The "Amihan," a northeast wind that blows from mid-December to mid-April in the Philippines, was howling and massive rollers hammered the Overcomer, an oversized banca boat bound from El Nido, Palawan, to Coron Town, Busuanga. Screams rang through the air with each deluge and the crew worked the hand pumps.
These boats are built light, habitually overloaded—Overcomer was licensed for 40 passengers but carrying 52 today—and crossings can be sketchy, as the record of sinkings confirms. I was allowed aboard as a so-called "chance passenger" by the unconcerned port captain in El Nido.
After a nerve-wracking 11-hour journey, we docked with a collective sigh of relief. Onshore, a kid grabbed one end of my kayak bag and lead me to a nearby guesthouse perched on stilts over the water. Sleep came fast.
I awoke to a panoramic view of Coron Island across the strait and set to assembling my Feathercraft collapsible kayak on the deck. As usual, a crowd formed, fascinated kids gawked and an animated discussion about what I assumed was my sanity erupted as the kayak took shape.
Once assembled, the challenge lay in loading gear while perched two metres above the water. With some acrobatics, everything found its place, and I clambered down the stilts and slipped into the cockpit.
The Calamanian Islands are legendary for a Second World War battle in which the U.S. Fast Carrier Task Force sunk three Japanese warships and damaged half a dozen others, creating a modern-day mecca for wreck divers. Busuanga, Culion and Coron Islands are the largest, with dozens of smaller islands completing the group.
The wind was whistling and each time I lifted the paddle from the water, it felt as though its force would rip it from my hands. I charted a course downwind, knowing full well that there was no chance of making headway in the opposite direction. The lee of Busuanga Island prevented waves from building up and I slipped behind the protection of several small islands.
Spotting a banca emerging from the mangroves, I entered the narrow, sheltered, Ryukan Channel, popping out at Apo Island. Beaching next to Majika's Island Resort, Majika herself appeared and invited me to hang my hammock in front, enjoy a shower and join her for dinner. Filipinos are friendly and I was welcomed as family, enjoying a night of food, beverages and billiards.
Next day, I paddled deep into the safe waters of Busuanga Bay filled with expensive yachts, resorts and even the remains of a Jimmy Buffett-style flying boat. Exiting, the wind had subsided, so I shot over to nearby Calumbuyan Island where Chris, the caretaker, treated me as a royal guest.
Northward along the coast of Busuanga Island, I entered the Busuanga River, grateful the crocodiles were gone and feeling a little like Kurtz heading alone into the unknown. Exiting when the tide turned, I pointed aimlessly south before spotting the golden sands of Pass Island and bee-lining to the beach. The reward for a long day was a postcard perfect beach and superb sunset.
Winding through a maze of mangrove channels below Lamud and Marily Islands, I emerged near Chindonan Island where I pulled in at a dive resort. Kenneth, a young Dane from Copenhagen, welcomed me to hang my hammock and indulge in some cold beers before he shared gossip of jealousies, rivalries and related challenges of owning a resort as a foreigner.
Next day, I crossed 17 kilometres west to Coron Island, a massive karst outcropping fringed by cliffs and dotted with beaches and the poster child of the region. Stopping at Banol Beach, I was welcomed with a cold beer by the friendly owners before carrying on further south, to Magtatangan Beach, a gorgeous, sunset-facing strip of sand for the night.
Running south around the bottom of the island and up the east side, I poked into caverns, paddled under overhanging cliffs and paused to peruse deserted beaches and stretch. Just across the channel on Busuanga Island again, I stopped at Cabo Beach and, as fate would have it, bumped into two Canadians from Winnipeg.
The northern end of Coron Island features lagoons, colossal cliffs and stunning scenery that are the signature of this part of the island. Concealed coves reveal restaurants and bars as the proximity to Coron Town ensures loads of day-trippers.
I rounded to Banol Beach for the final night with the friendly owners before returning to Coron Town to take my boat apart under the watchful eyes of another group of kids.