Better bring it on the bangka boat

We emphatically insist: The effort is worth it!

We emphatically insist: The effort is worth it!

Have you ever wondered what you’d need to live on a bangka boat in the Philippines?

Yeah me neither. And that only changed last month, when it became a self-induced matter of survival. Probably not life and death (Hi Mom), but it suddenly was our business to figure out how to eat, drink, sleep, clean, and of course travel from place to place without having a disaster.

Surprise, surprise, it turns out there are several essential items beyond what we anticipated that are needed to keep a bangka trip (somewhat) smoothly underway. It took us nearly the whole trip, including four port stopovers, to cobble together an inventory that kept us and Danica* happy.

*Danica was the bangka boat we had the pleasure of living on for just over two weeks. She came with that name and it grew on us, although initially I had insisted on ‘Skeeter.’

Let’s assume you’re not going into it empty handed: You have a way to cook your food, you have clothes you can get dirty, you have sleeping bags, you have a tent, you have lots of water, some snacks. The food thing is a whole other ball game, which I’ll ponder in another post.

We didn't end up using the tent...

We didn’t end up using the tent…

And, look at you, you now also have a bangka boat, which unless you have ample time and ample money, will be second hand and in need of a little lovin’. That right there, that was a euphemism. Let’s also assume this is your first time on a bangka boat so when you bought it and gave it a cursory inspection you may have done a good job of playing it cool but, let’s face it, you didn’t really know exactly what to look for. You were like ‘I just want to get out on the water right now and I’m a good problem solver. And I can swim. I’ll take it.’

At least we had the werewithall to not buy this bangka. Or should I say, listen to advice to go with something big enough to sleep on.

It was one of several we considered, but at least we had the werewithall to not buy this bangka. Or should I say, listen to advice to go with something big enough to sleep on and maneuver about comfortably.

In the interest of prioritization, it’s probably prudent to move first from the ‘you will likely have to cut your adventure short if you don’t have these’ to the ‘these will make your life more comfortable’.

Bangka Essentials:

Considering the former of the two categories – we had growing pains many days on the water. A few times we really thought we were on the precipice of folding, calling off the whole thing and returning to Coron heads hung low. And by returning, I mean we thought we’d have to be towed back. These challenges could be broadly classified as boat problems – engine, exhaust and hull. It took time out on the ocean to fully understand the state of Danica’s affairs. She was, shall we say, a fickle mistress.

Here first then are the heavy hitters, the workhorses that we found to be indispensible. These you’ll need at some point or another to keep your bangka operational.

1) A Mechanic:

This isn’t meant to understate the role of writer in the successful bangka trip. I did what I could and pulled my weight. I have some seafaring skills, to boot. But I’ve never owned a vehicle, let alone an old diesel boat. ‘Yeah so…what’s a hose clamp?’ I asked.

It wouldn’t have been at all possible for me to have this experience without my Philippines travel companion. For much of the trip, the half of the day that he wasn’t working on the engine, Jon was probably thinking about how to prevent other problems from arising. Most definitely bring a mechanic and make sure they are patient, resourceful and creative. Give them beer.

He is likely thinking 'a great day, only one thing went wrong with Danica's engine.'

He is likely thinking ‘I’m stoked…today is a great day, only one thing went wrong with Danica’s engine.’

2) Extra Fuel: 

Your paddle, if one came with the bangka at all, will be too small to use effectively even if you wanted to. Bring more fuel than you think you’ll need. You may have a leak in your fuel line and not even know it until you are using substantially more than you anticipated. You might chalk it up to the old engine not being efficient, but once you do figure out the problem you’ll finally understand why everyone at the gas station was gawking at you when you were stocking up. Just, you know, hypothetically speaking. Fuel is also a valid method of payment for boat maintenance services in lieu of cash.

Ask around for fuel use estimates, and then get double.

Ask around for fuel use estimates, and then get double.

3) Epoxy:

Epoxy is great because it may help delay sinking if you have one or two leaks, which we did. Bonus points are awarded to epoxy because when used it forces you to beach your bangka for 24-ish hours in what may well be a beautiful and secluded location. Oh, it’s not cured yet? So sad…

Not going anywhere today...

Not going anywhere today…

In a pinch, epoxy can also be used as payment for boat maintenance services in lieu of cash, but is inferior to fuel for this purpose.

Eight Canadian Dollars well spent. Eggs for scale, I guess.

Eight Canadian Dollars well spent. Eggs for scale, I guess.

4) Tools:

Bring a set of wrenches, a screwdriver, a handsaw and vice grips. But don’t be hasty – check what’s on board the boat first. Maybe you’ll discover useful surprises, and maybe you’ll think of other tools that will come in handy. Doing an initial inventory will also give you a valuable opportunity to clean and organize the engine compartment, making your bangka feel a bit more like a home.

