able to purchase 60 litres of diesel from the corner shop which would get us to our next port of El Nido, I hoped.

I’m going to be brief about the following days, we have been racing through the islands here hoping to get to Japan on time, and my illness didn’t help. I could write pages on each location we visited, but we need to come back and spend at least one whole season, or year here. It’s a great country. However, I have to get working on my passage plan for Japan, I don’t have a lot of internet, or time, so briefly… (Pics to follow)

From PP we shot up to Jibboom bay, partly because it was a convinient stop, but also because I loved the name, it was a very secluded, and the perfect getaway, if it wasn’t for the sand flies that wreaked havoc on our legs. The next morning we left and arrived in Corong Corong with is a bay next to El Nido, full of tourists and quite a crazy place. I was beginning to get the feeling that Filipinos like to party. We stayed 2 nights there to recuperate a little then off again to Puerto Galera overnight, the place is gorgeous, we anchored as the yacht club mooring buoys were all taken by there easter regatta. We had four nights there and loved the place, we restocked on fuel and food/drink, and checked into the country proper. We were now legal and hadn’t had to pay any ‘coffee money’ yet.

From there we sailed to Subic Bay, doing this 24 hour passage overnight. However the wind was so good to us, we arrived in the middle of the night, 2AM, so we anchored off the coast till daylight then went into the bay, hoping for a marina berth in one of the two marinas there. Both were full due to a big regatta taking place, but we picked up a free mooring outside the lighthouse bar/restaurant. A great place to provision with huge well stocked American style supermarkets. After one night there we slipped are mooring and headed north doing another overnighter to San Fernando La union, where we are now. We went to checkout of the country this afternoon, but found their is a holiday today and they are shut. So tomorrow morning we check out and head for Japan.

Paul Collister

March 2018 (2) Cabin Fever!

Our intention was to stay in Sutera Harbour for a few days, prepare for the trip to the Philippines and continue travelling north to the island of Palawan. Things, as they say, didn’t quite go to plan, however.  We spent Wednesday March 7th sticking to our schedule, which was mainly shopping for drinks, fresh produce and other essentials for the two-week passage. The morning was taken up with a visit to a supermarket known for its variety of Western products and selection of cheeses. In the afternoon, we visited the market in KK’s centre so that Paul could buy some fresh fish, and stopped for a drink in one of the waterside bars overlooking the bay, noting that it would be the last time we’d see it for several years – if at all. From there we went to Imago Mall for a bite to eat and a final shop in the supermarket there, and took a taxi back to the boat to stow it all away.

Barbecued fish
Kota Kinabalu Waterfront
Note the rose napkin, made for me by a charming barman
Dinner at Beyond Veggie, Imago Mall, KK

The morning of our departure got off to a promising start. Provisions were stowed, the water and fuel tanks were filled, engine checks done and the passage plan was all set up in the cockpit on the iPad. I reached into the fridge, to get some spread for my toast and remarked that it didn’t feel as cold as usual. Paul did some checks and confirmed that the fridge had stopped working. A more detailed examination revealed that it wasn’t going to be a quick fix, and it looked as though we would have to postpone leaving. We quickly dispatched our frozen goods to Ian and Marilyn’s boat where they kindly agreed to store it for us. The rest would be fine for a while as it was still cold enough inside the fridge, but there was quite a lot of food in there for a two-week passage. We also had the added stress of having checked out and without knowing how long the problem would take to fix, weren’t sure whether we should check back in again. Word spread about our plight and we had several offers of help and advice from neighbours and marina staff. Paul spent most of the day researching, emailing and contacting various firms and distributors about obtaining a new controller for the fridge to replace the faulty one. By the evening it had been ordered from a place in Devon to be delivered here by DHL on Monday. We had also acquired a huge bag of ice to help preserve the contents of the fridge, so things were looking up and we decided a few days’ delay wasn’t such a big deal . Paul took advantage of the extra time to take his water-logged iPhone to a kiosk in Imago Mall. A chap there had offered to fix it over the course of a few days but at the time we had planned to be leaving the following day.  On the walk back,  we discussed how we might spend the unplanned extended weekend we’d be having in KK…cycle rides maybe, swimming in the resort’s pools, a bit of bowling perhaps? We did none of those things as it turned out. The next ten days would prove to be a lot more stressful than sorting out a broken fridge.

