Monday, August 17, 2015

Almost Back in the Philippines

Those of you watching our blog have been disappointed, I know, that there have been no updates in the last month. This was for two reasons--intermittent internet and a very busy schedule when we did get internet, and because of "security issues".

We have just finished transitting the north coast of Borneo. This area has been plagued in the last couple of years (actually, the last hundred years) with Philippine rebels (Muslim separatists) who kidnap rich people for ransom to fund their rebel activity. It got really bad last year when they kidnapped a German couple off their sailboat in southern Palawan (the SW most Philippine Island). They did a number of audacious kidnappings last summer. Then in May of this year, they kidnapped 2 people out of a waterfront restaurant in Sandakan, the big city on the north coast of Borneo. If you want to know more, Google "Abu Sayeff, kidnap" and that will get you started.

Most boats these days transit this area in a gaggle, with protection from local maritime authorities. The Sail Malaysia Rally people organize a Sail Malaysia Rally to the East every year. This year there were 40 boats signed up, though I think not that many made the whole rally (for updates on this Rally, this year, see Tropical Soul's blog posts, linked in the Cruising Blogs area to the left on my blog).

Unfortunately, due to timing, we couldn't make it in time to join up with the Rally...we ended up a couple of weeks behind. This is a shame, because in addition to the protection offered by local authorities, they do a lot of neat touristy things, facilitated by the Sail Malaysia people.

So once we realized we were not going to make the Rally, we started asking for information on security issues from the Sail Malaysia organizer. He passed us some phone numbers and email contacts for Malaysian security forces, called ESSCom (Eastern Security Sector Command) and MMEA (Maritime Malaysia __ Authority). A few phone calls and emails later, we finally got a coherent response from someone in ESSCom, who actually looked at our transit plan and made a few suggestions, which was what we were looking for. He also confirmed a list of email and contact phone numbers for the various ESSCom/MMEA posts along our route.

Our route plan was GREATLY facilitated by the Sail Malaysia Rally PDF file, and an associated GPX file (waypoint list for OpenCPN), plus a few years worth of tracks from boats who had gone through the same area. So we knew where it was possible to stop, we just didn't know where it was SAFE to stop. That's where ESSCom's advice was helpful.

Once we got underway from Kota Kinabalu, as asked, we emailed daily position reports to the ESSCom contact list. We also advised our friends associated with the Navy in the Philippines (whom we had contacted asking for the same sort of advice). Once we got to Kudat (the NW corner of Borneo), we were surprised that ESSCom offered an escort boat. This was the beginning of the dicey area. So at 11 am when we departed Kudat, we were joined by the first escort boat, who idled around within visual range all day, and spent the night at our first anchorage. The next morning, they handed us off to a different boat. And we were relayed along the coast for about 200 miles that way, by a string of MMEA patrol boats.

It felt really decadent having an escort for only one cruising boat. We had never asked for such service--just to help us stay away from known bad areas. But I guess the tourism impact of having even one tourist get kidnapped would shut down Borneo's second largest industry--tourism (behind Palm Oil production).

It was ironic that the only place that the escort service broke down was the night we spent in Dent Haven, all alone. This is the closest anchorage to where the bad guys are known to hang out!! However, at this point, our Philippine contacts, who had been monitoring our progress by email, took over. We got a nice email from the primary Philippine Navy contact and we were emailed some contacts at the Philippine Navy Base on Tawi Tawi island. In our anchorage at Dent Haven, we could hear the Philippine Navy contacting passing merchant ships for information on their ships, cargos, and destinations. So we survived the night at Dent Haven, and the next morning, with a sigh of relief, we exited a pass between Philippine and Malaysian islands, and headed east for the Gulf of Davao.

We enjoyed Malaysia, and hope we can do it again sometime when we have a bit more time to cruise vs. deliver. However, we are REALLY looking forward to getting back to the Philippines. There's something really different about the Philippine people that we didn't find in Malaysia.

We expect to arrive at the Sarangani Islands, at the SW corner of the Gulf of Davao, in the middle of the night tonight, and head out at the crack of dawn tomorrow to head towards Samal. We've been in these waters before, and will probably go in to a previous anchor spot and anchor for a little sleep before heading out in the early morning.

I do plan to back-fill a bunch of experiences we've had over the last month, including our week-long whirlwind land excursion in northern Borneo. So keep watching the blog!
Sherry & Dave
Delivering the new Soggy Paws from Malaysia to Philippines

At 8/16/2015 11:00 PM (utc) our position was 05°16.20'N 123°39.30'E

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