freelance writer

Hot times on the Sulu Sea: a voyage of immoderate proportions

This was a pretty unique way to travel.

An edited version of this story was originally published by

I think my bones are sweating. The sun has a palpably obnoxious, get-up-and-go attitude today. It's early, and the clouds and the wind have opted for a lie-in, presumably to avoid the sun who is, as far as I can tell, a sociopath.

The lack of cloud coverage means on our paraw — a small, locally made, motorless Filipino trimaran — we have no shade. And the lack of wind means we have been floating (at what feels like centimeters a minute) in the general direction of 'over there' for around an hour. Unless the wind picks up, we have a couple of sunstroke-defying hours to go.

“You OK boss?” Bong Bong asks. “I’m OK, boss,” I reply, whilst simultaneously not being OK. Bong Bong isn’t his real name. His real name is Machete (I’m actually not sure if this is his real name, either), and he’s one of the three crew spending the week sailing around remote Filipino islands with my brother, Matt, and me. Jeffrey is up on the outrigger, whistling for more wind (I’m not sure if it’s working). Mike, our captain, is steering this fine vessel. Matt, horizontal on the outrigger opposite me, is just kind of sitting there.

A few hours before the scene in which you find us now, we were up to our eyeballs in rum at a bar on Tablas Island. So up to our eyeballs were we, that the staff had to restock the bar twice in one evening. This isn’t a boast; merely to offer insight into the extremely tender physical, emotional and spiritual state we find ourselves in today.

The South African team are having a lot of fun letting us know just how much it makes us sound like a couple of perverts.

I lift my sore head and look around at the eight other paraws that make up our traveling party. “What position do you think we’re in?” I ask Matt. “Not sure,” he replies. We’re all drifting along within a few hundred feet of one another. This is no relaxing jaunt around the Philippines, you see. We’re one of nine teams on the first ever Philippines Sailing Challenge — an Amazing Race-style trip (minus the TV cameras) in which teams race and complete challenges along the way to accrue points. Thanks to the incredibly talented crews which accompany each team, sailing experience isn’t necessary. But it probably helps. Wind also helps...

Each team has a name which is displayed prominently on their paraw’s sail. Our team name is The Nauti Buoys. The name was supposed to highlight how we are ‘nautical boys’ but they got the spelling wrong, so we just look like a couple of weird perverts instead. And the South African team is having a lot of fun letting us know just how much it makes us sound like a couple of weird perverts.

The scene is one of total and utter tranquility. This place, the Philippines, is pristine from this vantage point. Islands covered in avocado-coloured rainforests and fringed with Leonardo DiCaprio-worthy beaches make up half the scene. The other half is ocean as far as you can see. I can’t get the Jurassic Park theme tune out of my head. Nor the dull ache of last night's rum. I think I might cry. I don’t.

We’re on course for Argao, a small village situated on the island of Panay, just southeast of Boracay, where we’ll stay with Mike and his family for the night. As we reach the channel between Tablas and Carabao Islands and drift past the headland, the wind arrives. The relief is overwhelming. Our nimble, built-for-speed paraw glides through the Sulu Sea like a gentle, wooden torpedo. Every now and then, we catch a wave and surf towards the horizon. It’s like a less-fictional magic carpet ride. Jeffrey is beaming ear-to-ear. His whistling worked after all

They aim to provide travellers with those fabled get-the-fuck-out-of-your-comfort-zone-or-else travel experiences.

This trip, the Philippines Sailing Challenge, is organised by a small outfit by the name of Large Minority.  Owned and operated by co-founders Julian Carnall and Juan Paredes, the company specializes in this particular style of ‘adventure challenge’.

The words 'group travel' typically don't do much to stoke the imagination of the prospective adventurer. And while this trip bears some similarities to traditional 'group travel' — namely that you are travelling as part of a loosely-organised group — that's where the similarities end.

These trips, y'see, are intended to be a solution to the problems presented by mass tourism. They aim to provide travellers with those fabled get-the-fuck-out-of-your-comfort-zone-or-else travel experiences that, as the world becomes smaller and better connected, are getting harder and harder to come by. The loose organisation of the trips gives you a vague sense of security while ensuring all chances for serendipity are maximized.

In 2013, Matt and I drove a tuk-tuk 1200km around Sri Lanka with Large Minority on the Lanka Challenge. We decided on that trip, since we live on opposite sides of the world (he in Brighton, England, me in Melbourne, Australia), to do something similar every couple of years or so. Signing up for their inaugural jaunt to the Philippines was a no-brainer.

Every Large Minority trip isgeared to help positively impact the communities and destinations they operate in, too, with 10% of all entry fees going towards local initiatives. So you can feel good while you're having fun.

I made a spice rack at school once.

As we approach the beach in Argao, we’re still sailing at quite a pace. I wait for Mike to do the thing where he slows the boat down. The beach draws closer. I wait a little longer. We’re in no more than six feet of water. Four feet. Two feet. Before we realise what’s going on, Mike sends his boat flying straight up onto the beach and parks it right outside his front door. It is probably the single most profound display of aquatic badassery I have ever seen.