We were both up early on Friday 9th March. Paul had begun to feel ill during the night. He complained of feeling chilled, was shivering uncontrollably and said he was aching all over. He’d also been sweating a lot and had a headache. He’s had random attacks like this before so he took some paracetamol which usually helps, but he didn’t feel much better by morning. He decided this might be an opportune time for me to practise taking and recording vital signs with the medical equipment we have on board. I retrieved the thermometer and a blood pressure and pulse monitoring device and following the instructions, recorded both of our results so that we could compare and contrast. Although Paul’s pulse was normal, his temperature was quite high and his blood pressure was slightly low. He felt lethargic, too so we guessed a day or two taking it easy with regular doses of paracetamol and ibuprofen would sort it out. He dozed most of the day but whenever he woke he still felt rough, he was shivery and his temperature remained high. That night we made the mistake of looking up symptoms online and checking what to do when someone’s temperature doesn’t go down. The number of life-threatening diseases he could potentially have was staggering and scary. Malaria and dengue fever seemed the most likely, according to his symptoms and I kept thinking of his time in the volcanic mud pool on Tiga. Moreover, I had sat in the cockpit earlier that evening so as not to disturb his sleep and ended up with several mosquito bites of my own. We’d heard that incidents of dengue fever had been reported in the nearby stilted village and I thought how awful it would be if we both went down with it. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of worst case scenarios when someone falls ill in a tropical country, and I’m the first to admit that dealing with sick people is not one of my strong points.

Paul laid low

Saturday dawned with no improvement after another night of uncontrollable shaking and sweating. I kept suggesting calling a doctor, and even got the list of numbers we’d been given by marina staff for emergencies but typically, Paul kept insisting it was a viral infection and it would pass in a day or two. By the afternoon, though, his temperature had risen to 40 and he’d become delirious;  by which I mean he was awake but narrating a vivid dream about rivers of chocolate among other bizarre things.  It’s so not like Paul to ramble on making no sense and I was seriously alarmed. I told him I was going to get Ian and Marilyn, thinking they might be able to persuade him to see a doctor. I knew he was bad when he didn’t protest, just nodded and said that would be fine. They both agreed with me he needed medical attention as soon as they saw him. Marilyn took his temperature and said he should get checked out at the hospital. I was very grateful for their help and advice. Sometimes you need the assurance and second opinion of a third party to confirm your instincts (as well as to convince a stubborn patient).  Paul felt very dizzy and weak by the time we’d got ready and shut the boat up. Ian helped him up the steps to Sutera’s reception area where we called a Grab for the short distance to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. There, we answered a few questions at the admissions desk and paid the £10 treatment fee for foreigners. We were told to take a seat and wait until someone called the number we’d been given.  A thoughtful security guard, seeing us looking around at the array of led numbered displays and straining to hear the announcements over a tannoy,  made sure we didn’t get confused or miss our turn by looking out for us and prompting us about when and where we had to go. We didn’t have long to wait before being called into the consultation/examination area and after asking a series of questions, the doctor recommended a blood test and rehydration treatment. We had left the boat in a bit of a hurry and hadn’t brought any spare clothing with us. Paul was still shivering and because it was icy cold in the air conditioned building, it wasn’t long before I was too. After his blood test, and while he was attached to a rehydration drip with my shawl around him I went outside for an hour or so to warm myself up and to find a shop to buy water. The diagnosis, when we eventually got it, was a viral infection (if Paul had said ‘I told you so’ at that point I would have been very tempted to slap him 😉 ). Anyway, we were relieved it wasn’t dengue or malaria…and I still blame that mud pool.

Queen Elizabeth Hospital

The next week or so was all about waiting for the worst of Paul’s fever to pass and to wait for the fridge part to be delivered. At times he felt better, and was even well enough to walk to the mall to collect his iPhone, which had been successfully repaired. To keep the fridge contents cold, we needed to keep buying huge bags of ice from a guy who supplies it to the resort. We’d obtained a number for him from reception but could never get hold of him that way. It was funny hearing Paul on his mobile asking ‘hello, is that the ice man?’ We had to resort to waiting until his van arrived at the car park and making the poor man jump by hailing him when he got out. The virus continued to lay Paul low, however, especially in the way it sapped his energy and he had to resort to just lying on the bunk in the cabin feeling weak and listless. Marilyn pointed out to me that it was strange the results of the blood test had ruled out dengue so quickly as it usually takes longer, which was something I hadn’t considered. It was clear that we wouldn’t be able to continue our travels for at least a few more days.

