The South China Sea Blues

So we’d finally gotten through all of the lists, we’d left Hong Kong behind, and we were headed across the South China Sea to Manila. Sea trials are always an unknown, particularly with a new crew. But we’d prepared well, as I discussed in my previous post, and the boat, while mulish and hard to steer, took the seas passably.

But there was still a lot to do. For example, the masts weren’t raked right. Sailing ships’ masts don’t go straight up. They are “raked”, tipped toward the back of the boat. But she had the masts tipped too far forwards, so she was “headstrong”—the force of the sails too far forwards on the boat made her wander off course. We spent the long days at sea tuning the masts and the rigging, making lists of things to do, and then doing them one by one.

Hong Kong to Manila.png

The second night of that 700 mile (1100 km) run to Manila, the whole crew was called out at about 2 AM by Roy, the skipper. A squall, which is a small but powerful storm cloud chock full of wind and rain, had come up fast. We had way too much sail up. As a result, the wind was blowing the boat far over on her side. We all turned out, except for SEALboy. Long John had awakened SEALboy, but he’d gone back to sleep … a bad omen for the future, as I was to find out later.

I was the first mate, so part of my job was to handle the crew. I went up forward along the deck toward the forecastle where SEALboy slept. The boat was tipped way over by the wind. The scene was lit only by the red and green running lights. I stopped halfway up to the front of the boat to drink in the moment …

… wind is driving the rain horizontally. A wave breaks against the side of the boat. Spray first goes straight up, then blasts right at me, stinging my eyes. The deck reels and pitches. The boat lays way, way over. Green water comes up over the edge of the boat and courses in calf-deep rivers along the deck. The running lights glitter off of the raindrops, drops that look like colored horizontal red and green streaks. I can hardly see the bow of the boat. I realize that if I were to fall overboard, there is no hope that I would ever be found. I’d be gone, lost in the wildness of the night, no hope of rescue. Despite all my time fishing and sailing, somehow that moment impressed me—the wild loneliness of the location, the lack of visibility, the sure knowledge of death waiting just a misstep away … I grabbed harder on the lifeline, shook my head, and kept working my way forward to pry SEALboy out of bed.

I love the ocean, in part because it simply doesn’t care. It doesn’t care if you are rich. It doesn’t care if you are good looking, and can write coherent sentences. If you place your foot wrong at sea, you will get just as wet as the poor, ugly, illiterate man who puts his foot wrong. There is a certain elegant democracy in that. It is a leveling force, where king or commoner doesn’t matter—the only thing that matters is sink or swim, hang on or lose your grip …

I talked to a man once who had survived a ship sinking at sea in a storm. He and two friends got off the sinking ship alive. Jumped into a tiny inflatable liferaft. They were finally found by a big freighter. The waves were still running still mountain high.

The freighter put a big cargo net down over the side. It’s made of rope, so you can grab on to it. A huge wave drove all three of them in their liferaft high up on the side of the freighter, and when the wave receded, all three of them were there, each one successfully clinging onto the cargo net. Their pathetic little inflatable liferaft bounded away in the wind.

Then the next wave came along, and washed up over their heads as they clung to the cargo net … and when it receded, he was alone, holding on for dear life to the net on the side of the ship.

He never saw his two friends again. The ocean doesn’t care about your moral fiber or your ancestry. The only question is … can you hang on or not?

I finally made it all the way forward on the boat, and I kicked SEALboy out of bed. He got up, reluctantly, and with Roy directing and all of us working together we brought down all the sails but one. The boat has to move forward for the rudder to work, so you always need to keep up a bit of sail.

With that, we went to bed, except the skipper, he said he’d take the watch. I went to bed with the waves still breaking over the side of the boat… only to wake up before sunrise for my regular morning watch to find a lovely calm tropical South China Sea dawn. Hardly a breath of wind. We laboriously reset all of the sails and continued toward Manila.

And after a week or so of sailing and fixing things and making lists of systems to get fixed or to buy when we got to land, we sailed into the huge Manila Bay. After a long slow slog in light winds across one of the world’s largest enclosed harbors, we anchored up offshore of Manila and hoisted the yellow “Q” flag to the top of the mast.

At sea, there is a flag code where different flags represent different letters. It an old-time method that lets you pass messages when the radio is dead.

nautical flag code.png

The “Q” flag is all yellow, and by flying the “Q” flag we signified that we were in quarantine because we had just arrived. The yellow Q flag alerts the customs and immigration and health department folks on shore that there is a new boat in the harbor. So pretty soon, the inspector came out. He looked over the boat. We offered him a bottle of rum. He graciously accepted it. We had nothing to declare, and he could see that. He stamped our papers, got into his boat, and went ashore. We hauled anchor, motored to the Manila yacht club, and got a slip.

