Local boy done good: The tropical island Great Yarmouth-born Andy calls home

Andy Pownall, relaxing on Sangat. Pictures: Sangat Island Dive Resort Andy Pownall, relaxing on Sangat. Pictures: Sangat Island Dive Resort

Friday, July 27, 2012
9:53 AM

With a love of wildlife and the outdoors, Great Yarmouth-born globetrotter Andy Pownall thought he may one day become a gamekeeper.

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Exploring the Okikawa Maru, one of the wrecks off the island's shore. Pictures: Sangat Island Dive ResortExploring the Okikawa Maru, one of the wrecks off the island's shore. Pictures: Sangat Island Dive Resort

At the time, owning a tropical paradise in the Philippines was not on his careers list.

But through hard work and being in “the right place at the right time”, he has found himself fulfilling an unscripted dream and is now the proud owner of Sangat, a five-by-three mile slice of sun-soaked heaven nestled in the warm waters of southeast Asia.

The 50-year-old runs a successful dive school and eco-friendly holiday retreat, the Sangat Island Dive Resort, which welcomes tourists from all over the world.

Divers flock to the island to explore the crystal clear waters, which lap onto Sangat’s white sand beaches, and the historic wrecks they conceal – including several second world war ships – and to enjoy a plethora of other activities including kayaking, rock climbing, island-hopping expeditions, trekking, snorkelling and bird watching.

A view of Sangat's white sand beach. Pictures: Sangat Island Dive ResortA view of Sangat's white sand beach. Pictures: Sangat Island Dive Resort

Mr Pownall, a father of three, said he enjoyed seeing the faces of visitors when, after a long journey by plane and boat, they see Sangat and its lush surroundings for the first time.

“You take it for granted like anything else, but because you get a constant flow of guests they remind me how lucky I am and how beautiful it is,” he added.

It was his underwater career as an professional diver that led to him first visiting the Philippines in 1986 while working with a Yarmouth-based marine archaeological company.

He was part of a specialised team charged with surveying ancient Chinese trade junks and, during the three years he spent in the tropical Asian waters, he fell in love with the country – and a local Filipino called Edith, whom he later married.

Mr Pownall, who is now a Filipino national and speaks the country’s language of Tagalog, said: “I liked it so much I decided I wanted to stay and when my first daughter was born in 1992, that’s when I decided not to come back (to England).”

It was soon after his marriage in the early 90s that he discovered Sangat was up for sale and took the plunge and decided to buy it, for around £60,000.

“It was very close to where we were based and we used to pass the island all the time and I thought I’d be silly not to buy something while it’s so cheap,” Mr Pownall said.

“There was no tourism back then and I bought it as a bit of an investment.

“But when I decided to stay, it seemed that the obvious thing for me to do was to start a small resort.”

Since opening in 1994 the business has expanded as tourism in the Philippines has grown, and the demand from jetsetters to visit his tropical paradise has rocketed.

Mr Pownall, who attended the former St Edmund’s secondary school in Gorleston, now employs more than 50 staff and, with his fleet of 10 boats, runs two to three dives a day for keen underwater explorers.

He wanted the resort to sit in harmony with the natural beauty of the island and so built the bespoke guest accommodation with local materials using time-honoured native techniques.

He also employed renewable energy schemes to provide water and power to the island and plans to make Sangat more self- sufficient, starting by establishing an organic farm.

His dad Nick, 84, from Seafield Close, who is also a professional diver and has visited Sangat annually, said: “When we first looked at the place, there were about 12 chickens and now he’s got solar power and a desalination plant, it’s really amazing.

“He has always loved doing things with wildlife and when he came out to the Philippines and saw the wonderful wildlife out there, and combined it with his diving, I think he thought he’d landed in heaven.”

Mr Pownall added: “I love the wilderness and natural places. I have never been one for living in towns and cities and I have always loved travelling and warm countries.

“I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

lucy.clapham@archant.co.uk

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