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Oct 30, 2016
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Balanoba's travel companion, indicated in his quarantine papers after processing by the Animal Quarantine Officer in charge in Ishigaki Islands when he was rescued on August 20, 2013: one hen.

The chicken was the only creature Balanoba could talk to throughout the ordeal. It kept him sane and entertained. It wasn't even his. Balanoba and two fisherman-friends had bought the chicken with some supplies in Babuyan Island.

He wasn't even supposed to be on the boat where the good chicken was. On their way back north to Basco on August 11, an accident in his small, motorized boat forced him to switch boats with his friends, because it was bigger and faster. Thus was the prelude to a series of bad luck that got him lost at sea, which in turn became his good luck that ultimately got him rescued in the South of Japan, covering a total distance of 509 kilometers. (And believe us, the good and the bad don't get any more conspiratorial than with Balanoba's tough luck.)

Balanoba was immediately taken to a hospital in Okinawa after the Japanese Coast Guard spotted him drifting off the waters of Ishigaki. He had lacerations in his legs and severe sunburn. But he was not emaciated. He never went hungry; he had a boatload of supplies with him. His survival story became a minor item in a local Japanese paper, and he got a visit from one of the officers of a fisherman's union in Okinawa, who then contacted the Philippine Embassy in Japan and arranged for his return to the Philippines.

'He had lacerations in his legs and severe sunburn. But he was not emaciated. He never went hungry; he had a boatload of supplies with him'

Balanoba joked with the chicken every day that he woke up seeing nothing but open water and the chances of being rescued seemed like about to happen but never did.

"O ano? Buhay pa tayo?"

The chicken did not make it. It was a policy of the Animal Quarantine Service to seize animals that did not have the necessary health certificates and destroy them.

The most trusted ferry pilot

Julio Balanoba, 48, is a lampitaw pilot in Batanes. The lampitaw is the typical motorized boat used to ferry passengers and produce between islands in the Philippines. It can carry 15 people or a load of 1,500 kg. This is what tourists ride to go island-hopping. Balanoba has been plying the Basco-Babuyan Island route for 18 years, crossing the Balintang Channel—part of the Luzon Strait on the edge of the North Pacific Ocean known for strong currents and a frequent path for typhoons coming from the East. 

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Balanoba's sister, Kelly Aldea, who took care of him in Bacoor upon his return from Japan, says proudly that her brother is one of the most trusted lampitaw pilots in Batanes. "Di naman sa pagmamayabang, pero isa siya sa mga pinagkakatiwalaan,” she tells us. “Kahit walang makina kaya niyang ipiloto ang lampitaw." He would use a long bamboo pole, the "timon," to navigate and negotiate with the waves of the channel, a skill that he would use to save him when he drifted out to sea.

But Balanoba downplays his skill. “Hindi naman sa pinakamagaling, pero maalam lang talaga ako sa dagat at pamamangka," he says.

He was born in Itbayat, the northernmost inhabited island in Batanes. The eighth of 13 siblings, Balanoba's parents were farmers but he had taken to the sea to earn a living for most of his life. He started working as a porter in Basco before learning how to man a passenger boat. His older brother had taught him the basic skills, but he soon showed proficiency both in piloting the boat and reading the sea's moods. On days that he is not ferrying passengers and produce, he would accompany his fisherman-friends to fish or buy supplies in Babuyan to be sold to Basco. His friends felt safer with him around because of his renowned skills.

On August 11, Balanoba and two of his fisherman-friends were finally on their way to Basco. He was not doing passenger-ferry duties at the time so he was a mate to his friends. They had actually waited it out in Babuyan for two weeks because typhoon Kiko was passing through on its path to China. His friends, who lived in Babuyan, were going to Basco to sell produce—assorted fruits such as bananas and watermelon, a bag of peanuts, grains, the chicken; Balanoba was carrying the same to take home to his wife and four children.

They left at 9 a.m. Balanoba was alone in a small motorized boat while his two friends were aboard the bigger lampitaw with the supplies. Travel time from Babuyan Island to Basco on water depended on what boat you were in: By Balanoba's calculations in his smaller craft it takes about six hours; in the lampitaw, three to four hours. The two boats kept close to each other for the trip to Basco.