This family visited our berth one afternoon 🙂

I took to walking to the mall on my own late in the afternoons to get drinking water and fresh bread while Paul rested in the cabin. Sometimes I stopped at a bar to read or people-watch and enjoy a change of scene. On Monday (12th) the fridge part was delivered and I helped to unload the contents of the locker in the cockpit so Paul could access the area to work on it. Thankfully it seemed to work but we left all the stuff out in case it needed more attention. It was frustrating for Paul to feel confined and restricted from doing anything by feeling so exhausted. The delay in leaving had already meant our time in The Philippines would be cut short, and there was concern we wouldn’t have enough time to get to Japan for the start of the rally we’re booked to take part in. All in all, what with the humidity and the illness, and the frustration of confinement it wasn’t the most content of atmospheres on Sister Midnight. I think my bedside manner could do with some refining and I couldn’t help smiling in amazement when I remembered how I had desperately wanted to be a nurse when I was about 14 – it would never have worked as I’m sure Paul will agree  😉

St Patrick’s Day Afternoon (it’s not like it is in Ireland)

One afternoon, we met a Japanese lady called Mio who was looking for a boat to crew on as a means of getting back to Japan. She was quite an amazing woman who for six months of the year travelled around wherever she wanted to visit with earned money from collecting rare seaweed on a fishing boat in Japan. Her only rule was that she would not fly anywhere. She had heard we would be sailing to Japan and came to visit us. She understood that we weren’t looking for crew but thought it would be good to chat and to swap information. She very kindly brought us a papaya as a gift. We tried it later and I loved it but Paul’s description made me laugh. He said it resembled a melon, tasted of sock and reminded him of mice! I don’t think the delirium had returned ;). She gave us some useful tips about Japanese culture and food and we passed on some names who might be able to help her.

Papaya, the fruit that resembles a melon

Paul was keen to get a haircut before we left so we got a taxi to a mall a bit further out of town which has a couple of ‘hair studios’ as well as two bookshops and a good supermarket. I bought a guide book on Japan while Paul had months of hair growth shorn away; he looked and felt much better for it. The excursion exhausted him though so we were definitely right to delay our departure. He ate a meal that evening for the first time in days so although the process was slow, he was definitely improving. Our extended stay allowed time for sorting and arranging the many maps and huge paper navigation charts that are on board. They are fascinating to look at, and selecting the ones that relevant for our imminent travels gave me a better perspective of Philippine locations, especially as I’m reading a book about prisoners of war who were held on Palawan Island during the Second World War.

Love these charts

We hoped to leave sometime during the weekend of March 16th/17th, but Paul still felt like he hadn’t enough energy to do anything other than lie in the cabin and doze. Both of us are feeling quite desperate to move on now, and I was worried in case he was relapsing. By Sunday evening, however, after we’d taken a taxi to Giant Supermarket to get some provisions for the Pacific crossing later this year, Paul said we would leave in the morning as it was only a short hop to a place called Sambulong, and we could always turn back if he felt bad. We left at 10 30 on a blistering hot morning, waved off by Ian and Marilyn who we’ll be keeping in touch with. It was the right thing to do because it wasn’t long before the cool breeze invigorated both of us after being stuck in the heat with little change of scene for so long.

Leaving our berth in Sutera Harbour
Ian and Marilyn on their catamaran, ‘Songbird’
Sutera Harbour Marina and Country Club

Psychologically, we felt we were moving on and making progress with the planned itinerary, even though our time in The Philippines would be shorter.  The highlight of this short passage was the sight of the imposing Mount Kinabalu when it came into view. I had read all about it during our time in Sutera in December. It’s possible for novices to climb this mountain, and many do. Maybe if we had stayed longer and felt fitter, we would have attempted it. The descriptions of altitude sickness sounded a bit off putting but seem worth it for the spectacular scenes of sunrise visible from the summit. We anchored at 6pm near some FADS (fishing aggregation devices), which are best described as large wooden platforms for fisherman. They use them as a base to fish from, and they have facilities for making drinks, provide shelter from the elements and even have a generator for lights. It looked quite cosy from our position near them when it got dark, and we could hear the men laughing and chatting during the night.

Mount Kinabalu
Feeling much better
View from our anchorage at Sambulong

The guys on the FADS waved us off when we left in the morning. Mount Kinabalu looked striking in the early morning sunlight before it faded into the distance behind us. Our destination was Tanjung Kaoua, where Ian and Marilyn were already anchored so we had a chat with them on the VHF before settling down for the night. The spot was pretty but a little bit rolly. This would be our last anchorage for a while. It was to be night passages (and taking turns at four hourly watches) all the way to The Philippines for the next three nights.



