The lost art of sail­ing

Ex­plore Palawan in The Philip­pines aboard a tra­di­tional paraw ves­sel

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - ISO­BEL DI­A­MOND

AS we me­an­der be­tween for­est-clad is­lands con­ceal­ing rib­bons of ivory beach, the out­rig­gers stretch, like in­sect legs, almost 3m across the South China Sea. In Palawan, the west­ern­most re­gion of The Philip­pines, jagged lime­stone islets stand like stone ice­bergs and cut di­a­monds.

My three-day tour takes me deep into Palawan, ex­plor­ing the karst-stud­ded land­scapes. The re­cently launched Bata­lik is the only tour boat to ex­plore popular Bacuit Bay and then move on­wards to the re­mote, undis­cov­ered north. If you see another soul at sea here, you’re un­lucky.

Bata­lik is not just a sail­boat but a relic. It is the largest tra­di­tional paraw in the coun­try. The hull is a 22m-long mass of cof­fee-brown tim­ber, as sleek as a Vik­ing ship, with cream sails bil­low­ing from a 13m-high mast.

Pad­ding along the deck, Gener Paduga shouts or­ders to the crew, his long dread­locks en­twined with dec­o­ra­tive shells. A lo­cal sailor who first ran ex­pe­di­tions on a small self-built paraw in nearby Honda Bay, Paduga dreamt of con­struct­ing a large-scale ver­sion of this na­tive dou­ble outrig­ger boat, like the ves­sels that car­ried cargo on pre­colo­nial trade routes more than 1000 years ago.

This art of sail­ing de­clined with en­gine use but a lo­cal ex­pe­di­tion company, Tao Philip­pines, shared Paduga’s vi­sion to re­vive it. Their col­lab­o­ra­tion brought Bata­lik to fruition. Draw­ing on the shared knowl­edge of his­to­ri­ans and sailors, Paduga worked along­side a team of lo­cal crafts­men to build Bata­lik over a pe­riod of two years.

Few lo­cals still sail in Palawan; the Bacuit Bay is­land­hop­ping ves­sels rely on mo­tors, while fam­i­lies use small power boats for fish­ing. Paduga dreams that learn­ing to sail again will help Palawenos es­cape de­pen­dence on fuel, while fos­ter­ing a deeper un­der­stand­ing of, and re­spect for, the sea.

Palawan Prov­ince is a UNESCO Bio­sphere Re­serve and one-quar­ter of the Philip­pine ar­chi­pel­ago’s 7107 is­lands are in this least-pop­u­lated re­gion. It is of­ten cited as the coun­try’s “last eco­log­i­cal fron­tier” be­cause its pris­tine ecosys­tem is en­dowed with habi­tats of co­ral reef, man­grove, rare fauna and marine life and half of its orig­i­nal for­est cover re­mains in­tact.

El Nido sits at main­land Palawan’s northerly edge and is the en­try point to Bacuit Bay; we drop an­chor by Pi­nag­buyu­tan Is­land, the ocean lit by a full moon. My fel­low pas­sen­gers are a Swedish cou­ple, Re­becca and Mat­tias, and an English­man, Alex, now an ex­pat res­i­dent. We eat din­ner at a bam­boo ta­ble on deck, feast­ing on squid and whole white snap­per, quenched by beer and rum. Next morn­ing we snorkel amid pas­tel-shaded co­ral gar­dens and spy stun­ning fish va­ri­eties, such as sweet­lips, stripy sergeant ma­jors and par­rot­fish. On Pi­nasil and Cudugnon is­lands, we clam­ber through caves to tow­er­ing lime­stone cham­bers and church-like rock for­ma­tions.

The jour­ney north, to Cad­lao Is­land, pro­vides time to ad­mire Bata­lik up close. In­tri­cate tribal pat­terns em­bel­lish the ex­te­rior. “I wanted to rep­re­sent the Pala’wan tribe,” says Paduga. Dur­ing the build, he in­vited two of the tribe’s master carvers to en­grave the tim­ber. The in­dige­nous Pala’wan were once no­madic and now live pre­dom­i­nantly in the south­ern high­lands, mak­ing a liv­ing as farm­ers and hunters.

I stand next to the cap­tain, Toto, in his des­ig­nated cabin, watch­ing him use both the en­gine and sails to cruise when the wind dic­tates di­rec­tion. “I made that,” he tells me, look­ing down at the ship’s wheel. A master car­pen­ter, Toto was part of the boat­build­ing team and is now a per­ma­nent mem­ber of the crew.

At the shore of Cad­lao Is­land’s wild beach, the shal­low wa­ter is opal green. I take one of the kayaks tied to Bata­lik and pad­dle past fly­ing fish and along­side a sea tur­tle swimming near the bay.

The in­te­rior is lux­u­ri­ant for­est, hid­ing wooden lodges perched on stilts, where we sleep, at Tao base camp, ser­e­naded by birds and crick­ets. Back on board, the Haba­gat wind gath­ers force; Paduga runs the length of the deck, ad­just­ing the lines. The en­gine stops and the sails take charge. We all break into a round of We Are Sail­ing. “That’s the way of The Philip­pines,” says Toto. “Too much joke.”

Chef-cum-sailor Ger­ald, along­side sous chefs Aldrin and Gerik, cook us de­lec­ta­ble seafood and veg­etable dishes and even make fresh pasta and pan­cakes. “Not home­made pasta, but boat-made pasta,” Aldrin in­sists.

Our fi­nal 24 hours is spent in the northerly reaches of main­land Palawan, sleep­ing in beach huts at the Tao Or­ganic Farm in San Fer­nando where I wan­der through plots of trop­i­cal and cold-cli­mate crops, spot­ting pa­paya and pump­kin. San Fer­nando is also the head­quar­ters of the Tao Kalahi Foun­da­tion, Tao’s char­i­ta­ble arm.

Out of sea­son, Bata­lik will be­come a tool to teach young peo­ple nau­ti­cal skills and reignite a pas­sion for sail­ing. Tao was founded by Filipino-born Ed­die Brock and a Bri­ton, Jack Foot­tit, who be­lieve sails could even­tu­ally re­place en­gines on lo­cal fish­ing boats,

The Tao Foun­da­tion also sup­ports com­mu­ni­ties on nearby is­lands. We cross the bay by speed­boat to meet the res­i­dents of Dara­cotan. Twenty-five fam­i­lies oc­cupy a vil­lage of nipa palm huts, the tex­ture of grass skirts; there’s the dis­tant whirr of chain­saws cut­ting co­conut lum­ber. This crop is cen­tral to Palawan life and is used in ev­ery­thing from cook­ing to fur­ni­ture mak­ing.

I chat to Jane and Rosa Lee who, through a Tao ini­tia­tive, now have a liveli­hood mak­ing and sell­ing co­conut oil to pass­ing guests. In the shal­low bay, young chil­dren race toy poly­styrene boats with play­ing-card sails. It looks such fun we are com­pelled to join in and Paduga soon gets hands-on, al­ter­ing and im­prov­ing their de­signs.

My jour­ney ends in El Nido town, where the tourist­tout scene is a stri­dent con­trast to the tran­quil ex­pe­di­tion and a sign of Palawan’s bur­geon­ing pop­u­lar­ity.

Sail­ing, I have dis­cov­ered, is the per­fect pace to ex­plore the pre­his­toric land­scapes and as­tound­ing ecol­ogy of Palawan. One day per­haps a fleet of full-sized paraw will sail here.


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