A first of its kind, the Philippines Sailing Challenge is a nine-day sailing adventure taking travelers 90 nautical miles around remote islands and rarely-visited townships. Oliver Pelling went along on the first ever departure to find out what it’s all about.
I think my bones are sweating. The sun has a palpably obnoxious, get-up-and-go attitude today. Like it just got back from a life coaching seminar led by a man with shiny hair and a suspiciously enthusiastic grin. 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 sociopath.
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.
“You OK, boss?” Bong Bong asks. “I’m OK, boss,” I reply, whilst 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 is up on the outrigger, whistling for more wind (I’m not sure if it’s working). Mike, our captain, is steering this fine vessel. Matt, horizontal on the outrigger opposite me, is just kind of sitting there.
A few hours before the scene in which you find us now, we were up to our eyeballs in rum at a bar on Tablas Island. So up to our eyeballs were we, in fact, that the staff had to restock the bar twice in one evening. This isn’t a boast–merely some insight into the extremely tender physical, emotional and spiritual state in which we find ourselves today.
I lift my sore head and look around at the eight other paraws that make up our traveling party. “What position do you think we’re in?” I ask Matt. “Not sure,” he replies. We’re all drifting along within a few hundred feet of one another. 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 helps too, apparently.
Every now and then, we catch a wave and surf towards the horizon. It’s like a less-fictional magic carpet ride.
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.
This place, 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 last night’s 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. Our nimble, built-for-speed paraw glides through the Sulu Sea like a gentle, wooden torpedo. Every now and then, we catch a wave and surf towards the horizon. It’s like a less-fictional magic carpet ride. Jeffrey is beaming ear-to-ear. His whistling worked after all.
This trip, 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’.
The words ‘group travel’ typically don’t do much to stoke the imagination of the prospective adventurer. And while this trip bears some similarities to traditional ‘group travel’—namely that you are traveling as part of a loosely-organized group—that’s where the similarities end.
It is probably the single most profound display of aquatic badassery I have ever seen.
These trips, y’see, are intended to be a solution to the problems common in mass tourism. They aim to provide travelers with those fabled get-the-hell-out-of-your-comfort-zone-or-else travel experiences that, as the world becomes smaller and better connected, are becoming increasingly difficult to come by. The loose organization of the trips gives you a vague sense of security while ensuring all chances for serendipity are maximized, as oxymoronic as that sounds.
In 2013, Matt and I drove a tuk-tuk 1200km around Sri Lanka with Large Minority on the Lanka Challenge. We decided on that trip that, since we live on opposite sides of the world (he in Brighton, England, me in Melbourne, Australia), we’d do something similar every couple of years or so. Signing up for their inaugural jaunt to the Philippines was a no-brainer.
Every Large Minority trip is geared to help positively impact the communities and destinations they operate in, too, with 10% of all entry fees going towards local initiatives. So you can at least feel like you’re doing some good whilst developing symptoms of mild sunstroke.
As we approach the beach in Argao, we’re sailing at quite a pace. I wait for Mike to do the thing where he slows the boat down. The beach draws closer. I wait a little longer. We’re in no more than six feet of water. Four feet. Two feet. Before we realize what’s going on, Mike sends his boat flying straight up onto the beach and parks it right outside his front door. It is the single most profound act display aquatic badassery I have ever seen.
My brother, Jeffrey and I grab our stuff and race (actually, it’s more of a meander. It’s too hot to 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 challenge 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 has given the day a bit of a homecoming vibe. “We could go and find every house and take a photo of the captains and their families standing outside,” suggests Matt, after some contemplation. I think it’s a rubbish idea, mainly because I don’t really see the ‘challenge’ in it, but I don’t have a better one. We tell Mike about our plan and he offers to take us to each house. Most of them are within a kilometer or so of one another.
It becomes apparent pretty quickly that that my brother’s idea isn’t rubbish after all. Seeing each of the captain’s houses, most of which they’ve built themselves, and catching a glimpse of what life in Argao (a place neither of us, nor the other 99% of visitors to the Philippines would ever think to visit) turns out to be a fascinating way to spend an afternoon. A lot of these captains are around my age (28) or younger, which makes the sheer amount of useful, practical knowledge they have at their disposal even more impressive. They built their own houses with their bare hands, for Christ’s sake. 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. It’s impressive. And a good representation of what these Large Minority trips are all about (sustainable travel, creativity, playing with rubbish, etc).
Most nights on this trip have felt like a celebration, but tonight is more celebratory than usual. Where other evenings have been spent on islands that even our crew had never visited, tonight we’re in their hometown. All the families have pulled together to make us feel welcome. There’s a long table outside Mike’s bar piled high with delicious Filipino food (each team was tasked with bringing along a traditional dish) and surrounded by crew, their families and our small band of travelers. The rum makes another appearance.
I can’t tell if I’m in mortal danger or having the time of my life. I’ve a feeling the two are closely related.
Before we know it, it’s late and Matt, Jeffrey, captain Mike and I are the last ones left. We’ve run out of mixer for the rum so we’re drinking it with water. Mike—who is slightly older than most of the other crew members and well-respected in Argao—is telling us stories. Once, he tells us, 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. I’ve a feeling the two are closely related. Like the sun earlier in the week, today the wind is the unhinged, sociopathic member of the natural elements family. The perpetually uninvited cousin, rain, has also turned up with bells on.
We’re Boracay-bound and sailing against the gale. Our paraw scoops and slams into the waves, condemning us to an indiscriminate soaking. When it gusts, which it often does, it feels as though we’re going to tip right over. On more than one occasion, I look down from my outrigger and the boat appears to be 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 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 get to us until it had finished helping the others. We also left our emergency radio, the one we’re supposed to use to call for help, on some island about three days ago. So we wouldn’t even be able to call for help. As my arms turn pale from holding on so tight, the term ‘white knuckle ride’ doesn’t really seem to cut it. I can’t help but think that, at the measly age of 28, I’m (probably) too young to die.
None of this stops Mike, Jeffrey and Bong Bong from appearing to have the time of their lives. 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 to the situation makes me feel a little more relaxed about the whole thing, until I remember that we’re not wearing life jackets (which was, believe it or not, entirely our own choice).
But then I think: I didn’t come on this trip to relax. I came because I knew it’d be a trip that forces me out of my comfort zone. And, as I sit on this paraw in the middle of the Sulu Sea and proceed to get shafted by nature every which way, without life jacket, support boat or radio, I realize I haven’t seen my comfort zone for over a week. This is exactly what I signed up for. In any case, there’s nothing left to do now but hold on tight and hope for Boracay.
The next Philippines Sailing Challenge hits the water in November 2017. Visit the Large Minority website to secure your spot.
Oliver is the Australia editor of Adventure.com, based in Melbourne, Australia. He likes doing things that scare him, but only after he’s done them. And not too often. Maybe like, three times a month.