Now, the sea trials from Hong Kong to Manila had revealed a whole host of new problems. It was an old wooden boat, and still needed a deal of work. Once again we were making lists and crossing them off. As I’d done in Hong Kong, I started again on my rounds of ships chandlers and fabricators and various shops, getting the boat to where all systems worked.

When I was not working, the Philippines was a fun time for me. I got along great with the Filipino folks because of my guitar. As long as I was carrying my guitar and I was willing to sing for my friends, it was the key that opened every door. I couldn’t have been more welcomed. I’d work on the boat during the day, and in the evening I’d wander around and play music. As near as I could tell, everyone in the Philippines is related to everyone else in some way, and they all like music—playing music, listening to music, dancing to music. I played a lot of guitar there.

I also found a bar with a piano. It was just a few blocks from the slip where the boat was tied up. I used to go in the evening after work to play, hour after hour. After while, I was just part of the scene, the piano man. I got to know the bartenders and what were euphemistically called the “hospitality ladies”. I’d play some kind of China Sea blues on the piano while they chatted up some sailor, got him to buy them fake drinks, and then disappeared into a back room … being the piano man in a Filipino house of ill repute, what’s not to like? I mean, isn’t that every musician’s dream!? I wrote further about that bar and the hospitality girls here

piano bar.png

During that time, I went once to a full-on whorehouse. It was the first and only time in my life I ever went. Paying directly for anonymous sex always seemed creepy to me, so I’d never done it. The guys in the crew wanted to go. I said I’d go. I was young, with more testosterone than good sense. We hopped into a cab with a driver we knew by then. He took us to a warehouse in a section of town not recommended in the tourist guide.

We paid the driver. The sign on the door warned us to deposit guns and knives at the front desk. The sign did not make me feel safer. Instead, I felt under-armed …

please deposit firearms.png

Once inside, we were led into a long room with a one-way mirror running the length of one wall. We could walk up and down the long narrow room and look through the one-way mirror, but the young Filipina women in the next room couldn’t see us.

What struck me first was the total banality of what I saw through the one-way mirror. On the other side was a long bench that ran the length of the long room. Above the bench, there were numbers painted in a crude hand. Several dozen young women in the barest minimum of clothing sat all along the bench. The strange part was that they were doing the most mundane things—chatting in groups, reading Filipino movie magazines, doing each other’s nails, combing out someone’s hair. They looked like bored teenagers all over the world. It was totally unnerving and unappetizing.

The deal was, you told the man the number above the bench where your choice was sitting, and they’d lead you to a room and she’d show up.

I couldn’t take it. Seeing the look on the faces of those women had deeply upset me. I can only describe it as one of placidity. But this was not the placidity of the Buddha. This was the placidity of people who had given up hope, who had given up shame, who had given up struggling against their awful fate. I could not drag them down further. It wasn’t in me. I told the guys I’d meet them outside when they were through. They told the man their numbers. They went to their rooms. I went out to the night sky, feeling shaken to my core …

… but life goes on, I couldn’t help those poor women, and the next day there was always more work to do.

At the Yacht Club bar, we’d heard a lot about pirates and smugglers. This wasn’t the kind of genteel malfeasance that I wrote about in Modern Piracy. The sea is a big scary place down there. This was the real deal, the “Dead men tell no tales!” kind of piracy. So I decided to buy a pistol. At that time, all firearms had recently been made illegal by Ferdinand Marcos. So I asked around at my favorite piano bar of ill repute, and they put me onto a taxi driver. He took me to one guy’s house. I sat in the taxi, he went inside, but the man was out of pistols. So the taxi man said no problem, he had plenty of friends.

We went to another place, an apartment house. He went inside, and after while came out to invite me in. As I said, firearms were illegal and the penalties were large. So I expected that the deal would be done in total secrecy. But I underestimated the Philippines, where either you are in the family or out of the family. By coming in with their friend I was in the family. So the purchase of the pistol took place in a living room with people wandering in and out, grandma, mom, a slew of kids, the man of the house selling the pistol, and a couple other unknown folks.

What he had was an old WWII style 1911 model Colt 45 automatic. I’d fired them before. It looked good. l loaded the magazine and cycled the shells through by racking the slide. Of course, I couldn’t test it. I asked about ammunition. They sold me what they had, eight shells. They said the Colt 45 was a good pistol because the police carried 45’s.