Look at all the treasures!

Look at all the treasures!

5) Clear Plastic Cord:

We had lots of laughs and a few cringes about this one. The skeleton of your bangka boat, if it’s like ours was, is almost exclusively held together with clear plastic cord. This was initially novel to us, and on calm days one may think ‘cool, that’s interesting and I know how to tie knots so I can easily work with this.’

By contrast, on rough days you’ll be forcing your little tiller all the way from one side to another to keep any sort of course, your bamboo outriggers will be creaking and shaking violently with each wave, and your masts will be moving the opposite way to the bangka’s lean. And all these components will be grafted together with not-so-thick plastic cord, and you’ll be a little concerned. Bring extra.

So much plastic string. So not willing to test its limits.

So much plastic string. So not looking forward to finding out its limits.

6) Extra Hose, and Tire Tubes:

What’s under the hood?

Well I can’t speak in sweeping generalizations because I’ve only seen one engine installed in a bangka, and one additional bangka engine that wasn’t at all near a boat, but instead was revved up for us on a big piece of cardboard while we sat around in a village, bangka shopping, and I thought that for sure a piece would fly off and hit one of us.

But, here’s what I can say:

There may be quite the variety of short pieces of hose, of a perplexing variety of diameters, running to and from the engine. I can also say they are very possibly bound together by cut-up strips of bike tube. Don’t fight it, don’t try to understand it, just bring lots more.

It's like a puzzle.

It’s like a puzzle.

7) Bamboo Poles:

You will need extra bamboo poles, and they don’t have to be glossy and painted like the ones in the following photo. You might need them in case an outrigger breaks off. We also used a piece of one to lengthen our paddle. I suppose you could also lash a few together if you had to make a life raft. They float quite well. We didn’t test this theory, it might not work at all. Please consult a second source.

Beautiful bamboo from Culion Island. Kept straight or slowly bent with heat to build the outriggers for each side of the bangka.

Beautiful bamboo from Culion Island. Kept straight or slowly bent with heat to build the outriggers for each side of the bangka.

8) Extra Rope: 

Extra rope is great for when you can’t drag your bangka high enough on the beach to tie it to a tree, or for if you lose your docking line in the water (we almost did this), or when you accidentally run over your anchor line (we definitely did this). You could also use it to drag a little bangka dinghy behind you, or perhaps you could use your extra rope to make a laundry line on the beach. The options are endless.

Tying one rope to another.

Tying one rope to another.

9) A Way To Contact Your Contacts:

We were and will always be relative newbies in the bangka boat game. If that’s you too, have a home base with people who know roughly where you are going, and how long you’ll be gone. Have a way to contact them, and pester them with texts telling them to remind you if there’s a typhoon coming. Truly.

In Coron Town we had our friend Jerry, who helped us immensely before, during, and after our trip. Also we had Todd and Janet at Belarmino Ventures, here.

If you're in Coron, please say hello for us!

If you’re in Coron, please say hello for us!

10) Light: 

The more ways to light up your night, the better. We had a solar-powered anchor light and cabin light. But it was the beefy headlamp that was indispensible in keeping tabs on the shoreline when we once had to motor at night. Take note, you can also bring your headlamps on shore at night to pursue hermit crabs or try and find monitor lizards. You can only pick up one of these.

Just us and the hermit crabs.

Just us and the hermit crabs.

11) Cash:

We had a lot of places to ourselves, did a lot of maintenance ourselves, and if you’ll recall earlier in the post, had to barter with diesel fuel and epoxy…

Part of the reasoning behind this was that it was the type of trip we were pursuing – to be alone and to do things independently. The other part was that for most of the sixteen days we were cash strapped due to ATM limitations. Bad luck, and a bit of a planning blunder on our part.

Bring lots of small bills. You’ll need them to pay admission at tourist beaches or sometimes for snorkelling, to stock up on food if you happen across a sari-sari store, to pay for maintenance that you need help with, to buy fresh fish, and most importantly to offer the people you meet compensation for their hospitality. Whether that’s the family who drags a bedframe out for you to stay overnight with them, or the man who helps you try to push off the beach at high tide, or the reef at low tide.

Because in the end, usually it's about the people.

Because in the end, usually it’s about the people.

12) Polarized Lenses:

I’ll admit, I felt like I had to check my vanity at the door when I donned my polarized lenses each day we were motoring. I didn’t feel that trendy but it wasn’t important. Unless you’re navigating island coastlines at midday, the sun’s angle can make it hard to spot coral without them. Generally, the reefs rim the islands, you can count on that. But there’s also areas between islands with coral buildups, enough so that you’re always scanning the water. We marveled at how the reefs glowed in electric shades of green even from far away with our special lenses.

