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The Argonauts

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From the ancestral lifeblood of our islands to the modern sport, witness the evolution of seafaring as Centennial Five, the country's elite sailors, make history in a gripping blue water race.

Photography by
Daniel Forster
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It is apparent we are not on a cruise the second the countdown starts. As fuzzy commands come over the radio, nine boats, which under normal rules of the road would be football fields apart, suddenly squeeze into the starting line so tight that a misplaced pinky gripping the side of the boat is at risk of being crushed. Crashes between boats are frequent, though some of my teammates would argue these are just love taps among friendly rivals. The atmosphere resembles a rocket launch as a countdown of “3…2…1” catapults us into the open ocean. The game has just begun.

I’m racing alongside the Standard Insurance Centennial team, the sole representative of the Philippines in international offshore races. I came onboard to see what separates the country’s most elite sailors from the pack and how they’re pushing the sport forward and look into how modern sailing has retained the spirit that the earliest voyagers possessed when they navigated the archipelago thousands of years ago aboard the balangay.

Pulling your Weight

The backbone of their training are races like the one we’ve just embarked upon, where the 36-person team disperses across several smaller boats, mixed in with weekend warriors like me, and veteran sailors who still got it. This serves as a seasonal litmus test to gauge how different personalities sync up as a team.

My crew for the multi-day regatta includes the Lumapas brothers, Harry and Jeanson. Despite being younger, Jeanson assumes a loud, commanding presence as our tactician as well as the muscle of the team. Explaining what Jeanson does is difficult because sailors speak their own language. While you may be familiar with replacing left and right with port and starboard, that barely scratches the surface. There is piano and jewelry on board if you know what to ask for. On a boat, there are no ropes, instead lines, sheets, and halyards.

Simply put, today, Jeanson is in charge of adjusting the front sail, or the jib. This mirrors his role on the Centennial boat, where since joining in 2018, he serves as the spinnaker trimmer and coffee grinder. To catch the maximum amount of wind, he throws his whole body into a game of tug of war with one of the largest sails and lassoes it to the winches that resemble coffee grinders—hence the job description.

Jeanson is not the stereotypical swashbuckler. While things do get intense as we hurdle across the water, there is no cussing each other out. Instead, he bangs on the deck, almost in morse code, to communicate with teammates up front who can’t hear him over the wind. He makes his expectations of precision and quick thinking very clear. “We got to learn how to be more aggressive and to be more communicative,” he tells me in the post-race debriefing.

Harry’s job is to set Jeanson up for success. When the wind shifts and the sail can no longer maximize its speed, his role is to pack the spinnaker as fast as he can into a tiny bag. If the command decides to use it again, it better not have any knots and twists or the boat would be thrown off course.

I have been assigned an unglamorous task that shows me why it takes a special kind of adrenaline junkie to love this sport. When the deck swings at an average of 35 degrees, I leap across grinders that could easily take out a kneecap, over an open cabin pit that is usually slick with seawater, dive under the boom looking for heads to decapitate, and finally throw my body over the boat’s edge with only a thin metal wire biting into my abdomen—the only barrier between me and the fast-moving ocean. We call this hiking out: it feels akin to administering a Heimlich maneuver every few minutes, but it’s worth it for the few extra knots. With the newly distributed weight resisting the force of the wind, the boat balances and slices the water.

If this nearly three-meter obstacle course is not completed before one side of the deck kisses the waves, well, the resulting bruises are horrific. Us rookies getting hazed are nicknamed ‘rail meat’ because we’re hung out like a rack of ribs in a butcher’s display case. Despite the slight battery, we all come back for the high of dangling over the sea, the closest we’ll ever come to flying.

I accept the initiation because I understand these guys have crawled up the ranks wrung by wrung. Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be rich, or own a boat, to be a competitive sailor. The majority of the crew started on small, modest dinghies, where every slight weight shift or pull of the rope is keenly felt. Allan Baliadares, the head coach of the Centennial Five team, has been training many of the members, both male and female, since the age of eight.