How does that make it a good pistol, I asked?

colt 45 1911 model.png

They said it was a good pistol because when you need ammunition, you just buy it from your local cop, who is always pleased to make a little extra money … gotta love Asia. So I asked him if he could get me another two dozen shells. “Hang on,” he said, and he took my money and went out the door. He walked to the local police station. He came back with about sixteen shells. “It’s all they had” he explained. I paid the going rate, one US dollar per bullet …

The work on the boat went on and on, always more things on the list. To save on mooring fees at the Manila Yacht Club, we decided to move a bit down the coast. We anchored up in a little inlet. From there, we went on several day-trips. One day we were coming back to the inlet. We passed a tiny coral islet. There, on an equally tiny sand beach, we saw a castaway. He was wearing the usual local gear—shorts and a t-shirt. Except he’d taken the t-shirt off and put it on a stick that he waved to get our attention. I laughed and laughed. He was the perfect picture of the cartoon castaway sailor, waving a shirt on a stick.

We eased the boat in very close to shore and dropped the anchor. He swam the short distance out to the boat and came aboard. As you might imagine we were eager to hear his story.

He was a smuggler, he said.

Or to be more exact, he was a crewman on a smuggling boat. Once every couple of weeks, their boat snuck out with no running lights at night to another islet about twenty miles offshore. There they transferred a load dropped off by a big boat and brought it back to shore.

And what kind of dangerous cargo were they smuggling?

Marlboros. Marlboro cigarettes by the case.

Cigarettes were highly taxed, so black market smokes without the tax stamp were much cheaper than the ones with taxes paid. Plus, he said with a wink, anyway these weren’t actually real Marlboros, but the customer didn’t need to know that … we all agreed, no need to burden the customer with excess information.


“So how’d you get on the island?”, we wanted to know.

Well, he said, he’d been foolish. He’d gone to sea without any money.

We looked at each other in puzzlement. What was there to buy at sea? Where could you spend it?

Here was his tale. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that the smugglers and the Philippines Coast Guard had a long-standing and very practical relationship. The Coast Guard did their best to catch smugglers. Smugglers did there best to avoid capture. And two nights before, the Coast Guard had stopped their boat. Bad luck, we all agreed.

But the Coast Guard didn’t ever arrest anybody, he said. That would be short-sighted and foolish.

Instead, the Guardians of the Philippine Coast simply fined the swabbies for the heinous crime of “Marlboro” smuggling, right there on the spot, and then let them go. Everyone on board, from the Captain on down, had to pay a fine. Pay the fine, walk away, live to smuggle another day …

It’s a reasonable system from everyone’s point of view. After all, if you arrested all those fine young up-and-coming trans-border entrepreneurs, you’d have to pay to feed and guard them. You’d need to transport them. There would be court costs … plus, and more importantly, there would be no more money from fines coming in for the Coast Guard.

But if you just fine the smugglers, you make money, they go smuggle again, and sooner or later to pay another fine as well.

What’s not to like?

Unfortunately, since he had gone to sea without money, the castaway couldn’t pay. So, following the unspoken rules, the Coast Guard simply dumped him on the nearest islet and told the boat to go on without him. They could come to pick him up another night.

We said we were foreigners, we couldn’t get mixed up with local smugglers. He said he understood, and that he hoped that his mates would be back after dark to get him off the island. All he needed was water. The Coast Guard had put him off without a drop. So we filled up a freshwater jug with a tight cap on it. He took it, jumped overboard, and swam ashore. We hoisted the anchor and went back to the coast where we were anchoring the boat.

We got in the skiff the next afternoon and made the one-hour run out to the islet.

He was gone. Perfect. The Philippines works again.

Then after a few more weeks, finally, we came to the end of the lists. And one fine day, once again we hoisted anchor and sailed off into the glorious South China Sea. It was glorious to be sailing again, the boat was working right, the sun was shining, what could possibly go wrong? …

To be continued … Part 3 here.


9 thoughts on “The South China Sea Blues

  1. “what could possibly go wrong? …

    Upon setting out on a long sea voyage, maybe the better question is: when will things go wrong?

    Nothing deterministic, just chaos has a way of injecting itself in one’s life.


    • Good to hear from you, RiHo08. You say:

      Nothing deterministic, just chaos has a way of injecting itself in one’s life.

      For me it’s the opposite.

      Nothing deterministic, just life has a way of injecting itself into my chaos.



  2. “…more testosterone than good sense.”

    Been there, done that. Enjoy your stories, and keep ’em comin’. The 1911 Colt 45 is semi-automatic.

    Liked by 1 person

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