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You’d think that the Philippines would be crawling with yachts.
The wind, particularly in the winter, blows strong, and reliably. It’s sunny almost all the time, and there are literally thousands of islands – 7,107 at last count.
All of these enviable factors would usually point to the perfect destination for a sailing trip, but the charter industry here lags far behind other sailing destinations, like Thailand, Australia or the Caribbean.
A lack of infrastructure, including mooring – and outdated legislation – has conspired to keep this sailor’s paradise from fully developing its potential.
But it’s hoped that the tide is turning, not least in the far western province of Palawan.
To take advantage of this nascent interest in yachting, I gather some sailor friends, pack some boat shoes and head for Coron, one of the province’s main towns, with the prospect of five days on the water ahead of us.
Tranquil water, uninhabited islands
On the first day, instead of setting sail right away we take a traditional trimaran “banka” and aim for nearby Coron Island (confusingly, not where Coron town is located), where sacred freshwater lakes are administered by the indigenous populations.
Two of them are open to tourists but, despite this, are largely empty.
Swimming in Kayangan Lake is a peaceful way to relax, and the towering limestone cliffs that surround it cut the outside world off completely.
Later, we rendezvous with the Esperanza, a 45-foot Jeunneau Sun Odyssey, at a mooring in a quiet bay similarly enclosed by limestone karsts.
We arrive in time for sunset and dinner and drinks on board.
While compact and incredibly organized, the boat is easily big enough to accommodate our party of six, along with Raul Bulaong, our skipper, and the owner of the Esperanza.
He’s a slight, wiry fellow, with sun-blackened skin and piercing, pale eyes.
He’s a Manila rat race escapee who’s set up in Palawan, establishing an organic farm with his wife and fellow sailor Ichay, and tending to their yacht.
This charter, they tell us, is a way of testing the water.
The next day, after motoring out from the shelter of the bay where the Esperanza is moored, we’re set to the various tasks required to get sail power underway.
Sails unfurled and raised, ropes fastened and course set, we pick up speed and for the morning we go mainly with the wind, cruising along at a fair clip.
Out on the water, that February breeze is pleasant. Even in the dead of winter, as Raul puts it, little more than board shorts or a bikini is required on board.
The sun is bright, the sky an impossible shade of blue and the wind is gusting nicely.
Visiting a Marcos legacy
Our destination is one of the many uninhabited islands that make up this part of the vast Philippines archipelago, the majority of which are dotted with sandy beaches and encircled by reefs.
We drop anchor in the shallows outside the reef and spend the afternoon snorkeling and exploring the beach.
Marine excursions are also a possibility, with both Hobies (catamaran dinghies) and kite-surfing available as distractions over the course of the trip.
There’s also the opportunity to visit a true oddity, a safari park populated by African animals, built by late Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who used it as a hunting reserve in his heyday.
The animals on the island– which is called Calauit – no longer receive government support but small fees to visit keep this hunting reserve-turned-safari park running. It’s best to visit early in the morning when the wildlife is up and about, but sadly we miss our chance.
With the breeze ruffling the canvas of the furled sails and a blanket of stars above we elect to sleep on board again.
The weather is mild enough to sleep comfortably in a sleeping bag on deck, and being out on the water has the added advantage of being insect-free.
A dramatic turn
The following day, nature’s power becomes evident.
It’s so gusty that boats are apparently prevented from leaving Coron but as we’re already at sea, we carry on, with a sailor’s glint in Raul’s eye at the prospect of strong winds.
Our overall inexperience becomes evident quickly as, mid-morning, an upwind tack takes a dramatic turn.
We turn into the wind too strongly and, mainsail unable to spill properly, the boom breaks with a resounding crack.
A flurry of activity sees the jib furled and the main stowed, and we continue on our way under engine power.
The end of the sailing part of the adventure is a disappointment but it’s still undeniably pleasant to be on the open water – there’s little that can compare with helming a yacht through these deep-blue waters, a can of San Miguel beer in hand, wind threatening to tug the cap off your head.
Raul’s trust in his new crew, which boasts an interesting and diverse range of inexperience, is heartening.
As we clear the bay, Raul sets up two deep sea fishing rods that protrude from the aft of the boat, their lures skipping around in the wake.
He says he caught an 80-pound sailfish around these parts not too long ago. I assume this is a fisherman’s tale until he shows me photographic evidence.
Sadly, despite several days with the trawl lines out, we don’t get a single bite.
Fresh ceviche + perfect beach = island time
We do avail ourselves of others’ expertise at our next stop, however – a strip of beach owned by our hosts Raul and Ichay, and shared with several fisher families.
We buy a small yellowtail from the neighbors and once it’s gutted we set about turning half of it into ceviche, using small native limes called calamansi.
The remainder of the fish – head and collar – is thrown directly on a fire on the beach and, when cooked, eaten with fingers. It’s delicious.
We set up camp on Raul’s half of the beach and, with a blazing bonfire dug into the sand and a bottle of duty-free bourbon for company, we watch the stars come out again.
Island time means early to bed and early to rise, and it’s not long after first light before we’re awake and back on board.
We set out again for another day of island hopping, taking in a slew of impossibly picturesque islands from the deck before traversing a deep channel and heading for Black Island, a piratical-sounding limestone bulk that looms out of the sea and has one of the most perfect beaches I’ve ever seen.
We head back out after lunch – a full on-board menu is prepared for us by Cat, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who set up a small restaurant, Sinugba Sa Balai in Coron – and make for our final destination, a marina surrounded by resorts and in the mouth of a river.
Raul tells us manatees are often spotted in the brackish water here.
A rare dinner ashore at one of the resorts is followed by final drinks aboard, the water calmly lapping against the hull as the darkness and silence lull us into a calm slumber.
The final day, we squeeze in a last side trip to the picture perfect Pass Island, for a snorkel and swim before returning, slightly sun- and wind-burned and sporting a scruffy five-day maritime beard, to the marina and drive back to Coron, the airport and, regrettably, civilization.
Raul and Ichay Bulaong can be contacted about charters at firstname.lastname@example.org. Other companies offering Philippines yacht charter services include www.charterphilippines.com and Inter Yacht Charter (if in the U.S. call +1 917 4844 997, those in the UK can dial +44 203 6087 605 for more info).