CORON, Palawan - On March 10-17, the "rock stars" of the Hobie world came to the Philippines to experience the Challenge for the very first time in what was dubbed The Blackberry 12th Philippine Hobie Challenge: The Palawan Challenge (Coron to El Nido).
Current men's world champion Mick Butler arrived in Manila with crew mate Bradley Wilson, and so did ladies' world champion Natalie Hill and her sister, Jasmine (they are also 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 race goes on
The sailors awoke in Coron bay to mighty winds, unusually so late in the amihan season. And for 4 days thereafter, it was the same story: tents were being blown off the beach, boats were capsizing even before the start of the races.
But there would be no calling off of races, which sometimes happens in regattas when 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 that everyone in the fleet of 20 Hobies made it safely from Coron to Pangalusian island (now owned by El Nido Resorts) some 400 km to the south.
For 5 days, sailors went on their southward trek in what was called the best Challenge ever: 5 days of steady wind from 20 knots gusting up to 35 knots.
Exploration, the Hobie way
What a wild and wonderful way it was 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-feet limestone cliff with crashing waves.
Safety gate -- what an oxymoron. For if I had capsized, the 6-foot waves would have sent me crashing to the rocks.
All of a sudden, screeching right behind me comes Rex Puentespina, a crazy compatriot from the Taal Lake Yacht Club who looked as if he was going to be engulfed by a large wave just 30 feet away from me. We composed ourselves as we prepared to gybe or turn our boats in the other direction; we just needed to catch a lull in the big swells.
The boom came across and I sprawled down, for this was the first time I had 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 all the way down the Linapacan straight that I became quite used to it. 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 that come washing over the shallower Philippine shelf, causing the large waves and strong winds.
Aaahh, Philippine beaches
After sailing for 5 hours in extreme conditions, nothing is as welcoming and uplifting to the spirit as landing on a pristine white beach. Every day for 5 days we arrived on an island that was just as beautiful as the last: 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, Pangulasian in the northwest of Palawan.
When we landed on Pangalusian after 5 days, waiters attended to us with cold towels and fresh juice and we were finally able to take hot showers. Then we were ferried to Miniloc Island where we stayed for the next 2 nights. We swam and snorkeled and drank too many rum cokes.
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 there, 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, Laurent Lamasuta, could not resist the urge to sail on one of our boats. Laurent said he used to sail Lasers in his teens, so I lent him my boat and he and took his water sports manager with him for a ride. By the look on Laurent's face afterwards, we knew we had a new convert to the Hobie catamarans.
Laurent Lamasuta, GM of El Nido Resorts (Ten Knots Corporation)
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 championships in Fiji, Australia, and South Africa. The PHINSAF (Philippines Inter-island Sailing Foundation) really put a world-class event together for our sponsors and our competitors.
What set the Challenge apart was the format.
A typical regatta consists of a triangular course which is marked by 3 buoys that are anchored a few miles apart. The Hobie Challenge, meanwhile, was an endurance race very much like a car rally, which occurred for over 5 days or legs. Essentially, we island hopped from beach to beach.
A big differentiator is that the Philippines has 7,100 islands and about a 3rd of these islands can be found in Palawan alone.
"This is why we can change the route every year in numerous permutations," says to Monchu Garcia, PHINSAF chair. And this 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 fiesta islands.
Jerry Rollin awarding Mick Butler and Bradley Wilson of Team HobieCat Australasia
The Blackberry 12th Philippine Hobie Challenge: The Palawan Challenge winners
Blackberry Top 5
"The Philippine Hobie Challenge is truly one of the must-do events in the world. Thank you to all the organizers and competitors for a week of fun and thrills. The amount of hospitality, camaraderie, and amazing scenery (and rum) that flowed throughout the event has to be experienced to be believed. I do look forward to doing it again," said Mick Butler of Team Hobie Cat Australasia. - Rappler.com
Click on the links below for more.