At around 11 a.m., Balanoba decided to refuel his banca. As he bent over to fill his tank with gasoline, a stray cloth from his overalls must have caught the engine's spinning crossjoint. Balanoba fell, hit his head, and passed out. When he came to after a few minutes he found himself wearing nothing but his underwear—the boat's cross-joint had eaten his entire overalls.

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There was also a long, gaping gash in his right leg, exposing substantial flesh practically to the bone. "Kaya hirap na rin ako gumalaw," recounts Balanoba. Good thing the other boat was close by so he waited for its approach. He knew he had to get to a hospital fast. He switched boats with his two friends—Balanoba was now in the faster, bigger lampitaw laden with supplies and his friends in the smaller, slower one. And so he went ahead.          

Then another bad luck.

At about 1 p.m., when Balanoba was near Ivana on the western side of Batan Island—two towns away from the capital—the lampitaw's engines gave out. "Sinubukan ko pang ayusin yung makina, kaya lang nahihirapan na akong gumalaw dahil sa sugat ko,” he shares. “Binaba ko yung anchor ko, pero sa lalim ng dagat, hindi na yun kumalso."

He could see nothing but water all around, and his friends were by then also far from sight. Weak from his wounds, he fell asleep. When he woke up at 6 a.m. on August 12, he had no idea where he was.

"Puro dagat na lang,” he recalls. “Palutang-lutang na lang pala ako kasi wala na akong anchor."

Strings of bad and good luck

On Monday, August 12, Typhoon Labuyo (International name: Utor) slammed into the Philippines.

It was one of the strongest typhoons recorded this year, with sustained winds reaching 175 kph and gusts of up to 210 kph, with waves reaching as high as eight feet. News reports of victims included 25 fishermen missing in Pangasinan, and 18 more in the Southern Tagalog region.  

'It was one of the strongest typhoons recorded this year, with sustained winds reaching 175 kph and gusts of up to 210 kph, with waves reaching as high as eight feet'

It only compounded the worries of his friends the night before. They arrived in Basco at around 7 p.m. and went to Balanoba's house to return his bag—that had his cellophone in it, which he could have used to call his family before he got lost. When they discovered he still wasn't home they knew something was wrong. They immediately reported him missing with the Philippine Coast Guard in Basco. But it was already night. And even if it weren't, bad weather would have kept the Coast Guard from launching an immediate search.

"Gabi pa lang nung Linggo (August 11), lumalakas na ang alon, malalaki na talaga, mas mataas pa sa bangka ko," says Balanoba.

But good luck.

It was really only Signal No.1 in Batanes. Wherever he was in the open waters between Batanes and Taiwan, Balanoba was still drifting aimlessly, skirting the edges of mad weather. (Right after Labuyo, it was typhoon Maring's turn to ravage the country.)

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And another good luck.

He was in the lampitaw, which was stocked with food. "Meron akong saging, pakwan at iba pang pagkain na kinuha namin sa Babuyan,” Balanoba says. “May isang sako pa ako ng mani. Yung tubig ko galing sa pakwan o kaya sa tubig-ulan." He first ate the food that was about to get spoiled. "Kung hindi pa ako mare-rescue ng isang linggo, kaya pa. Mabubuhay pa ako," he thought to himself.

For the rest of the day he ate and slept.

Then a combo of bad luck.

On August 13, Balanoba saw a big ship. “Mukhang pang-cargo. Sinubukan kong senyasan, kinaway ko yung damit ko, pero di naman ako napapansin kasi pagabi na rin nun.”

The next day, August 14, another ship. It also looked like a cargo ship. This time he thought help was really coming because the ship lowered its crane. "Akala ko talaga mare-rescue na ako, pero lumayo na nang lumayo yung barko hanggang sa nag-gabi na naman," he says. He was close enough to see people working on the deck of the ship, but probably not close enough for the crew to see him. 

On the early morning of August 15, he saw lights from afar. "Palagay ko nasa Taiwan na ako nun."

For the last seven days, from August 12 to 19, all Balanoba really did was to eat, sleep, and conserve his energy. To disinfect his wounds he would pour gasoline on them. On the third day he repaired one of his boat's outrigger by tying a drum container to regain balance.

