Is it possible to sail a local paraw boat around remote islands with no experience and live to tell the tale? Just about, thanks to the brand-new Philippines Sailing Challenge.
“You OK, boss?” asks Bong Bong.
“I’m OK, boss,” I reply, while simultaneously not being OK.
Bong Bong isn’t his real name. His real name is Machete (I’m actually not sure if that’s his real name, either), and he’s one of three crew spending the week sailing around remote Filipino islands with my brother, Matt, and me.
Jeffrey, our second crew member, is up on the outrigger, whistling for more wind (I’m not sure if it’s working). Mike, our captain, is steering the vessel. Matt, horizontal on the outrigger opposite me, is just kind of sitting there, wrestling with a hangover.
My bones are sweating. The sun has a palpably obnoxious, get-up-and-go attitude today. It’s early, and the clouds and the wind have opted for a lie-in, presumably to avoid the sun who is, as far as I can tell, a psychopath.
The lack of cloud coverage means that on our paraw—a small, locally made, motorless Filipino trimaran—we have no shade. And the lack of wind means we have been floating (at what feels like centimeters a minute) in the general direction of ‘over there’ for around an hour. Unless the wind picks up, we have a couple of sunstroke-defying hours to go.
I lift my head—still sore from last night’s rum—and look around at the eight other paraws, all drifting along with a few hundred feet of us, that make up our traveling party. “What position do you think we’re in?” I ask Matt.
“No idea,” he replies.
This is no relaxing jaunt around the Philippines, you see. We’re one of nine teams on the first ever Philippines Sailing Challenge—an Amazing Race-style trip (minus the TV cameras) on which teams complete challenges along the way to accrue points. Thanks to the incredibly talented crews accompanying each team, sailing experience isn’t necessary, but it probably helps. A bit of wind, as we’re discovering the hard way, helps too.
Each team has their own name which is displayed prominently on their paraw’s sail. Our team name is The Nauti Buoys. The name was supposed to highlight how we are ‘nautical boys’ but they got the spelling wrong, so we just look like a couple of weird perverts. The South African team is having a lot of fun letting us know just how much we look like a couple of weird perverts.
The Philippines is pristine from this vantage point. The scene is one of total tranquility: Islands covered in avocado-colored rainforests, fringed with Leonardo DiCaprio-worthy beaches make up half of it. The other half is ocean as far as you can see. I can’t get the Jurassic Park theme tune out of my head. Nor the dull ache of the rum. I think I might cry. I don’t.
We’re on course for Argao, a small village situated on the island of Panay, just southeast of Boracay, where we’ll stay with Mike and his family for the night.
As we reach the channel between Tablas and Carabao Islands and drift past the headland, the wind arrives. The relief is overwhelming; like a cool, dry shower. Every now and then, we catch a wave and surf towards the horizon. Our nimble, built-for-speed paraw glides through the Sulu Sea like a gentle, wooden torpedo. It’s like a less-fictional magic carpet ride. Jeffrey is beaming ear-to-ear—his whistling worked after all.
The Philippines Sailing Challenge is organized by a small outfit by the name of Large Minority. Owned and operated by co-founders Julian Carnall and Juan Paredes, the company specializes in this particular style of ‘adventure challenge’.
These trips are intended to be a solution to the problems presented by more ‘mainstream’ forms of travel. They aim to provide travelers with a breed of comfort zone-demolishing experience that, as the world becomes smaller and better connected, are becoming increasingly difficult to come by.
There’s no forced or ‘scheduled’ local interaction on the Philippines Sailing Challenge—it’s simply impossible to get through it without it.
The loose organization of the trips gives you a vague sense of security while ensuring all chances for serendipity are maximized, as peculiar as that sounds. Unlike the MO of so many travel companies, there’s no forced or ‘scheduled’ local interaction on the Philippines Sailing Challenge—it’s simply impossible to get through it without it.
Every Large Minority trip is geared to help positively impact the communities and destinations they operate in, too, with 10 per cent of all entry fees going towards local initiatives. So you can at least feel like you’re doing some good whilst developing sunstroke.
