CITY OF PUERTO PRINCESA — In the last resupply sortie to the BRP Sierra Madre, a Chinese coast guard ship nearly collided with a Philippine Navy wooden boat manned by a crew led by Lt. Jg. Darwin Dawin.
“They were less than 5 meters to the starboard side of the ship and we had to tack left to avoid a big disaster,” Datwin said, describing the August 5 game of cat and mouse in the waters near Ayungin (Second Thomas). Shoal west of Palawan. .
“It was dangerous because the boats are made of wood. If they are rammed, we don’t know if the boats will be able to come back,” Datwin told reporters on Thursday. “What they did was very dangerous.”
Datwin and his men were finally able to maneuver the 24-meter Unaizah May 1 (UM1) to evade the much larger China Coast Guard (CCG) ship that had tried to block their path to Sierra Madre, where it delivered fresh supplies for the Philippine sailors and Marines in charge of the ship.
The associated ship, UM2, was not so lucky. She was unable to complete her mission and was forced to turn back after being shot by a water cannon from another CCG ship and had to set sail.
Each of the supply ships was escorted by a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ship. However, UM2 and her escort were “cornered” by large GCC ships and Chinese maritime militia ships disguised as fishing boats. Not far away were two Chinese naval warships.
The Philippine government has strongly condemned and officially protested to Beijing the actions of the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) to prevent supplies from reaching Ayungin and the rusting Sierra Madre that lies abandoned there.
The World War II-era Sierra Madre deliberately ran aground on the shoal in 1999 to serve as one of the country’s outposts in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the country’s 370-kilometre exclusive economic zone.
UM2 was led by Lieutenant Ramsey Gutierrez, who was on his first resupply mission to Sierra Madre.
He said they were prevented from reaching the ship because they were “boxed in” and surrounded by CCGs and Chinese maritime militia vessels, giving them little room to get through the gauntlet.
“Our maneuverability was restricted. There were two militia ships to starboard and port, left and right. The CCG was behind us. There was no way for the ship to sail to the intended route,” she said.
After repeatedly ignoring Chinese coast guard radio orders to turn back, UM2 was attacked with powerful water jets fired by CCG 5201.
“The food supplies we were carrying, such as rice, vegetables and meat, got soaked,” Gutiérrez said.
He said that while drenched, he and his crew remained “cool” and maintained radio contact with their superiors about what to do to safely navigate the ship in the current situation.
The PCG reported that the UM2 was bombarded for almost two hours by the CCG ship.
Why wooden boats?
After moving out of water cannon range, UM2 moved away from the shoal and rendezvoused with PCG ships MRRV 4409 and MRRV 4402. They were later joined by UM1 about 33 kilometers northeast of Ayungin.
All the Philippine ships were “surrounded on all sides” by the GCC ships and Chinese maritime militia ships from a distance of 50 to 80 meters, according to the PCG report.
At 6 pm on August 5, they sailed back to Palawan without further harassment from the Chinese. They arrived at around 3pm the following day at Ulugan Bay on the western side of Puerto Princesa, some 325km east of Ayungin.
The Navy deliberately uses small civilian-type wooden boats on these resupply missions, not regular naval vessels, to avoid sending the wrong message that they were on a military mission. But to the Chinese, the configuration of the ships did not matter, as they were determined to prevent supplies from reaching the men in the Sierra Madre.
Another officer who was at UM2, Lt.jg Richard Lonogan, who was familiar with Chinese actions against Philippine supply ships in the past, said their morale was high and not wavering.
The water cannon attack came “in the line of duty” and could not break his spirit, he said.
“In terms of morale, there is no greater source of morale than the honor of serving the nation,” Lonogan said. “That alone gives us a lot of morale.”
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