'For the last seven days, from August 12 to 19, all Balanoba really did was to eat, sleep, and conserve his energy. To disinfect his wounds he would pour gasoline on them'

Food was still not a problem. In fact, the sea provided for him. "May mga pumapalibot na isda sa lampitaw ko kaya nangisda ako at nag-daing. Dorado (mahi mahi) yung isda na nahuli at dinaing ko."

He drifted and drifted, no dry land in sight. He talked to the chicken. At night he would tie himself to his boat before he slept. He would say to the boat, "Ayan, para hindi tayo maghihiwalay. Kung nasaan ka, nandun lang din ako." If the boat was found days, weeks, by any chance, at least he would be found as well, dead or alive. "Iniisip ko na na kung may mangyari man sa aking masama, tanggap ko na, mag-iisang linggo na rin akong palutang-lutang sa dagat.”

The rescue

Balanoba woke up before dawn on August 20 at the sight of another cargo ship. He was again too far from it to issue any signal so he decided to sleep again.  At 10 a.m. he was awoken by the sound of an airplane. It circled him for about five minutes then flew farther off. "Ano ba yan, nawala pa," he thought to himself. Then he slept again. When he awoke again 30 minutes later, he saw a Coast Guard boat coming. 

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He also saw a helicopter hovering. Then a group of rubber boats. The airplane that had been circling him must have been confirming who or what he was. Finally two Coast Guard officers boarded his boat.

He sort of knew he was in another country because of how the Coast Guard looked and the language barrier. They gave Balanoba first aid, then took him to the Coast Guard boat for further medical attention and then took him on a plane to Yaeyama Hospital in Ishigaki.

Nenita Santos-Kinjo, a Filipino nurse in Yaeyama, was one of the persons who cared for him and served as Balanoba's interpreter.

"I was not in the hospital when he arrived, but I heard Mang Julio was in shock when he was rushed in, at napakalaki ng sugat niya mula paa hanggang singit,” Kinjo says. “I visited him in the hospital after a few days, pero balot na balot na ng gauze yung sugat niya.

"Nakipagkwentuhan ako sa kanya, and I asked about his family. Of course I asked about his accident, and he told us he survived on fruits—pakwan daw at saging,” she adds. “We were amazed at how he survived his accident. Gulat na gulat lahat ng doctors na hindi na-infect yung napakalaking sugat niya kahit binubuhusan daw niya ng gas yun nung stranded siya sa dagat. I guess it's a blessing that he arrived in the hospital where I work, kasi at least may kasama siyang Pilipino dito [Japan]. Although we often speak, I remember catching him looking outside the window, nakatingin lang siya sa malayo. Kitang-kita ko yung lungkot sa mukha niya. I comforted him by giving him a rosary. Sabi ko, magdasal siya at magpasalamat na nabuhay pa rin siya."

Balanoba's family received the news of his rescue the night of August 20. His sister Kelly recalls:  “May Cambodian missionary na dating nadestino sa Babuyan Islands na naging kaibigan ng chieftain ng isla. Yung missionary na yun, may kaibigan sa Japan kaya naibalita sa kanyang may na-rescue nga mula sa Babuyan Islands. Yung Cambodian missionary ang nag-email sa chieftain na si Cruzaldo Rosales.

"Mabuting kaibigan ni Julio si Cruzaldo,” she relates. “Nag-text si Cruzaldo sa cellphone ni Julio na naiwan naman sa asawa niyang nasa Basco. Nung natanggap ng asawa niya yung text message, talagang nataranta kaming lahat sa tuwa kahit di pa kami sigurado kung si Kuya Julio talaga yun. Mga 9 p.m. na naming na-confirm na siya nga ang na-rescue."

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Balanoba arrived in Manila on August 27, a week after he was rescued and 16 days after he had gone missing. Out to welcome him at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport were family who were living in Cavite. He was in a wheelchair, his right leg bandaged tight, skin still burnt. But he was healing well. He stayed at his sister's place in Bacoor to recuperate for a couple of weeks. He finally returned home to Batanes on September 27.

Balanoba recalls the first thing he did when the Coast Guard boarded his boat.

"Binigyan ko pa nga sila ng saging pagsakay nila. Marami pa kasing natira sa baon kong pagkain."

Now it seems absurdly funny, but only because he made it out alive.

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