By Jen Freeman
If there is one understated yet easily accessible pleasure to be enjoyed on beautiful Boracay, it would have to be paraw sailing.
Our colorful little sail boats have been a well-loved part of the island experience for generations, and long before the first traveler set their weary foot on the gleaming sands of White Beach, they were an integral part of the scenery. Few tropical islands have such an evocative symbol as the paraw, and most guidebooks, postcards and brochures on the subject of Boracay depict the classic image of these unique little vessels sailing into the golden sunset.
A paraw is a native-style outrigger sailing boat constructed from wood and bamboo, and is comprised of a single hull flanked by two outriggers for stability. They are not, as they are commonly misnamed, a catamaran, a trimaran or a Hobie Cat.
The design of these sturdy little sailboats can be traced back to those vessels which first carried settlers to the Visayan region from Borneo in the early 1200's, and to this day this particular style of boat can only be seen around a few islands in the Western Visayas.
Prior to the advent of tourism on Boracay, paraws were generally used for fishing, or to facilitate travel and trade between islands, but beginning in the 1980’s, enterprising local sailors began using them for sightseeing tours around the numerous coves and beauty spots here, and many visitors much prefer this quiet, wind-driven and environmentally-friendly method of transportation as an alternative to the noisy and often cramped banca boat excursions. A paraw ride can be a calm and tranquil experience, enjoyed with a bottle of wine at sunset; a means to visit deserted beaches and snorkel sites; or, during windy habagat weather, an exhilarating (if rather wet) way to ride the waves at high speed. A crew of three or four is usual (a skipper and balancers) and most paraws can accommodate between six to 10passengers comfortably. These versatile little boats are enormous fun to sail; due to the absence of a deep keel, they have the advantage of being able to moor right on the shoreline - perfect for beach hopping.
Many foreigners have understandably been bitten by the paraw sailing bug, and British-born artist David Parker recalls, "I spent a long time sitting on Boracay's white sand watching the majestic outrigger sailing boats before actually sailing on one. Once initiated, it became a healthy habit, and my girlfriend and I bought a class A racing paraw, the ‘Red Rooster’. The boat was the Ferarri of the island, painted bright yellow, and was our daily and nightly transport to the clubs and bars along the beachfront." Dave's enthusiasm for paraw sailing and his genuine affection for these unusual little boats is obvious. He continues, "The foreigners who had paraws were not lazy Sunday sailors. They raced - even if there was no competition. It was purely the need for speed. Paraws are not slow (Red Rooster was clocked doing more than 22 knots), but they are extremely sensitive. I was once told by a yachtsman who was on his second solo-circumnavigation of the globe and had stopped off in Boracay that, ’If you can sail one of these, you can sail anything!’
If you like freedom, flying, driving in open-topped sportscars or riding a classic motorcycle on a beautiful summer's day, do not miss out on sailing a paraw in Boracay."
It is easy to see from the sunny and carefree disposition of most paraw skippers just how much they enjoy their work. Take the friendly and upbeat Captain Joey, for example, skipper of "Red Pirates", one of Boracay's most well-known sailing boats, and owner of the eclectic Pirates Pub. "Sailing is so relaxing. You don't have to think - you just get back to nature. It's a pure and positive energy" he enthuses. "When you are sailing, it's like a therapy." He should know. Joey has been cruising these waters for over 25 years and knows all the island's best kept secrets, including remote caves and snorkel sites.
Then And Now
The yearly paraw regatta, previously held during high season, was a colorful and lively spectacle, and while cash prizes were on offer, many sailors competed for the sheer thrill and excitement of the race itself.
Leading up to the regatta, the large triangular sails were often used to showcase local artwork. Unique tribal designs and a variety of eye-catching murals could be seen adorning those photogenic floating canvasses. Sadly (and to the abject horror of many tourists and Boracay purists) corporate logos made their way onto the sails, but thankfully many paraw owners still insisted on keeping the individuality of their boats intact, and refused to display such advertisements.
With imaginative names such as "Wind Song", "Keep Smiling", "Sugar Brown Reggae", "Satisfaction" and "Red Pirates", many of the island’s paraws were instantly recognizable, and Boracay residents and returning guests often had their own personal favorite boat - and crew.
But sadly, since the official reopening of the island in October of 2018 (following a six-month closure and suspension of all tourism, for supposed “rehabilitation”) paraw operators are now finding themselves bound by increasingly strict rules and ordinances.
Restrictions put in place by the Malay Sailing Boat Owners Inc. (MASBOI) now prohibit sailboat owners from taking private bookings, and for some, this well-deserved customer base (based on good reputation) was not only their main source of income, but a much-loved chance to connect with tourist friends and recreate treasured memories, for all concerned.
The good reputation of certain paraw crews is also a consideration for hotel owners, many of whom would previously prefer to specify a safe and reliable boat and crew, and work with them regularly, in particular those who were offering adventure tours to waterfalls, caves and other sites of interest beyond the island, as well as catering fresh grilled seafood spreads.
The excessive restrictions now being placed upon paraws are a source of confusion to many, given that these same limitations are mostly not being levied upon banca boat operators, who may still operate island-hopping tours with private, pre-booked guests.
Paraw owner *Albert related : “I can’t even take my own friends or family anywhere now on my own boat, for a nice day sailing, or just go over to the Sunday market in Caticlan ,even to buy food. MASBOI ask us - we have to pay something to them each time! To use our own boat!”
Paraw owners may not even entertain friends and family aboard their own sailboats without paying a fee. Additionally, paraw operators now relate that they are forced to charge much higher prices than they may previously have offered. An entirely unfair and possibly even illegal system, particularly in these austere times, dictated by MASBOI.
An additional affront to many was the introduction of a local ordinance specifying that all paraws must be painted white – leading to thousands of tourists and island residents to sign a petition in favor of art, creativity, and most of all, common sense, as the colorful paraws are, to many, as well-loved and iconic as Manila's jeepneys. But without the pollution.
Meanwhile, recent regulations requiring that both paraw crews and their passengers wear face shields would appear to be in direct conflict with the executive orders specifying that those be worn only indoors, in circumstances involving close contact.
Paraw sailing is an environmentally friendly tourist activity. Reliant only on the wind and the tides. An island administration truly committed to eco-awareness and conservation should surely be championing and encouraging these little boats (and the cheerful, free-spirited guys who sail them).
Let’s hope that our iconic paraws remain a part of Boracay life for many years to come - for island life surely wouldn't be the same without them.