(Story as shared by Jun Villanueva, Photos by Edsel Ochoa and PHNSAF)
On March 10-17, the 'rock stars' of the Hobie world came to the Philippines to experience the Challenge for the very first time. The current men’s world champion Mick Butler arrived in Manila with his crewmate Bradley Wilson, and so did the ladies world champion Natalie Hill and her sister Jasmine- known as the Hill Sisters.
But the real star of the show was the Philippines and the windswept islands of Palawan which showed off their beautiful, angular, raw visage. The sailors awoke in Coron bay to mighty winds which is unusual so late in the amihan season.
And for 4 days thereafter it was the same story. Tents were being blown off the beach, and boats were capsizing even before the start of the races. There would be no calling off of races which sometimes happens in regattas where the wind is deemed too overpowering and unsafe.
This is the Challenge after all, and so race officer Jerry Rollin had the difficult task of ensuring everyone in the fleet of 20 Hobies made it safely from Coron to Pangalusian island some 400 km to the south. So for 5 days sailors would start their southward trek on what was called the best Challenge ever- 5 days of steady wind from 20 knots gusting upto 35 knots.
But what a wild and wonderful way to see the islands. Imagine yourself careening at windsurfer speed through passages between hundreds of little islets or rocks (Coron alone has 800 of them), playing giant chess on the sea with the best sailors in the world.
There is no other event like this elsewhere because there is no other place like the Philippines. Thailand has similar looking islands but they seem not as varied nor as rugged and undiscovered as in Palawan. I remember passing through a 'safety gate' which was a bright red buoy placed just a few hundred feet from a 100 foot limestone cliff with crashing waves. Safety gate- what an oxymoron, for if I had capsized the 6 foot waves would have shoved me onto the rocks. All of a sudden, screeching right behind me comes Rex Puentespina, a crazy compatriot from the Taal Lake Yacht Club who looks as if he is going to be engulfed by a large wave just 30 feet away from me.
After we both composed ourselves we prepare to gybe or turn our boats in the other direction. We just need to catch a lull in the big swells and here we go! Whoooosh ... the boom comes across and I sprawl for this is the first time I have ever gybed and seen my rudder flying in the air. The huge gusts were driving the front hulls into the water to the point of a forward flip. We kept gybing this way down the Linapacan straight that I became quite used to it.
Truly, the Linapacan straight is feared by bangkeros because of its fickle personality. It is the opening to the South China Sea that separates northern Palawan from the mainland, hence the big Pacific rollers come washing over the shallower Philippine shelf causing the large waves and strong winds.
But after sailing for 5 hours in extreme conditions nothing is as welcoming and uplifting to the spirit as to land on a pristine white beach. Every day for 5 days we arrived on an island that was just as beautiful as the last. There was Balinsasayaw in Coron bay, Malcapuya in the Cullion island group, the twin islands of Ariara and Manligad in Linapacan, Pangaraycayan in Darocotan bay on the mainland of Palawan, and finally Pangalusian in the northwest of Palawan which is part of the El Nido resort.
When we landed on Pangalusian after 5 days, waiters attended to us with cold towels and fresh juice and finally we were able to take hot showers. Then we were ferried to Miniloc island where we would be staying for the next 2 nights. We swam and snorkelled and drank too many rum cokes.
But the adventure was not yet over. For what is the point of all this beauty if we are not to rejoice in it. The next day we organized another short regatta for the locals on behalf of our sponsor SHELL whose Malampaya foundation was organizing a town fiesta in Bacuit Bay. Even here there are too many islands for me to pronounce. And again the wind was blowing which made for a very exciting race.
Surprisingly, the CEO of El Nido Resorts, Mr. Laurent Lamasutta could not resist the urge to sail on one of our boats. Laurent says he used to sail Lasers in his teens and so I lent him my boat and he and took his watersports manager with him for a ride. By the look on his face afterwards, we believe we have a new convert to the Hobie catamarans.
That evening was the culmination of our event and Laurent pulled out all the stops for us. We were ferried from Miniloc to yet another island where we had a splendid buffet set up with tents and candlelight and the resort staff sang for us. Such a spectacular setting did not go unnoticed by the world champions who took just as many photos and drank as much rum as we did. Jasmine Hill said to me that she has never seen a regatta like this, and she has already been to the world champonships in Fiji, Australia and South Africa. The PHINSAF (Philippines Inter-island Sailing Foundation) has really put a world class event together for our sponsors and our competitors.
What sets the Challenge apart is the format. A typical regatta consists of a triangular course which is marked by 3 buoys that are anchored a few miles apart. On the other hand, the Challenge is an endurance race very much like a car rally, which occurs over 5 days or legs. Essentially we island hop from beach to beach. BUT, a big differentiator is that the Philippines has 7,100 islands. About a third of these islands can be found in Palawan alone. "This is why we can change the route every year in numerous permutations", according to Monchu Garcia, PHINSAF Chairman. And that is why elite international sailors like Bradley Wilson, Bruce Tardrew, Bob Engwirda, and now perhaps Mick Butler and the Hill sisters will come back next year for a different taste of the islands.
"The Philippines Hobie Challenge is truly one of the “Must Do” events in the world. Thank you to all the organisers and competitors for a week of fun and thrills. The amount of hospitality, camaraderie and amazing scenery (and Rum) that flows throughout the event has to be experienced to be believed. I do look forward to doing it again."
-- Mick Butler, Team HobieCat Australasia