Ben and Hugh are in Puerto Princessa, the capital of the Palawan Islands in the Philippines. From here, Candeux will begin the SSW run to Kudat in Malaysian Borneo in day hops – first to Brookes Point on Palawan Island, then Balabac Island, followed by a leg between Pangii Island and Balambagan Island, and finally Kudat.
The night before we leave Hugh wakes at midnight. There’s an odd banging at the stern. Please don’t let that be the sea floor making its presence felt or, worse, local criminals with meat cleavers about to board over the transom. Cautious, and very quiet, listening. No. It’s just the rudder banging. Bloody hell. It’s late. Hugh is tired. This requires an efficient and effective application of scarce resources. Hugh ignores it and gets back to sleep.
At 2am, awake again. Bloody lot of noise thinks Hugh, who now has a second plan. Ben is probably also awake. Hugh is thinking – hoping – that Ben will get up, turn off the deck alarm, brave the dark and fix the banging. Ben, of course, is doing the same strategic calculation. The offending rudder is just behind Hugh’s cabin, so Ben probably reckons Hugh will relent first. Ben wins. Hugh gets up to fix it, again wondering distractedly in the pitch dark, while trying to jam a piece of wood between the rudder stock and transom and nearly falling in, why it is that only this rudder bangs and why it is that this transom step is lower than the starboard transom and is growing green slime. Ben has previously opined that it’s the result of a build issue (addressed, but perhaps not as well as might have been hoped) as well as the uneven levels in the substantial water and fuel tanks. Hmmmm.
Anyway, 4am. So much for a good night’s sleep. We are both up to get a quick start to Brookes Point, 92nm away. Ben, hopefully feeling guilty about his noisy rudder and obvious sloth, has made Hugh coffee. Good man. All is forgiven.
Over coffee we prepare to up-anchor while waiting for some light. We could follow our track back out, but there are fisherman around the anchorage with lots of nets and fishing posts to entrap the over-confident. By 5.30am we are at last moving (why did we get up so early?). Notwithstanding the dire predictions of the looming cyclone (which did, in due course, reach Cebu and cause great devastation further east), we trust to science and check the updated forecast through until Friday. It’s 5 – 10 knots, going roughly our way, until Friday when it builds to 15 knots in the afternoon coming from the NW. This will help get us to Kudat on the Northern tip of Malaysian Borneo. A lovely day out sailing.
We are making good time, now that we have both engines back in play. The repaired coupling for the starboard engine seems to be working fine. However, we now notice that the port engine is blowing white smoke and not pushing through as much water as the starboard engine. Will it never end? Ben cleans the engine filter and there seems to be some improvement. We push on.
In something of a surprise, Ben spots two whales. One seems quite large, the other smaller – in fact a mother and calf. Hugh also sees a silver tail fluke break the surface. It’s not a whale fluke, something more like a predator fish, perhaps a tuna. This is surprising because we have not seen much sea life and none of the fishermen we have spoken to have had any fish to sell to us. It is ominous and concerning that where we see this sea-life there is also a big line of trawlers diligently working the reef line out to sea.
It’s a long run to Brookes Point so we don’t expect to be there until just before 1800hrs, just before we lose the light. We are told by the sailors at the Abanico Yacht Club in Puerto Princessa that the anchorage is pretty basic with a seawall just as you enter from the north. The advice is to keep the sea wall close to starboard as it quickly shallows to port. Also, the anchorage itself is fairly small.
As we approach in fading light, we can see the town, more a village really, behind what appears to be a small lighthouse on the promontory. There is a low rock projection into the sea (the seawall?) with local boats anchored and beached behind it. It sort of looks right (in the closing dusk) but it is a very small anchorage. Still, we have been assured in Puerto Princessa that Ben’s catamaran will have no problems.
Ben has reduced throttle and we are inching in. We are keeping close to the ‘seawall’, as advised, hoping that behind it and partly obscured by buildings, it will open out into a larger pond. At this point a local fishing boat to our port is either fishing for squid (by jerking a line up and down in the water), waving in a grumpy sort of way, or urgently trying to tell us something. Anxious about our anchorage, Hugh thinks it’s the latter and calls to Ben that the fisherman is warning us off. Unfortunately, imminent crisis becomes actual and warnings are made irrelevant by the now unmistakable sound of the rudders slugging it out with the rock on the seabed. Speculation as to who will win this contest is interrupted, first by the sound of metal grinding on rock, then by the noise of one sacrificial wood block in the rudder box exploding on starboard rudder, quickly followed on the port by a loud whacking and grinding, a metal bending sound. Unfortunately, both Ben and I have been here before and are becoming quite proficient in responding. Ben immediately throws the engines into full reverse. Lots of engine noise, water churning and an awful bending, grinding sound … but we are getting off. This relief, however, is somewhat qualified by the fact that we actually now have no wheel steerage (déjà vu of Manucan Island). That’s not good. However, with the reverse thrust we have drifted back into deeper water. Ben is now down on the transoms (port and starboard) trying to assess the damage, while Hugh is guiding the boat by adjusting the throttles of each engines to give us some steerage and continue our course into clear water. There’s little wind or current so we slowly reach safer water, where we can better assess the damage.
The starboard rudder (having been through this experience before in Araceli on Dumaran Island) opted just to blow its block (I know how it feels). Fortunately, we have one last wooden rudder block which Ben inserts; and we have one rudder back in action, sort of. But the port rudder (showing more courage than sense) held on like grim death (a strangely appropriate simile and questionable conduct as we will later discover) meaning that instead of its block exploding and the pressure of contact being released, the rudder and the whole steering arm took the full force of the initial contact, and also the subsequent contact as we reversed. Oh dear. The steering arm was thus bent backwards and downwards – not good – and it is now pressing into the transom making the steering, such as it now is, very stiff and it will increasingly score the transom and strain (to breaking???) the whole system. Given the forces involved, we are also concerned that the rudders may no longer be aligned to the wheel. Mercifully, it looks like they still are, so we just have to see if we can straighten the steering arm (a 4m stainless steel shaft!), which (except for two stainless steel supports) is effectively suspended above the water. Hmmmmm…. This is tricky. We need a lever. “Where’s that bit of wood?” asks Ben. ‘That bit of wood’ has become the most useful tool on the boat. When we discovered in Puerto Princessa that the starboard engine coupling had spat the dummy with all the vibrations from misalignment and missing bolts, and split itself, ‘that bit of wood’, as it is affectionately known, levered the engine back into alignment (plus hours of sweat and swearing from Ben).
However it is now dark and we are, not so casually, drifting about looking fairly frantically for ‘that bit of wood’. Of course, it can’t be found in any of the right places, so Hugh looks in the boat’s dump site – Duncan’s cabin (Duncan will be joining us in Malaysia, if we make it). Ah, there it is, on the bed. Of course, where else? The challenge now is to get sufficient leverage as we hang (monkey-like and upside down) over the transom to straighten the steering arm. After significant groaning, grunting, swearing and gymnastics, to our mutual surprise and delight, this actually works – well, well enough – and the wheel steering is back in business, sort of. And, of course now, having drifted further south from our recommended close-to northern approach, what previously looked like a pylon for a light, can now be seen as an obvious seawall facing south, protecting the local freighters and ferry. We head for this and anchor. Strewth.
The moral is to explore any anchorage from a safe distance, be certain or be safe; and to blow your (rudder) block when necessary, but avoid those situations that may cause you to do so.