Eccentric adventurer Bruce Curran, who produced an original pilot guide to the Philippines, died before he could finish a second edition. Thanks to his friend, Kraken 50 owner, David Wilkinson, the book, Combing the Coral Carpet, is now available. Dick Durham looks at the life of a much-loved sailor and storyteller.
A day out of Subic Bay in the Philippines, the seas were humping ever bigger, the wind increasing steadily, the sky was beginning to take on a feverish glare and the crew of Miss Iloilo, a 22-ton steel, pilothouse ketch, did not like the look of it. They had reduced her canvas until she was under a solitary storm jib, hanked on to the inner forestay. The seas were becoming very steep and the boat, although making a remarkable five knots under such a small sail, was starting to lose her directional stability. So, the skipper, Anthony Williams, designer of the boat, a Craft Original, called up Rowdy’s Net on the single side band radio. To his horror, and that of his crew, Bruce Curran, they discovered they were sailing directly across the path of Typhoon Axel which had an equally vicious twin called Bobby developing further east.
They immediately consulted the chart to find a safe anchorage and were relieved to locate one downwind of them: Illultuc Sound on the northern tip of Busuanga Island in the Calamian group north of Palawan.
“We were relieved to be within the sound and heading towards the mangroves in calm water. It turned out to be a perfect typhoon anchorage,” recalled Bruce.
Lying to a 66-pound Bruce anchor on 90 feet of chain and a 30-pound Fortress anchor on a similar length of chain and warp in little more than 8ft of water, they awaited the storm.
It was preceded by a psychedelic dusk: “The sky was purple, pink, aqua blue, and turquoise”. When it arrived, Bruce realised they’d forgotten to stow the RIB. He found it flying around in mid-air like a “rampant, grey balloon.”
The rain was horizontal and he had to wear diving goggles to prevent being blinded as he struggled to lash the dinghy to the transom in a “spider’s web of line.”
“My neck was whipped from side to side as I tried to steady my head on my shoulders,” he said.
But that was nothing to what happened in many other parts of the Philippines two days before Christmas of 1994.
Typhoon Axel swirled across the islands leaving 19 dead, scores of boats stranded up in the treeline and more than 160 families living on the street after giant waves crushed their homes.
Yet, Bruce was a cool customer during heavy weather at sea as David Wilkinson told Ocean Sailor Magazine. Bruce was an eccentric adventurer who, following the study of social anthropology at Edinburgh University, set off to experience diversity first hand on a Norton Commando 750cc motorcycle, driving across Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan…arriving eventually in Cape Province, South Africa. Here he carried out postgraduate studies in social, economic and political history at Rhodes University.
After rebuilding a 40-year-old wooden ketch, designed by John Alden, he swapped motorcycle leathers for wet weather gear and became a sailor to continue his wandering at sea.
Following adventures in Australia and Hong Kong, where he worked as a financial advisor, he gave up the metropolitan life for that of a ‘beach bum’ in the Philippines.
But it was during his time in Hong Kong that he met and befriended David Wilkinson who was the subject of one of Ocean Sailor’s first Sailors’ Stories, about his epic voyage following in the wake of the Bligh mutiny.
“Bruce was a very interesting character who saw himself as something of a writer. This was confirmed when the first edition of Combing the Coral Carpet went flying off the shelves. He sadly died before he could finish the second edition, so I have stepped in.”
The pair met in 1993 in Hong Kong and three years later flew to Manila to take delivery of David’s new boat, Blue Phoenix, a 43ft Ted Brewer-designed Cape North sloop. Their first attempt at crossing the 500 miles from the Philippines to Hong Kong saw them blow out the mainsail in a Force 7. Three months later they tried again, this time with three other crew and a new, fully-battened mainsail. But the South China Sea is a ‘cold, windy, empty space’ in February and the crew found themselves beating into weather for five days in strong winds up to Force 9 at times.
In the middle of the open sea, the wave height was 15ft with breaking crests which under a working jib and three reefs in the main, Blue Phoenix, handled well because of her five-ton, encapsulated lead keel. The folks back home in Hong Kong were concerned at the boat’s non-arrival and the rescue services had been alerted as they were posted ‘missing’.
Another yacht, Gale Force, had foundered – fortunately without loss of life and the 13-strong crew of a 50m fishing vessel were rescued after she sank.
Aboard Blue Phoenix, the engine failed, but before it did the batteries broke loose spilling acid over the running engine creating toxic smoke. The prop shaft coupling dislodged allowing serious ingress of water. But after nine days they arrived at Lantau Island, the largest of the Hong Kong’s many islands.
“In my 30,000 miles of offshore cruising, this was as tough as I had seen,” Bruce recalled later.
David told Ocean Sailor, “Bruce was incredibly calm throughout. I said at the end of it that I didn’t think I ever wanted to go sailing again. But he just said you could go sailing for the rest of your life and never experience it again.”
Bruce Curran, David recalls, was a “total romantic, articulate, funny, a maverick. Everyone who met him liked him, he was so positive.”
His book, Combing the Coral Carpet, is invaluable as a pilot guide as it is as much of a guide to the people and culture of that vast archipelago.
With a section on typhoons, how they form, when, how to avoid them and which typhoon shelters are available and where, Bruce put his vast experience to good use.
The tome – which he jokingly describes as ‘the book of ballast’ as it is a hardback, 400 pages long, with scores of colour photographs and sketches – takes its name from what Bruce describes as ‘Coral Cruising’; nosing around the thousands of low-lying atolls, how to approach them, where to anchor and how to assess the depths of anchorages from the colour alone.
Combing The Coral Carpet
(Second Edition) By Bruce Curran Published by Skittles-Brooke Media Corporation, Alabang, Muntinlupa City ISBN 971- 92645-0-0