Philippines: Reviving the lost art of sailing in Palawan

palawan-ss_3083082bOn board a traditional paraw sailing vessel, Isobel Diamond explores the pristine ecosystem of the western Philippine region of Palawan.

The karst-studded landscapes make this slither of Asia so striking.

The Batalik is not just a sailboat. It is a Filipino relic, the largest traditional paraw in the country. The hull is a 72ft mass of coffee-brown timber, as sleek as a Viking ship, with cream sails billowing from a 43ft mast.

As we meandered between forest-clad islands concealing ribbons of ivory beach, the outriggers stretched, like insect legs, 9ft across the South China Sea. In Palawan, the Philippines’ westernmost region, jagged limestone islets stood like stone icebergs and cut diamonds.

My three-day tour took me deep into Palawan, exploring the karst-studded landscapes that make this slither of Asia so striking. Launching this month, the Batalik is the only tour boat to explore both popular Bacuit Bay and then, having bade farewell to other tour boats, move onwards to the remote, undiscovered north. If you see another soul at sea here, you’re unlucky.

Padding along the deck, Gener Paduga shouted 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, he dreamt of constructing a large-scale version of this native double outrigger boat, like the ships that carried cargo on pre-colonial trade routes more than 1,000 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 the Batalik to fruition. Exploiting the shared knowledge of historians and sailors, Paduga worked alongside a team of local craftsmen to build the Batalik, which took two years, from design stage to completion.

Few locals sail in Palawan now. The Bacuit Bay island-hopping vessels rely on motors, while local families use small engine 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. A quarter of the Philippine archipelago’s 7,107 islands are in this least-populated region. It is often sited 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 (The Nest) sits at mainland Palawan’s northerly edge and is the entry point to Bacuit Bay. In the “Bacuit”, we dropped anchor by Pinagbuyutan Island, the ocean lit by a full moon.

Limestone cave on Cudugnon Island. Photo: Alamy

My fellow guests were a Swedish couple, Rebecca and Mattias, who entertained me with their far-flung travel stories, and Englishman Alex, now a Philippine resident.

Together, we ate dinner at a bamboo table on deck, feasting on squid and whole white snapper, quenched by beer and rum. I fell asleep snuggled in the safety of a bunk in the cabins which slept 15.

The next morning, we snorkeled amid pastel-shaded coral gardens and spied stunning fish varieties: sweetlips, stripy sergeant majors and startling parrotfish. In Pinasil and Cudugnon islands, we clambered through caves and discovered towering limestone chambers and church-like rock formations.

Batalik is a large-scale version of a native double outrigger boat Credit: Katherine Jack

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

I stood next to the captain, Toto, in his designated cabin, watching him use both the engine and sails to cruise when the wind dictated direction. “I made that,” he said, looking down at the ship’s wheel. A master carpenter by trade, Toto was part of the boat-building team and is now a permanent member of the crew.

Palawan’s ecosystem includes coral reef, mangrove, rare fauna and marine life. Photo: Alamy

At the shore of Cadlao’s wild beach, the shallow water was opal green. I took one of the kayaks tied to the Batalik and paddled past teams of flying fish and alongside a sea turtle swimming near the bay. The island interior is luxuriant forest, hiding wooden lodges perched on stilts. This is where we slept, at Tao Basecamp, serenaded by an orchestra of birds and crickets.

Back onboard ship, the Habagat Wind gathered force. Paduga ran the length of the deck, adjusting the lines. The engine stopped and the sails took charge. Excited laughter passed through the ship and we broke out into a round of We Are Sailing. “That’s the way of the Philippines,” said Toto, “too much joke.”

Giggles were often heard escaping from the kitchen, accompanied by fragrant wafts of spice and garlic. Chef-cum-sailor Gerald, alongside sous chefs Aldrin and Gerik, cooked up delectable seafood and vegetable dishes and even made fresh pasta and pancakes. “Not homemade pasta, but boat-made pasta,” said Aldrin.