Though sailing for trade, transportation, and fishing has long been the lifeblood of our islands, attracting young sailors remains a challenge for a sport that remains in obscurity. But Coach turns the tight-knit talent pool that largely consists of sailors’ sons into winners. Their best year in the South East Asia Games was 2019, hosted in Subic Bay where they scooped up a gold in the very keelboat class we’re riding today.  

Much has changed over the past couple of decades since Coach Allan’s early sailing days. Standard Insurance now stands as the biggest supporter of Philippine Sailing. Jeanson sees how the sport is evolving for the next generation. “Whenever I see the kids– because I also started at that age– [I think it’s] great because in my time we didn't have this much equipment. At times, we only had one coach for the whole team,” he explains. “ And the number of coaches is increasing, so they can help a lot more kids.”

Eyes on the Horizon

Jeanson and Harry’s years of sailing sensitive small boats is evident every time someone yells “pressure.” In unison, we all whip our heads around to squint off in the distance. Their eagle eyes discern individual puffs of wind until it’s merely a boat length away. It feels like a magic trick when the gust grazes my cheek the second they predicted it would.

“Blood is thicker than water, but on dinghies, we are enemies,” Harry remarks about his brother. He admits that, because of his larger build, Jeanson usually wins in the solo races because he can counterbalance stronger winds and sail more aggressively. Harry’s mischievous smile hints that he doesn’t mind all that much.

The brothers brief me on my second job: dousing the spinnaker. As we release the 72-square-meter green sail, its soft cone shape starts to fall. It’s as if I’m in the center of an enormous conch shell, the translucent walls filtering the searing Philippine sun into a soft glow. But this serene moment inside my own seafaring cathedral quickly becomes a deathtrap as it descends upon on me. Time to earn my keep. I hurl myself into the small hole of a cabin and grapple with the sail before it can balloon and suffocate me.

Yet this is child’s play in comparison to what these men have faced out crossing the open ocean. On their main competition boat, the Centennial Five, a 22-meter ship fit for a Bond villain, it can take seven people to bring the spinnaker down on the deck. Jeanson recounts that one of his more unnerving memories was during the China Sea race when they had crossed into Philippine waters in the pitch-black night and he was on duty controlling their biggest sail. The winds picked up to 35 knots—gale force winds level—with only flashlights to illuminate the colossal canvas.

But the sleepless nights paid off during one of the biggest international races of 2023: the Rolex China Sea Race. Spanning three days of nonstop battle from Hong Kong to Subic Bay across 565 nautical miles (1,046 kilometers), it stands as the only major regatta that ends in the Philippines and the oldest blue water race in Asia. The Standard Insurance Centennial Five team made history as the first Filipino team to win Line Honors since the race was first held in 1962. In layman’s terms, they crossed the finish line first, although other boats scored higher in the handicapping system determined by variables like boat size and sail configuration. The moment the crew saw Subic Bay on the horizon, the gravity of the moment was overwhelming. “We were all refreshed, we were not tired all of a sudden, because we realized that this was it,” Jeanson said.

For many sailors, the grand adventure is hard to put into words. It’s often filled with dichotomies: both lonely and cramped, liberating yet rigid, religious and mundane. Each journey unfolds with varied acts contingent on the weather. Communing with nature becomes a math equation as acts of God translate into kilometers per hour and degrees. Thousands of nautical miles broken into small, repeated tasks—clipping ropes into shackles, tying knots, and folding sails. Lots of folding.

As the horn blows to conclude the Far East Race I’m on, it’s nothing like the ceremony and champagne showers of that triumphant day. But the team harbors no expectation of resting on their laurels. There is a lot of work to be done in the winter season, fueled by the hope that longer blue water races will find a bigger foothold in the Philippines. There’s anticipation that a Hong Kong to Puerto Galera race may return in 2024 after a pandemic hiatus.

When I walked away from the Far East Regatta, sunburn tattooed on my cheeks and lips, I left feeling that there was more to fathom about why these sailors cross oceans into the great beyond. To race on such powerful boats means an acceptance of the profound mystery in the unbroken vastness, that there is something just beyond the horizon, an itch left unscratched.

That feeling, that pull, according to Jeanson, is in our ancestry as argonauts, “I believe that it is in our blood and it will never go away.”

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