We’re sailing fast as we approach the beach in Argao, our crew’s home town. Soon, we’re in no more than six feet of water. Four feet. Two feet. Mike doesn’t slow down. Before we realize what’s going on, he sends his boat flying straight up onto the beach and parks it right outside his front door. It is the single most profound display of aquatic badassery I have ever seen.
My brother, Jeffrey and I grab our stuff and race to Argao’s basketball court, the first checkpoint of the day. Here we find Rachel, the trip’s challenge master and one-woman medical team, and receive our instructions. Today our task involves dreaming up our own challenge and providing photo or video evidence of us completing it.
All of the crew members on the trip are from Argao and each of the nine teams will be staying at their respective captain’s house tonight—a fact which lends the day a bit of a homecoming vibe. For our challenge, we decide to go around and take photos of the captains and their families standing outside their houses.
The challenge was my brothers idea. I thought it was rubbish at first, but seeing each of the captain’s houses, most of which they’ve built themselves, and catching a glimpse of what life is like in Argao (a place neither of us, nor the other 99 per cent of visitors to the Philippines would ever think to visit) turns out to be a humbling way to spend an afternoon. These guys, many of whom are younger than me, built their houses with their bare hands. I built a spice rack at school once.
Later that night, all nine teams and crew are gathered at Mike’s bar (yes—our captain has his own bar) to receive the day’s challenge results. It turns out we didn’t win the challenge. Team Hey Buoy, Hey Girl won the challenge. They went around Argao and collected a bunch of discarded bottles and, with the help of some locals, built a pint-sized paraw out of them.
Most nights on this trip have felt like a celebration, but tonight is more celebratory than usual. The families are here and the food is piled high. The rum makes another appearance. Before we know it, it’s late and Matt, Jeffrey, captain Mike and I are the last ones left. Mike—who is slightly older than most of the other crew members and well-respected in Argao—is telling us stories.
The support boat wouldn’t be able to pick us up until it had finished helping the others. And we left our emergency radio, the one we’re supposed to use to call for help, on some island about three days ago.
Once, he says, his paraw capsized in the channel near Boracay and he and his crew had to wait some ten hours to be rescued (thanks to poor visibility). “You must’ve been scared!” I say. “Not really,” laughs Mike. “I was mainly hungry.” I hadn’t thought of that. I would be hungry too.
Then Mike, who named his boat and crew The Scorpions because most of his family are Scorpios, tells us that there is a live scorpion in the boat—the one we’ve been sailing on for close to a week. He put it in there for good luck. Matt and I laugh. Then Mike tells us there’s a live scorpion somewhere in his house, where we’ll be sleeping tonight. Matt and I do not laugh.
Two days later, and I can’t tell if I’m in mortal danger or having the time of my life. We’re Boracay-bound and sailing against a gale. Our paraw scoops and slams into the waves, condemning us to an indiscriminate soaking. Each gust of wind feels like it might the one that tips us over. I look down from my outrigger and our paraw is almost vertical, half of it totally submerged, with Mike only just above the surface. Matt and I share more than one concerned glance.
Twenty minutes into our one-hour sail and two other paraws (from our party of just nine) are already out of action: One with a cracked boom and the other with a cracked mast. Statistically speaking, things are not looking great for us. If we did go down, the support boat wouldn’t be able to pick us up until it had finished helping the others. And we left our emergency radio, the one we’re supposed to use to call for help, on some island about three days ago.
None of this stops Mike, Jeffrey and Bong Bong from appearing to have the time of their lives, by the way. These maniacs are all smiles and woo-hooing, Bong Bong wipes the spray from his face before giving me a huge grin and a thumbs up. Their laissez-faire attitude makes me feel a little more relaxed about the whole thing. Then I remember that we’re not wearing life jackets.
Still. At least it’s not too hot.
The next Philippines Sailing Challenge hits the water in April 2018. Visit the Large Minority website to secure your spot.