Big Canoe, Bigger Dream
On the 123rd Independence Day of the Philippines, three pickups, one six-man zero-fuel outrigger canoe, and a stealthy land and water crew jumped off from the murky, trafficked freeway of Cebu South Road Properties for five days of strenuous paddling. It was a Saturday, and the clouds overhead showed signs of a downpour. But it was also Independence Day, and many expedition organizers had a line from Antonio Luna’s letter to Jose Rizal stuck in their heads. The line goes, “I will show them that Filipinos have more dignity, more courage, more honor..” 227 kilometers after, the expedition crew emerged into the clear blue diving mecca that is Moalboal.
It was a dangerous, grandiose expedition, treading through the realm of what was possible if the right people were in the boat with you. Pushing forward sometimes with zero visibility and being tailed by a tropical depression, the crew relied on nature’s free energy — wind, tide, rain — and each other to paddle on.
Long-distance ocean paddling is unheard of in the Philippines, ironic for a country where bodies of water should serve more like highways than dividers. When the expedition made its way around Cebu, fisherfolk quickly stopped mid-activity to wave at the canoe and point out, “Wow, paspasa sa dragon boat!” Look at that dragon boat go, they say. A dragon boat was the closest thing they could associate the six-man outrigger to.
For the record, an outrigger canoe is not a dragon boat, something the Philippine Outrigger Canoe Club’s founders Buzzy Budlong, Janus Migalbin, and Faye Jimera constantly remind students and enthusiasts of. Atlas recently caught up with these three to discuss the freedom of navigation, what it took to unify paddlers from triathletes to 16-year olds, finding common ground, and (all together now) paddling forward.
Could you give us a brief background of what got you into ocean sports and paddling in particular?
So, that was when you started Island Buzz, your tour company?
BUZZY: Yeah, 2002. I built Island Buzz Grill & Cafe. It was a cafe in the middle of the city. It felt like walking inside a Hawaiian coastline. Inside the restaurant was paddle crafts hung on the walls.
What about the building of your outrigger canoes? Was that the same year?
BUZZY: Way earlier, around 1999. The wife of one of the scientists of the I Love The Ocean movement was from the US, and she used a single outrigger canoe. She would use it to explore New Zealand, California, Hawaii, places like those.
What about the six-man canoe which you used during the five-day expedition? Was that a long-time dream?
BUZZY: Yeah, I wanted something that could take in more people, something that allowed you to take your ohana with you. I noticed there wasn’t an outrigger canoeing culture in the Philippines. So, in 2016, we started fabricating the OC6, or outrigger canoe 6. The single outrigger canoe is mainly for solo racing. But the OC6 allows you to bring different types of people with different abilities. It’s not difficult to get into the sport because it’s faster to learn and have people who can understand you.
What about the ladies in the team? How did you get into the sport?
JANUS: Faye has been paddling with the Singapore Paddle Club since 2015. I’ve been paddling with the same club since 2007. As a club, we traveled to Hawaii and met spiritual paddling enthusiast Uncle Kimokeo Kapahulehua. We ended up inviting him to Singapore for our Ocean Cup, and that’s how we connected. What Uncle Kimokeo does in Hawaii is voyaging. In the same spirit as what our expedition crew for the journey did now, that’s what Uncle has been doing in Hawaii for a long, long time. Uncle is very much emotionally invested in the paddling projects in the Philippines because he wants to revive the islander culture. When we came together as a team, our goal was to make a difference in our communities, in our seas, through paddle sports, one stroke at a time.
So, how did you guys come up with the idea of this 225-km? expedition?
FAYE: Well, after Cebu’s governor said that it was okay to go out and go around the province, we decided to activate the project. The pandemic had severely hit the towns in the area, and there was virtually no tourism activity.
BUZZY: Yes, we paddle forward because we want to move forward with our lives and contribute to the vision to make Cebu the paddling capital of the Philippines.
How were the crew for the expedition chosen? Is it a technical or social decision?
FAYE: We had a few paddlers paddling with us last year as an on and off thing. We opened up the promotion on our Facebook page, and some expressed their interest in joining. We made it clear that it will require severe and proper training since it’s a five-day expedition. They agreed. We had dragon boat paddlers and long-distance paddlers. There were challenges along the way implementing the technique, the form, the power needed. We grew together. We became friends too. Our youngest paddler is 16.
One leg is a group of six, then. Did the crew have to repeat, or did they just take on 15 kilometers each?
FAYE: For the first day, we had to cover 60 kilometers. All of us paddled two times that day. Fifteen kilometers was the average distance covered per paddler. Then, they take a break, then go for the other 15 kilometers. We have three to four crew substitutions in a day.
