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 pre-colonial 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 island-hopping 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 tourist-tout 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.
Read more: http://www.palawanprogress.com/news/batalik-helps-you-rediscover-the-lost-art-of-sailing-in-the-philippines/03