Sailing: Winds firmly in their sails

The second of a four-part Sunday Times SEA Games series tracing the journey of four sports through the athletes' eyes | Next week: Swimming

From left: Khor Chek Leong and son Teck Lin; Tan Wenqi and brother Wearn Haw, children of the late Yeok Keong; and Wong Ming Chee and daughter Maye-E have kept the love of sailing across generations. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
From left: Khor Chek Leong and son Teck Lin; Tan Wenqi and brother Wearn Haw, children of the late Yeok Keong; and Wong Ming Chee and daughter Maye-E have kept the love of sailing across generations. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
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. -- ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

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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."

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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.

Sports Editor Marc Lim on why we cannot truly appreciate the present without acknowledging the deeds of the past here.

Trace the rise and fall of Singapore sailing through the decades here.

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  • 470

Seap Games gold with Jimmy Chua (1973)

  • Fireball

Seap Games bronze with Tan Tee Suan (1975)

  • Lark

SEA Games gold with Leow Cheng Hong (1983)

Lock Hong Kit has seen success as an athlete, coach and even as a race judge recognised by the International Sailing Federation.

He has competed in no fewer than six classes in international regattas. He was team manager and coach at the 1994 Asian Games, where Ben Tan won Singapore's first sailing title at the quadrennial event.

For him, sailing is about not giving up. At the 1983 SEA Games, a bad start left him and partner Leow Cheng Hong dead last in a particular race. A huge downpour also meant poor visibility and the duo were unable to see the next marker they had to round.

He said: "Fortunately for us, we had a compass in the boat and we remembered the bearings so we sailed just by the bearings alone.

"By the time the storm abated, all the boats were scattered all over the place - but we had gone from last to first."

The pair won a gold that year.

Said Lock: "Sailing is like that.

"Never give up, no matter how bad your position is. It ain't over till the fat lady sings."

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  • Fireball

SEA Games silver with Siew Shaw Her (1985)

  • Hobie 16

SEA Games gold with Edwin Low (1983)

Of the countless regattas he competed in, none left a deeper impression on Tan Tee Suan than the 1983 SEA Games at home.

That year, sailing in the Hobie 16 with Edwin Low, the duo were neck and neck with their rivals from Thailand.

They wanted gold, but they needed a win from the last race to get it.

They had just one problem - there was no wind. Their sails limp and their boat barely drifting, helmsman Tan spotted a storm brewing in the distance.

Throwing caution to the wind, quite literally, Tan and Low sailed away from the next marker they were due to round and into the storm.

That gamble paid off. They caught the wind first, well ahead of the rest of the fleet, to finish first and clinch the gold.

"We didn't care about the storm and we were on the verge of capsizing by the end. But we got to the finish line," said Tan, who calls himself a "utility player" when it comes to sailing.

"That's sailing. If you want to win, you've got to go for it. That's the way to do it."

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  • 420

Asian Games gold with Colin Ng (1998)

  • 470

SEA Games gold

With Khor Chek Leong (1983);

With Joe Chan (1987);

With Wong Chiu Yin (1989);

With Charles Lim (1993, 1995);

With Anthony Kiong (1997)

Asian Games silver with Charles Lim (1994)

  • Sportsman of the Year (1999)

Two Asian Games medals, nine SEA Games outings, and the only Singapore sailor to have competed at three Olympics - but still Siew Shaw Her thinks he did not dream big enough.

"In my time, the only realistic dream I had was an Asian Games medal," said the 1999 Sportsman of the Year. "I was at three Olympics, but all I wanted was to be there because (anything else) just seemed too unrealistic."

It is why the 58-year-old, whose daughter Savannah is competing at this year's SEA Games, feels today's sailors must be bold enough to believe an Olympic medal is not a far-fetched hope.

In fact, he feels that Olympic success can come as soon as 2020.

"Sailors today start from a very young age, so the skill level is different. The ingredient that is sometimes missing in the big events is the hunger. They must be bold enough to dream big."

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  • 29er

10th at Isaf Youth World Championships (2014)

  • 420

18th at 420 World Championships (2014)

Kieler Woche Regatta: 7th, 3rd in girls' category (2014)

Born just four months apart, Yukie Yokoyama and Samantha Neubronner have sailed together since their Optimist days.

Standing at 1.46m and weighing just 46kg, helm Yukie needs a much heavier crew in order to meet the ideal combined crew weight of at least 110kg for the double-handed 420 dinghy.

Said Samantha, who is 1.65m and weighs 54kg: "I had to bulk up and I'm still trying to now. Our weight works against us and makes it tough in countries where the wind can get really strong."

To make up for their lack of weight, the duo clock extra hours in the gym, in order to be "super fit". They also spend hours tuning and customising their boat.

Weight will likely continue to be an issue for the duo, especially when they progress to the Olympic 470 class. But they are focusing on short-term goals for now: Victory at the SEA Games and podium spots at this year's 420 World Championships and Isaf Youth World Championships.

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