My brother, Jeffrey and I grab our stuff and race (in truth, it’s more of a meander. It’s too hot to race) to Argao’s basketball court, the first checkpoint of the day. Here we find Rachel, the trip’s challenge master and one-woman medical team, and receive our instructions. Today our challenge is to dream up our own challenge and to provide photo or video evidence of us completing it.

All of the crew members on the trip are from Argao and each of the nine teams will be staying at their respective captain’s house tonight — a fact which has given the day a bit of a homecoming-vibe. “We could go and find every house and take a photo of the captains and their families standing outside,” suggests Matt, after some contemplation. I think it’s a rubbish idea, mainly because I don’t really see the ‘challenge’ in it, but I don't have a better one either. We tell Mike about our plan and he offers to take us to each house. Most of them are within a kilometer or so of one another.

It becomes apparent to me pretty quickly that that my brother’s idea isn’t rubbish after all. Seeing each of the captain’s houses, most of which they’ve built themselves, and catching a glimpse of what life in Argao (a place neither of us would have ever come on our own) turns out to be a fascinating way to spend an afternoon. A lot of these captains are around my age (28) or younger, which makes the sheer amount of useful, practical knowledge they have at their disposal even more impressive. I made a spice rack at school once.


Two days later, and I can’t tell if I’m in mortal danger or having the time of my life.

Later that night, all nine teams and crew are gathered at Mike’s bar (yes, our captain has his own bar) to receive the day’s challenge results. It turns out we didn’t win the challenge. The team Hey Buoy, Hey Girl won the challenge. They went around Argao and collected a bunch of discarded bottles and, with the help of some locals, built a pint-sized paraw out of them. It’s impressive. And a good representation of what these Large Minority trips are all about.

Most nights on this trip have felt like a celebration, but tonight is more celebratory than usual. Where other evenings have been spent on islands that even our crew had never visited, tonight we’re in their hometown. All the families have pulled together to make us feel welcome. There’s a long table outside Mike’s bar piled high with delicious Filipino food (each team was tasked with bringing along a traditional dish) and surrounded by crew, their families and our small band of travellers. The rum makes another appearance.

Before we know it, it’s late and Matt, Jeffrey, captain Mike and I are the last ones left. We’ve run out of mixer for the rum so we’re drinking it with water. Mike — who is slightly older than most of the other crew members and well-respected ­in Argao — is telling us stories. Once, his paraw capsized in the channel near Boracay and because visibility was so poor, he and his crew had to wait some ten hours to be rescued. “You must’ve been scared” I say. “Not really,” laughs Mike. “I was mainly hungry.” I hadn’t thought of that. I would be hungry too.

Then Mike, who named his boat and crew The Scorpions because most of his family are Scorpios, tells us that there is a live scorpion in the boat. This is the boat we’ve been sailing on for close to a week. He put it in there for good luck. Matt and I laugh. Then Mike tells us there’s a live scorpion somewhere in his house, where we'll be sleeping tonight. Matt and I do not laugh.

As my knuckles turn transparent, I develop a new appreciation for the term ‘white knuckle ride’.

Two days later, and I can’t tell if I’m in mortal danger or having the time of my life. Perhaps the two are closely linked. Like the sun earlier in the week, today the wind is the unhinged, sociopathic member of the natural elements family. The perpetually uninvited cousin, rain, has also turned up with bells on.

We’re Boracay bound and sailing against the gale. Our paraw lifts and slams into the waves, condemning us to an indiscriminate soaking. When it gusts, which it often does, it feels as though it’s going to tip us right over. On more than one occasion, I look down from my outrigger and the boat appears to be almost vertical, half the boat totally submerged, with Mike only just above the surface. My brother and I share more than one concerned glance.

Twenty minutes in to our one-hour sail and two other paraws from our party of nine are already out of action, one with a cracked boom and the other with a cracked mast. Statistically, things are not looking great for us. If we did go down, the support boat wouldn't be able to get to us until it had finished helping the others. Oh, we left our emergency radio, the one we're supposed to use to call for help, on some island about three days ago, too. So we wouldn't even be able to call for help; just have to hope they see us. I develop a new appreciation for the term ‘white knuckle ride’ and can't help but think, at the measly age of 28, that I'm probably too young to die.

None of this stops Mike, Jeffrey and Bong Bong from appearing to have the time of their lives. All smiles and woo-hooing, Bong Bong wipes the spray from his face before giving me a huge grin and a thumbs up. Their laissez-faire attitude to the situation makes me feel a little more relaxed about the whole thing, but then I remember that we're not wearing life jackets (which was our own choice).

Hang on, I think. I didn’t come on this trip to feel relaxed. I came because I knew it’d be a trip that forces me, kicking and screaming, out of my comfort zone. And, as I sit on this paraw boat in the middle of the Sulu Sea and get shafted by nature every which way, almost literally shitting myself, I realise I haven’t seen my comfort zone for the best part of a week. This is exactly what I signed up for. Too young to die? Maybe. But I can still give living a red-hot go.