Winds firmly in their sails

Winds firmly in their sails
Singapore’s SEA Games gold medallists through the years. From left: Siew Shaw Her (1993), Lock Hong Kit (1973) and (second from right) Tan Tee Suan (1983), with 2015 competitors Yukie Yokoyama (centre) and Samantha Neubronner

Four decades on, Lock Hong Kit's memories of the 1975 South-east Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games have become a little blurry. The 68-year-old takes a moment to recall where the Games were held that year.

Ah, yes, it was in Thailand so he must have sailed with old pal Tan Tee Suan on the Fireball that year.

But Lock remembers clearly his competition attire that day.

Taking a big transparent plastic bag, he cut two holes in the corners, snipped a larger opening at the bottom, then draped the sheet over himself.

It was not pretty but the makeshift windbreaker did its job of keeping the sailor warm.

"Those were the poor days," the two-time Seap Games gold medallist reminisced. "Some of our other sailors even used garbage bags."

Never mind that sailing has traditionally come with a "rich man's sport" label attached to it.

Old-timers like Lock will tell you otherwise about the sport's humble beginnings here.

Siew Shaw Her remembers being ridiculed by rivals at a regatta in England. Quivering in the chilly conditions yet unable to shell out £40 - around S$160 then - for proper headgear, he could only pull a used shower cap over his ears in a frail attempt to keep them warm.

"It was cold as hell," said the 57-year-old. "We were the only ones who did that and everyone laughed at us."

With competitive sailing still in its infancy, the sport was nothing more than an afterthought in the 1970s and 1980s when the glamour belonged to sports like football and athletics.

Only a handful of clubs offered sailing opportunities so the fraternity of local sailors was a small one.

Pioneers like Lock and Tan, both of whom were school teachers, stumbled into the sport in their late 20s only as a form of recreation.

Said Tan, now 73: "We started sailing just by taking a boat overnight to a nearby island. We enjoyed, we fished... we sailed because we liked being on the water.

"It's so different for the youngsters these days. They start as young as seven or eight, and they follow a structure - learn, sail, race. "We had no intention of competing."

Still, these men are the ones who penned the first chapters of Singapore sailing's success story.

It is a tale of winning at least a gold medal at every edition of the regional Games since 1973, a feat few other sports - if any - can hold claim to.

The streak has earned the sport much. Resources, for one thing.

Garbage bags and shower caps have long been replaced by top-of-the-line jackets and microfleece beanies.

Sailors spend months on end travelling from Hyeres in France to Palma in Spain, honing skills with and against the best in Europe.

Reputation, too. With sailors stamping their authority in the region and even in Asia in recent years, the sport is now among a select group seen as traditional goldmines at multi-sport events.

With a haul of five golds, three silvers and two bronzes, Singapore were the top sailing nation at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.

Even on the global stage, this tiny nation has much to shout about - 29 world titles from youth classes starting from 2004.

The Optimist class, in particular, is where the Republic reign supreme, winning the individual and team titles at the world championships from 2011 to 2013.

The first time Singapore triumphed at any Olympic event, winning two Youth Olympic golds in Nanjing last year, was also in sailing.

None of these came by chance.

It took foresight to adopt the Optimist programme early.

It took guts too, for sending sailors to world championships in the 1980s - in the name of exposure and experience - was then a mammoth expense.

But it helped give Singapore a headstart in the Under-15 class, leading to the vibrancy of the inter-school sailing competition, which attracts more than 300 entries.

Said Tan: "Even the big countries struggle to get the kind of numbers we have at the inter-schools.

"The standard is there for us (at the junior level) because we have a wide base. The junior programme is our strength.

"We've earned it. Because of the results we've consistently produced, you get more."

Said 18-year-old Yukie Yokoyama, who is partnering Samantha Neubronner, 17, in the 420 event at next month's SEA Games: "We're fortunate. We have a solid system today to help us pursue our dreams and that is a result of the effort and voice of the sailors who came before us."

But despite the titles, Singapore sailing is still awaiting a breakthrough in the Olympic classes. Colin Cheng's 15th-place finish in the Laser Standard at the 2012 London Olympics remains the best showing at the senior level so far.

The burden to steer Singapore sailing forward, at least, is accompanied by belief. Said Yukie: "We believe that we are the generation that will make it.

"The SEA Games are important but we want to look further. Our main goal is the world championships and the Olympics. We know it's going to be hard and there's going to be a lot of hard work but it is the ultimate goal."

The pioneers will be there on the waters next month - Tan serving as a member of the jury and Lock following the races up close from his boat.

It may stir up again the muddled memories of the 1970s but it will also create new ones for the men, as they watch those who have come after them, sail to a steady wind.

This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
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