Beautiful hazard, dead ahead!

Beautiful hazard, dead ahead!

13) Maps: 

The maps played such a big part that I already wrote them a love letter, here.

The ‘Slightly Less Essentials’, But Not Really: 

No one is going to have any fun on the bangka boat if they can’t keep themselves relatively rested, clean and entertained. Here are a few things that we could have survived without, but wouldn’t have really wanted to.

1) Yen Yen Dish Soap: 

The Yen Yen should be in the essentials section above, but we’ll give it the top spot here instead. Many days it seemed that hardly an hour went by without reaching for this cheap, effective and snazzy-named detergent for cleaning dishes, laundry, or having an ocean bath. It lathers up well for all three purposes in salt water.

Still salty, but kind of clean thanks to our good friend Yen Yen.

Still salty, but kind of clean thanks to our good friend Yen Yen.

2) Reading Material:

We got our money’s worth out of the guidebook, but in a different way than usual. Generally I’m folding corners of the sights, lodging and food pages of particular destinations. This time, the book couldn’t help us with that. Instead, we really enjoyed reading a bit about the history, culture and food of the Philippines. Bring a book, any book, because there’s no internet and a lot of quiet evenings – we generally avoided motoring past sunset.

Obligatory photo montage of the usual suspects rolling around Danica's table: Chunk of coral, sunglass cases, guidebook, water, really dirty t shirt (converted to rag).

Obligatory photo montage of the usual suspects rolling around Danica’s table: Chunk of coral, sunglass cases, guidebook, water, really dirty t shirt (converted to rag).

3) Writing Material:

Because, nothing makes you feel like more of an adventurer than keeping a journal while at sea. For when you’ve burned through your reading material.

Me and the life jackets, contemplating the day's happenings.

Me and the life jackets, contemplating the day’s happenings.

4) Snorkel Gear:

The snorkeling is world class in the Philippines. We should have dove in every day, but we didn’t.

There’s several things that snorkel gear will help you with. It will, of course, help you with those times that you really just want to snorkel on a beautiful reef. It will also help you on those occasions that…you get it, there’s a beautiful reef, but you really just need to swim into shore, immediately, to take care of bathroom business and you want to see if there’s any jellyfish, sharp rocks or sea snakes in your way.

Snorkeling gear will also help you with boat stuff, like evaluating leaks and holes from the exterior, or unwrapping your anchor line from the propellor shaft that morning that things didn’t go as you hoped.

A sigh of relief for everyone.

A sigh of relief for everyone.

5) The Bed:

If I had to choose one reason I was most grateful for the raised bed, it would be the cockroaches comrades on board, dutifully exploring the deck at night. Jon would probably say that he was most grateful for the nighttime naps the bed afforded him in between checking the anchor line every few hours.

By the end of the trip we were glad to have chosen 3/4 and not 1/2 inch...salt water did a number on our plywood.

By the end of the trip we were glad to have chosen 3/4 and not 1/2 inch…salt water did a number on our plywood.

This was a hastily constructed and very successful engineering marvel – a sheet of 3/4 inch plywood cut to lay on Danica’s midcabin benches, combined with a foldy mattress we found at Coron’s home store. Open air sleeping, every night.

During the day, we’d store both on our starboard outrigger, which helped with her list. On days we were beached up, the mattress usually got dragged up into the shade of the trees for a nap.

It's a hard life.

It’s a hard life.

6) Dirtbike Gloves:

Additional traction for those mornings when you start pulling up the anchor and you find out it’s really, really stuck.

The gloves, they had the best views up there on the bow.

The gloves, they had the best views up there on the bow.

7) Ice Box, Without Ice:

Firmly planted in the ‘didn’t think it would make a difference, and couldn’t imagine living without it’ category. Jerry lent this to us just before we were due to leave. The rigid styrofoam box had a home firmly lashed to the outrigger with more, always more of that clear plastic cord. Right near our cooking area, the cooler served as produce and perishable storage, as well as seat and extra counterspace. While the cardboard boxes holding our cans got nice and soggy from the waves, the cooler kept food clean, dry and away from our insect friends.

The cooler, and the oatmeal.

The cooler, and the oatmeal.

8) Fly Fishing Gear:

It was for the best that we planned to fish for challenge and not for sustenance. Had we thought otherwise, we would have been in dire straits. The tuna lept well out of our reach, as we watched them attack a morning boil during yet another instant oatmeal breakfast. The fish Jon did catch were small, spiny, colourful, delicate, perfect for pictures and also for releasing.

Caught from the shore.

Caught from the shore.

So there you have it, a hopelessly biased and subjective packing list for your Philippines bangka boating adventure. Just, whatever you do, don’t forget a sense of humour and spontaneity – the days rarely go as planned.


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