I don’t know the names of the other two on the boat, but our captain was named Ruel. He is known around Coron Town for his basketball-playing ability. According to the youngest crewman—one of the two whose names I didn’t remember to ask—Ruel almost made one of the college teams that played in Manila, in front of a national TV audience; Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP), I think it was: neither an NCAA nor UAAP school. This was before my time, this was before the year I played for Ateneo’s reserve team (or, to be more precise, didn’t play), this was around the time a fabulous and therefore heavily recruited point guard named Bonbon Custodio chose to transfer from PUP to play for University of the East. Anyway, for some reason and despite the extra slot Ruel didn’t make it, he became a boatman instead of a player, which the crewman thought was a shame. The old me would think the same, too, but now I’m not so sure that playing basketball is much better than messing about in boats and touring strangers across the islands of Coron.
On our third day, we set out for Malcapuya Island, an hour’s ride from town. Five minutes after leaving the port, we ran into trouble—something to do with the engine. While the boat, an outrigger canoe, the native sort that runs on gasoline, with its engine turned off drifted in open water, Ruel out of frustration kept jerking his head; it was in the same heavy-hearted, tsk-tsking manner of a point guard after committing a crucial turnover. I wondered how much the problem would cost, how much money he would lose if we had to transfer, how concerned his family would be—because I knew Ruel had a young boy. He had tagged along with his father the previous night, when Ruel came by motorbike to meet us at the intersection of Rosario Street and Coron-Busuanga to discuss the plans (and lunch menu) for Malcapuya the next day. I’m guessing the kid is around seven or eight. He looks just like Ruel.
The engine was okay in the end, we didn’t end up transferring. As soon as the other crewman—the oldest in the crew, a quiet, moustached middle-aged man—presumably also married with children, although you couldn’t really get a story out of him if you tried; he did wear a wedding band, and most married Filipino men his age are fathers—who was usually in charge of dropping the anchor for hooking into the seabed, as well as of breaking it out of the bottom and hauling it up to be stowed whenever we were about to set sail for the next island—as soon as this man phoned for help, Ruel, after some creative troubleshooting, cried out and said the problem had in fact been solved, we would be able to make it to Malcapuya in his boat after all. The look of relief on his face was priceless. I was relieved, too; I’m convinced that at sea you care more readily for the people to whom you entrust your life, or at least the rest of the day; you want them to be blessed, not broken by bad luck; at best, you want luck or chance to not be part of the equation at all, although of course it can’t be helped that the wind and waves will make any voyage inevitably unpredictable. In general, though, I believe Ruel was pretty good at the helm, controlling the pace as best as he could, steering—and steering calmly—to correct whenever the rough, choppy sea whipped frothy water into the boat or caused its bow or outriggers to lift.
However, he was a lot less talkative than on our first day, when he guided us through Coron’s Twin Lagoon, offered plastic cups as ashtrays, and cheerfully recited a list of island beaches where tourists often camped out: Coron Youth Club, Beach 91, Malaroyroy, and so on. Perhaps the morning’s engine trouble implied costs he hadn’t taken into account; perhaps it was something else on his mind.
He was also noticeably harder on the younger crewman, who—bless him—was not always sure which way to steer the bamboo tiller rod, and whom I felt a bit sorry for, because it was obvious he was new to this sort of job—new to seafaring. Wearing a yellow St. Vincent jersey (number 24, with ‘Pag-Ong’ stitched across the back), he put away the plates and bowls and saucers after lunch at Malcapuya and fed leftover grouper to the stray dogs. He told me he’d come to Coron only three months earlier; he used to live and work in Manila, near U.P. Village. In the afternoon we made conversation about the Philippine national basketball team’s semifinals win over South Korea the previous night (in which another point guard, Jimmy Alapag, supposedly starred), and this was how we got to talking about Ruel’s athletic talents, for which this crewman still had nothing but praise. He expressed regret that my friends and I were going to miss the town fiesta on the 28th of August, because there was likely going to be a tournament at the Coron Coliseum, which, as I discovered while walking around town, is really just a covered court, probably with slippery cement flooring. During breaks ‘Pag-Ong’ was often on his cell phone, talking sweetly to a girlfriend or lover. Whoever was on the other end, she sounded so far away.