Chance of a lifetime to sail in Langkawi regatta

Hiking on board Jelik during Race Nine on Day Six of the Royal Langkawi International Regatta 2014. - GLENN GUAN/ The Star

Hiking on board Jelik during Race Nine on Day Six of the Royal Langkawi International Regatta 2014. - GLENN GUAN/ The Star

WHEN I was assigned to cover the 12th edition of the Royal Langkawi International Regatta (RLIR), everyone in the office called it a “holiday assignment”.

While I was excited at the prospect of going out to sea, I was borderline petrified at having to write about something I knew absolutely nothing about.

Nonetheless, armed with some research and a cheery disposition, I went on board the Malaysia Maritime boat to catch the action on the first day of competition.

Hong Kong-based boating magazine YACHTstyle’s Suzie Rayment who was on board with me was very helpful, giving pointers to help me along. There was also Asian’s Captain Marty Rijkuris, who I relied on to help me understand the ins and outs of sailing.

“You should go out on the boat. You can try. Ask the skipper if he'll take you on. It’ll be a great way to learn,” said Captain Marty in a drawl.

I wanted to see firsthand what it was like to race in a regatta. But I just could not muster up the courage to ask any of the skippers.

Instead, I tried my luck by asking regatta director Wicky Sundram if I could go on one of the boats.

“No, not on the racing class … maybe the smaller ones. I’ll ask around,” he said. But I never heard back from him, and after being seasick on Wednesday, with a heavy heart, I abandoned the idea of going out to sea. I consoled myself with the notion that maybe I was just not cut out to be on the water.

I needn't have lost heart though, as my fortune soon changed.

On the final day of competition, I dragged myself to breakfast and that’s when I heard Jelik skipper Frank Pong call out, “Good Morning!”

He then proceeded to tell former national sailor Tiffany Koo, who was part of the Jelik crew, to find out if I would like to go on board the boat! All within my earshot, of course. The weather-beaten and sunburnt Frank is as vivacious and loud as any sea captain might be.

He needn't have asked. I was grinning from ear to ear – that was my reply to the question.

Me? On Jelik? I couldn’t believe my ears! A few days earlier, I had harboured dreams of getting on a sailing boat. And here I was, four days later, being given a chance to go on board the 77ft Jelik of Hong Kong – the biggest and fastest boat at this year’s RLIR.

I quickly let them in on the fact that I had gotten seasick just a few days ago.

That piece of information didn't seem to bother Frank. He told me to get my shoes, not to eat anything oily and hurry down to the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club.

With colleague and photographer Glenn Guan, who had been taking gorgeous photos all week long, by my side, I made my way to the dock.

Much to Glenn's disappointment, Frank said it would be too much of a safety risk to bring him on board with all of his camera equipment.

I knew Glenn was disappointed, more so because he now had to go out to sea on the horrendous media boat to take shots of the race.

As we sailed to the race course, I was given instructions by world champion and Jelik sail master Adam Minoprio.

My job was simply to do “hiking” – shift my weight outboard together with the rest of the crew onto the higher side of the boat to reduce the degree of the tilt whenever the boat went into a jibe or a tack.

For those unfamiliar with the terms, jibbing and tacking are two basic sailing manoeuvres. Tacking is turning the bow of the boat into, and then through, the direction of the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other side whilst jibbing, the opposite of tacking, turns the stern through the wind.

To the layman, this just means run to whichever side of the boat the crew tell you to run to.

I’m sure the crew would have noticed that I looked dead scared ... and that’s because I was! The last thing I wanted was to fall off or do anything that would jeopardise their race.

Calls of “Jibbing!” and “Tacking!” rang out fast and furious once the race started.

I must admit, it was a struggle to get into a working rhythm. No only did you have to be quick, but you also had to watch out for the boom of the main sail that swings past as well as the backstay that’s well capable of taking someone’s head off!

It was a lot to take in on my first outing on a boat. And on a day that presented the harshest racing conditions yet of the RLIR, with winds roaring at 30 knots and Jelik notching a speed of between 24 and 25 knots!

What did I get myself into? And we had two races to complete!

The fear eventually subsided as I got into the rhythm of sailing.

We raced for approximately 106-odd minutes which felt rather quick. Did I just get through racing in a regatta?

The writer is given the honour of steering Jelik home after the Royal Langkawi International Regatta race.
The writer is given the honour of steering Jelik home after the Royal Langkawi International Regatta race.

Although there was a language barrier with some of the crew from China who did not speak English, it did not deter us from communicating. A nod, a thumbs-up, a high-five and a big smile meant I had done all right by them. And that was enough for me.

Jelik scored a first-place finish in both races (Race Nine and Race 10) – their sixth straight victory. It didn’t land them the Prime Minister’s Challenge Trophy, which went to Peter Ahern’s Oi! of Australia, but they were still winners in my book.

What struck me was how tight-knit the crew was even though they were all of different nationalities and came from Hong Kong, mainland China, Philippines, Malaysia and New Zealand.

Communication was key and it was 100% team effort from start to finish. No bystanders on this crew. Everyone, no matter how big or small their role, worked together and there was always a steady hand ready to reach out when you needed it.

I am eternally grateful to Frank for taking a chance and giving me the opportunity of a lifetime to be on board his boat and a part of Team Jelik on the last race day of the RLIR.

It was an eye-opening experience to see Adam, Jeremy Koo and Tiffany in their element – I have immense respect for what they do now.

To Wei Wei and Ju who looked out for me that day – thank you. And of course, the rest of the tireless Jelik crew – Bobot, Lino, Sam, Richard and others, I may not have gotten all your names down, but I could not have dreamt of being part of a better crew.

As Captain Marty put it afterwards, “You’re a bloody lucky girl aren’t you, racing on the biggest boat in the toughest conditions ... good on you!”.

I'd have to agree with him. I definitely was a lucky girl!

The writer hopes that her personal account will inspire others to keep an open heart and mind and just say yes to whatever opportunities come their way.