Perfecting their craft

Duo charted their own arduous course to historic World Cup win

Disastrous would neatly sum up Nacra 17 sailors Justin Liu and Denise Lim's maiden voyage at the June 2014 Kieler Woche regatta that was held in Germany.

Within an hour of taking the boat out to sea for the first time, they had capsized four times and ripped a hole through the main sail.

Sheepishly, they returned to shore to assess the damage and were greeted by the catamaran's previous owner, Toni Rivas, a sailing coach who had just handed over the craft to them.

The Spaniard, who had sold the Nacra 17 to the Singapore Sailing Federation (SSF), was fuming and lectured the pair about mistreating his beloved boat.

Despite their experience - Liu is a two-time Asian Games gold medallist and former world champion (in the smaller and junior 420 class) and Lim has represented Singapore at international regattas - both were quickly burdened by doubts caused by their unfamiliarity with the new boat.


Every step of the way, there was a challenge but, somehow, we managed to overcome each one.

JUSTIN LIU on their many pitfalls

Recalled Lim: "We really felt out of our depth at that moment and were wondering if we should continue with this campaign of trying to qualify for the Olympics."

First designed in 2011 before it went into production a year later, the multi-hull Nacra 17 is making its Olympics debut in Brazil next year.

But the word "quit" has no place in an athlete's sporting vocabulary. Liu and Lim repaired their vessel, regrouped to finish 18th in the regatta and from there, one might say, had the wind in their patched-up sails.

It propelled them across Europe, through successes and setbacks for 15 months before finally leading to last month's victory at the Qingdao leg of the International Sailing Federation (Isaf) World Cup .

Justin Liu and Denise Lim are ST's Star of the Month winners for September after the duo won the Isaf World Cup in Qingdao and earned Singapore a coveted spot at the Rio Olympics next year. - ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

They are the Republic's first World Cup winners and their feat also secured the country a Nacra 17 spot at next year's Rio Games.

Resilience has become a recurring theme for the couple, who are both 24 and the winners of The Straits Times' Star of the Month award for September.

Noted Liu: "Every step of the way, there was a challenge but,somehow, we managed to overcome each one."

They studied YouTube videos for new manoeuvring techniques at sea, observed tactics used by other teams and sought advice from sympathetic coaches whenever possible to aid them in their quest.

Theirs was an odyssey in every sense of the word. They covered almost 10,000km through several European countries during a three-month training stint this year, which included getting lost in central London with the 5.25m-long Nacra 17 on a trailer attached to their rental car.

"The last time either of us had driven a manual was when we passed our driving test," said Liu with a chuckle.

There was physical change as well. Just a shade under 60kg a year and a half ago, Liu, who is the helm, has bulked up to about 80kg to cope with the bigger and heavier Nacra 17 when racing in strong winds.

And for Liu and Lim, long accustomed to team officials handling the bulk of administrative and logistical issues, their journey with their new catamaran was an examination of their inner self-reliance.

From booking accommodation to hiring a coach, to registering and paying entry fees for races, everything became their responsibility.

"We had to be very independent," said Lim, who took no-pay leave from her job as a nurse at Changi General Hospital's accident and emergency department.

At times, it could easily have been too overwhelming.

But they had each other to lean on, said Liu, a third-year National University of Singapore business and economics student.

Support has also arrived from the SSF, which has added Liu and Lim to its Olympic training squad following their historic triumph in China.

The association will also purchase a new Nacra 17 to ensure the team picked from its internal selection trials are given the best possible fighting chance at next August's Summer Games.

The opportunity to be there at the starting line in Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay has still not sunk in for Singapore's World Cup winners.

"We've come so far," they said in agreement.

Instead of struggling to keep themselves and their vessel upright, this relentless duo - currently Asia's top-ranked Nacra 17 pairing and 30th in the world standings - cannot wait to chart a new course.

Beyond the horizon, an Olympic adventure awaits.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'PERFECTING THEIR CRAFT'. Subscribe