The Philippines’ best-kept surfing secrets are its elusive left-handed waves by the fishing village of Pundaquit
Pundaquit, in San Antonio, Zambales, three hours north of Manila, is a working fishing village like many others, with a grey-sand beach and a no-frills vibe. The village sits on the South China Sea, with the lighthouse island of Capones out in the distance. There is a starkness about the place, mitigated somewhat by the mango farms and a large grassy lookout point that towers over the main street. That’s as far as it goes for the obvious terrain features. But Pundaquit also has a secret, just around the corner and out of sight from town is Anawangin Cove, a rarer wilderness area within easy reach of Manila.
The cove is on the blank spot on the map, a favourite destination for campers and accessible only by footpath. But it is the seaward approach to Anawangin that visitors often write home about: towering cliffs, rock islands dashed by foaming waves, and the occasional waterfall or seabird sighting, leading to an empty bay ringed by hills. The northern half is where overnight adventurers pitch their tents, and at certain times of the year it is possible to stand by the water’s edge and make out the southern cliff face, where boats seem to be drawn to a certain spot a safe distance from the rocks. The passengers are surfers, chasing a much-prized but elusive left-handed wave, and to enter their world is to join a small fraternity of weekend warriors, wave connoisseurs, sun-seeking romantics, and the boatmen who make all these pursuits possible.
Waiting for the boatmen is the least predictable part of any island trip in the Philippines, but over time, the sure-fire signs for imminent sailing become obvious. Six men milling around is always good; it takes muscle to drag a beached boat into the water. Even better is a boy bringing provisions, signifying that the crew has bothered to invest in lunch.
But in truth, nothing ever really happens until the man with the diesel shows up, fashionably late, lugging fuel in plastic soft-drink bottles. I’ve never been on a boat that ran out of fuel, because fishermen know exactly how much they need, give or take a Coke bottle or two. That said, the margins can be razor-thin. It’s not because the boats are unsafe – the Southeast Asian double outrigger is nearly impossible to capsize. (Swamping, however, is another matter.) It’s because the weather can change so quickly during typhoon season, punishing severely even small errors of judgement.
The camping and surfing traffic has helped Pundaquit achieve a degree of prosperity, through the village itself is hardly the glamorous surfing town of popular imagination. It’s telling that the better inns are around the bend, a short distance from the jumble of fishermen’s houses. Other Philippine surf spots are more famous, such as the Pacific resort town of Baler, where Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola shot parts of his classic Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. Far bigger waves can be had in Guiuan in Eastern Samar, with all the promise of excitement and menace that big waves suggest: the town briefly became a byword for calamity in November after a direct hit from Typhoon Haiyan.
Pundaquit is in the sweet spot of easy driving distance from Manila and moderate-sized beginner-friendly waves, and its foundation myth is not without its charms. Oral tradition credits sailors from the former US naval base in Subic Bay with the discovery of many secret spots along the rugged shoreline. It is just possible to imagine these young American servicemen roaring down the coastal highway in their pick-up trucks – surfboards, barbecue, grills, and possibly girlfriends stashed in the back. A few curious local boys may have watch them from the beach. It is safe to say they left an impression.
From such origins we find today a village of surfing boatmen, who warmly welcome visitors to their stomping grounds at Anawangin, to the beach break up the coast known as Mags, and to the spot right in front of the fishermen’s huts known as Magic Left. The welcome pointedly does not extend to their surfing contests, which are often locals-only. Recently they eased up a bit and opened their biggest competition to outsiders – provided they are taga-dagat, from seaside backgrounds like the local boys. It’s a hint to visitors of a distinct community identity built around surfing, and a sense of solidarity with others who make their living on the waves.
This is not a sign of insularity, because Pundaquit has deep growing connections with the outside world. One of the leading boat charter operators, Reynald Liwarin, issues a closely-followed wave report on social media. Usually it’s a picture of the sea at his front door, though diligent students of Zambales waves theorise that if Kulot, as Reynald is otherwise known, posts pictures of the fish he caught, chances are that conditions are flat. Periodically, the villagers will ask the wider surf community to help send the local contingent to competitions, and they do not lack for friends. With outside help, the up-and-coming local teenaged surf star Selvester Bactad has competed at the national level.
My regular boatman Rey-An Agasa brings me to Anawangin or Camara several times each season. He doesn’t say much on the water – sometimes he’ll go off spearfishing while the boat is parked. His sense of calm, usually expressed in a metal-toothed smile, when 4.5-metre waves left the boat pitched close to vertical. I began to suspect that Rey-An was more than your average boatman on my second trip to Anawangin, where he spent the morning sitting by the engine, studying the waves while everyone in the party got their rides in. At lunch, when the line-up cleared, Rey-An got the beach to himself, and paddled out on the only board available – a stable, hard-to-manoeuvre foam longboard designed for beginners, which he then proceeded to twist and turn with the greatest of ease.
On foul-weather days, when the waves are too strong for boats to leave Pundaquit, the economics of boating gets thrown off its precarious balance: no fishing, no charters, no earnings. But storms are also when the fun happens; it’s when Magic Left becomes really interesting. The break is a long left-handed wave that starts near the rocks to the south of the bay and rolls to just short of the stream by the boat landing. When Magic Left is working – often in driving rain – perhaps 50 surfers will be in the line-up, all waiting for a memorable storm-day ride. The boatmen will be in there with the out-of-towners, not letting a spell of bad weather defeat them.