JANUS: 15 kilometers is heavy even for me, and I’ve been doing long-distance paddling for a long time. Any long-distance sport takes a toll on your body, so it needs time to adjust. Max na dapat yung 15 because if you exceed 15 (kilometers) in a set, mabilis magbaba yung performance in the next few days. That’s why I always remind our crew to hydrate, rest, eat, etc. Once you go over the max of your effort, it’s challenging to recover. If you go for long-distance paddling, you need to know your max. If you exceed that, you either get injured, or you get tired and can’t paddle properly. The technique suffers, teammates suffer too.
We’re curious what the sensation is like in the canoe. Do the paddlers talk to each other? Or do they get distracted by what’s around them — the turtles, the dolphins, the sunset, the fisherfolk.
JANUS: Once you’re in the boat, you have to be together. Yes, it can be easy to get distracted, but you develop the ability to treat it as leisure and as a brutal rt over time. That comes with constant training. Paddling with a team is also about synchronicity and timing. We need to push each other for safety. But in the end, you develop a different bond from the time you leave the shore to the time you dock.
FAYE: On one leg of this expedition, for example, we experienced heavy rain and zero visibility. We couldn’t even see the coastguard anymore, so all of us were encouraging one another to push. It creates a different bond. But we also develop a bond with the people that we pass. Kids shout, “We want to bugsay! We want to paddle.” And fishermen would say they want to paddle with us. They were amazed by the speed of our craft.
Nice. What was the coastline like?
BUZZY: Talking about the first day of the expedition, we had to go through the canoe’s belly or the middle of the island, Cebu City. We paddled as fast as possible to get out of the city during the first day until we reached Talisay and Minglanilla. We saw many things: the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of the island.
JANUS: Yeah, to me, that’s part of city life. That’s the reality. Cities are where the big enterprises are, the ones with plentiful resources. I think we can use that opportunity to effect good change in the town regarding sustainability and taking care of marine life. Since we did an expedition already, we carry that into the community so city dwellers can see how beautiful our shoreline is, and we can also impact the poorer districts. We need to work with the realities that we have and make the best of them.
What were the realities that you had to make the best of in this five-day expedition? Any major challenges?
BUZZY: One of the challenges for me is the crew switch. Every crew during the leg will have different paces and different sets. Another challenge is the docking. In some of the coastal areas we stopped over in, we couldn’t dock the canoe properly.
FAYE: Yes, there was also the implementation of strict social distancing guidelines and standard health protocols. During our final briefing, our Chief Safety Director told us not to engage so much with the community. Our team practices our health and safety concerns. Logistics-wise, we also had challenges. We had three pick-ups and then lots of things to put onboard. We had a single outrigger canoe on top of one pick-up. It was really like a movie, three vehicles in convoy. It was like a village that kept moving.
BUZZY: Haha, and then we had to avoid the areas that smelled like piss from the open canals. That was challenging. There were times when you felt like puking.
JANUS: Yeah, and environmentally, we had to avoid the marine sanctuaries, so we needed to paddle outside the buoyed areas. We avoided hitting the coral areas and judged our depth well.
Talking about the environment, especially the marine sanctuaries, were there representatives who kept close watch of those when you were paddling around the island?
There’s a stigma then when it comes to canoeing in Philippine waters?
Now that it’s done, what are your takeaways from the trip?
FAYE: For me, what was memorable was the expedition experience with the crew. We saw their faces when they see turtles popping up and down. It’s incredible to see the background of these so-called novice paddlers. It’s a journey that we were able to share. On the organizing part, it opened up a lot of communication and ways to do so better. We had a lot of learnings from each other coming from different backgrounds with different experiences. Diversity brings unity. We brought in all of our experiences just to make sure that we will be onboard and we will be able to bring out the best of the Philippine Outrigger Canoe Club.
The passion for paddling is there but on top of that, for me is advocacy. Paddling and the ocean have their way to heal you. For me, it’s more of the home that you inherit from your crew, the people who wave at you and smile.
BUZZY: I’m happy that we could share the canoe with the Filipino people, practice the aloha, the love of the ocean, the love of the land. We learned each other’s strokes. Aside from racing, we could also use what we learned for canoe tours. We discovered a lot about the Cebu coastline. It was my first time going around Cebu from Talisay to Oslob. Being a paddler, you’re like a bird or a drone. You appreciate the beauty of the land.
This is just the start, right? You’re not done?
FAYE: Right now, the OC6 is a niche in the Philippines. But it’s a big group globally. It’s pretty funny that, of all the archipelagos in Southeast Asia, we’re the ones without an outrigger canoeing culture.
JANUS: Still, what amazed me during this expedition are the global Filipinos who took notice. A lot of them messaged us, commented, etc. They said they wanted to come home and paddle. There was this one guy, a paddler from Palaui,who reached out and said it was his dream to make an OC Club. POCC Zambales edition, why not? I think that’s part of the dream now: to create paddling communities around the Philippines.
BUZZY: Well, the bigger the canoe, the bigger the dream.
Photo Credit to: Budots Media