Our final 24 hours were spent in the northerly reaches of mainland Palawan, sleeping in beach huts at the Tao Organic Farm in San Fernando. Here I wandered 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, the Batalik will become a tool to teach young people sailing skills. Tao was founded by Filipino-born Eddie Brock and a Briton, Jack Foottit, who believe that sails could replace the engines of local fishing boats, if they can reignite a passion for sailing again. Last month, Brock explained, “around 50 boys learned the basics. Most of them had heard that their grandfathers sailed a long time ago, but this is their first experience of it.”

Girls playing in the water of El Nido Bay, with Cadlao Island in the background. Photo: Alamy

The Tao Foundation also supports communities on nearby islands. We crossed 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. Adults sat out on shaded verandas, accompanied by 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 chatted to Jane and Rosa Lee, who, through a Tao initiative, gained a livelihood by making and selling coconut oil to passing guests.

In the shallow bay, young children raced toy polystyrene boats with playing card sails. It looked such fun we were compelled to join in and Paduga got hands-on, altering and improving their designs.

My journey ended in El Nido town, where the hectic, tourist-tout scene was a strident contrast to the tranquil expedition. It was also a sign of Palawan’s burgeoning popularity.

Sailing, I discovered, is the perfect pace to explore the prehistoric landscapes and astounding ecology of this pristine Asian hideaway. One day perhaps a fleet of full-size paraw will sail in Palawan.

Essentials

The Sailing Paraw Expedition is booked through Tao Philippines (info@taophilippines.com; taophilippines.com). The tour covers the remote islands of northern Palawan and Bacuit Bay. The final itinerary is decided according to the current sailing conditions.

A three-day/three-night group expedition costs $368 (£215) per person. The price includes full board and a donation to Tao Kalahi Foundation projects.

Getting there

Philippine Airlines (0063 2 855 8888; philippineairlines.com) flies direct from Heathrow to Manila from £814 return. Cathay Pacific (020 8834 8888; cathaypacific.com) flies via Hong Kong from £828 return.

For transfers to Palawan, Island Transvoyager Inc (ITIAIR) offers the only direct flight from Manila to El Nido (2 851 5664; itiair.com). Guests who stay at El Nido Resorts receive priority booking. Philippine Airlines flies from Manila to Puerto Princesa; the journey to El Nido takes six hours by taxi.

Where to stay

Manila

£££ Raffles (2 555 9777; raffles.com/Makati)

The classic Raffles hotel is recreated in Makati, Manila’s popular finance district. There is a choice of spacious colonial-style suites, with original artworks and wooden floors. Rooms are available in the adjoining Fairmont Hotel, which shares pool, spa and restaurant facilities. Raffles has an exclusive rooftop pool and the legendary Raffles Long Bar, which is open to non-guests. Suites from $352/£205, including breakfast, as well as afternoon tea and evening cocktails for two.

Palawan

£££ El Nido Resorts (2 813 0000; elnidoresorts.com)

Four resorts sit under the El Nido umbrella, providing luxury private island accommodation. There is a range of sleeping options from water villas on stilts to deluxe sea-view rooms. All have exceptional views of Palawan’s karst landscapes. The resort quality varies from the dated décor of Miniloc to the high-end design and privacy of the new and deluxe Pangulasian. The company has a strong sustainability remit to support the local environment. Cottages from $476/£278, including transfers, full board, activities and guided tours.

££ The Alternative (926 702 9530; thealternativeinn.com)

These rustic cottages and villas are on a private beach, or cliff-top, on Kudugman Island, in the Bacuit Archipelago. Enjoy unrivalled views and complete serenity, until the tour boats arrive at peak times. It’s a great-value private island option, though like much of El Nido, there is only electricity between 2pm and 6am. Cottages from $195/£114, including transfers from El Nido town, full board, kayaks and snorkelling equipment.

Read more: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/asia/philippines/11180807/Philippines-Reviving-the-lost-art-of-sailing-in-Palawan.html

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