Passage to Palawan up the Palawan Passage

We finally motored away from Malaysia and headed up the west coast of Palawan in the Philippines. The forecast was for winds on the nose, but not more than 15 knots, and calm some of the time. We wanted to go a long way offshore, firstly because the reefs are poorly charted inshore, and some of the shallows extend to 20 miles offshore and we would be doing 2-3 nights over this area. The other reason was to be well out of sight of land and pirates. Southern Palawan has been home to a recent kidnapping and subsequent beheading of a yacht couple who couldn’t pay the ransom. It has been over a year since there have been any incidents, and I believe the terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, responsible for this are on the back foot right now. Still we didn’t want to take any risks.

Unfortunately the wind and waves were a bit more than I expected and we had a very slow passage, we were only making 2 – 3 knots into the wind when using the engine, and that was eating up the fuel. The passage was about 250 miles, and we wouldn’t have enough fuel at the current burn rate, so I decided to tack up the palawan passage, which was the obvious thing to do. The boat goes to wind quite well, and under sail alone it was a much more comfortable ride, and also faster as we were making 5-6 knots into the wind. However because of the zig zagging involved in tacking, we wouldn’t get there any quicker but at least we would have some fuel available, and a more comfortable ride. The Palawan passage is a route up the west coast of Palawan which is quite deep, mostly between 500 and 1000 metres, however it is 20 miles offshore and either side of the passage depths can drop to 1 or 2 metres in a very short time. On the NW side of the passage there is a large area of reefs and shallows, roughly the size of the UK. Amongst this area are many disputed islands including the Spratly islands

Much of this areas sovereignty is contested, and there has been a fair bit of military / Naval drive bys of late.  I looked at a recent news item about a big yacht going aground in this region recently and wondered why it was even there, yet we were now tacking into the same area. I needed to make sure we didn’t go too far, yet on the other tack we headed towards the shallows off the coast of Palawan. As it turned out the wind was shifting a lot so the decisions were quite easy.

Fridge woes digression:
At some point on the passage I noticed my coke zero was a bit warm, and yes, the fridge had packed in again. This was quite confusing, it had been running for a couple of weeks doing a sterling job, the controller I replaced might have failed again, but usually you would expect this within a few hours not weeks, perhaps the compressor had an intermittent fault that was blowing up controllers, a short? I was a bit disappointed at the thought of arriving in the Philippines without a fridge, I had heard importing boat bits into this country was a nightmare and to be avoided at all cost! So with a little trepidation I emptied out the lazarette locker, Something I felt should be possible while being tossed around at sea anyway. Looking at the fuse I could see something was wrong, half of it, the plastic bit, was missing. The rest of it looked burnt. You can see the normal type of fuse above the damaged fuse.

Very confused, I fitted another fuse and we were back up and running. A few days later when Kathy pointed out the fridge seemed to be fixed ok I explained that fuses never go faulty on their own, there’s always a reason somewhere, and I couldn’t understand what was going on, but I was sure there was still a problem. And as if by magic the next day the fridge stopped working again. An investigation of the fuse revealed a similar story, except this time the plastic was there, just melted and dripped and re-set all over the fuse holder. The thing was, in both cases the fuse hadn’t actually blown, and despite everything around it melting, it should have continued to work. This was getting to be an interesting mystery. Obviously great heat was being generated, the fridge draws about 8 amps, at 12V which is capable of creating 100W of heat in theory, which is a lot. If the fridge was drawing too much power, the fuse should blow. I suspect that the fuse and fuse holder where not making a great connection, and the heat generated caused the fuse to expand the contacts or move away from them. I’m open to any feedback on this one, suffice it to say, I don’t like these auto style fuses on boats, and will be replacing them as I come across them here. For now, I put a 10A circuit breaker in the place of the fuse, this has two advantages, 1) it won’t have the heat issues of the auto fuse, 2) if there is a temporary short somewhere, then I can reset the fuse easily without emptying the locker, and hopefully keep some life in Kathy’s vegan cheese

Ulugan Bay
After 2 1/2 days at sea, with the wind picking up, we turned to starboard and into the wonderfully calm Ulugan bay.

The entrance to the bay is marked by the three little islands shown below.

This bay is very protected from the northerly winds and we managed to find a spot to anchor in between the extensive very shallow coral.

You can see the coral on a google earth picture.

We were finally in the Philippines and once we had tidied up, I took a dinghy ride ashore to enquire as to the best way to get a taxi/trike into the main city here, Puerto Princesa (PP).

I was able to get a good look at the Bancas in the river, they are mostly made of wood and tied together with string/rope. Some of the more modern ones use GRP.

Back on the boat we both slept for the rest of the day and generally took it easy.

We would stay here for a couple of days and take a ride into the main city here of Puerto Princesa to check in.


Paul Collister