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Fatty and his brother Morgan trying to fill the droopy spinnaker with hot air on Ganesh
Fatty and his brother Morgan trying to fill the droopy spinnaker with hot air on Ganesh

Racing to Idiocy in Southeast Asia

We are currently cruising in Southeast Asia—where there’s no wind. Example: We use a candle for a compass light—try that in the Lesser Antilles! This ‘zero wind’ business takes some getting used to, especially for a former breeze-blessed Caribbean sailor such as me. I get high from high winds—which makes me sober as a judge here. It’s bad, it really is. A couple of days ago my wife ‘cut the cheese’ and I had to crank up or die. Horrible, eh?

The only thing that dissipates here is my morals.

My anemometer cups haven’t spun in months. I’m beginning to wonder if they’ve been epoxied into place. At first, my wind speed meter said 00, but now, alas, it reads LESS!

Evidently, after a year or so, it reads LOTS LESS!

There’s such little air around Singapore that we have to lug oxygen bottles with us as we move around the boat. We’ve been married 45 years now, and currently don’t argue because we can’t afford the air—how sick is that?

Many of the local boaters are in total denial. I mean, they read Cruising World magazine and see photos of other yachties sailing around with their sails full and bulging—and, naturally, they want to do the same. And so, they do the best they can. And the Chinese are clever. We know that. Thus, they started out with a small 12-volt computer ‘muffin fan’ pointed at their ensign—which made it flutter prettily.

This made them feel like … well, like Bernard Moitessier off Cape Horn.

Soon the local boats were sporting 220-volt fans aimed at their mainsails and jibs—even flying spinnakers via giant fore-hatch blowers!

Dyson Fans are big racing sponsors here.

Alas, the fleet noise from their small cockpit Honda generators in mid-regatta is horrible.

Even worse is the physics of it all. That ole ‘for every action, there’s an opposite and equal reaction’ means that the boats standstill, with the fans pushing them one way and the sails, the other.

Oh, dear!

Yes, rating the local boats under the PHRF rule is a trauma!

The water temp doesn’t help. It’s in the mid-80s. Swimming barely cools you off—it’s like diving into a urinal. Barnacles grow fast. Ditto, strands of seaweed. Recently, I told someone at the yacht club I was going to chop the seaweed strands and go sailing. But he said, “There’s no need. The seaweed will grow faster than you sail, and offers a convenient way to pull yourself back to the mooring.”

This is yachting, Singapore-style.

…see how important ‘local knowledge’ is?

Yes, if you observe a few hundred sailboats dead in the water off Johor Bahru, it is difficult to tell if it is a major international regatta or they’re drying their sails.

Most Asians smoke—all Asian sailors do: how else would they be able to tell wind direction?

Rich yacht racers in Singapore often are accompanied by their hot air balloons during competitions. This gives them, according to poorer racers from, say, Malaysia or Indonesia, an unfair advantage. “I told one wealthy racer there wasn’t any wind,” complained his poorer compatriot, and he corrected me with, ‘… below six thousand feet.’”

Asians also love to gamble—on and during sports. “But it is truly sad when, during a yacht race, you can play 52 pick up on the foredeck and not lose any cards,” said one Olympic hopeful in the 888 class of ‘Hello Kitty’ dinghies.

Sail trim becomes problematic in truly light air. Forget about ‘making the battens pop’ while coming about—hell, the Dacron fabric won’t even change sides!Some winning racing yachts just carry two frozen mainsails, one to use on starboard tack and the other for port. (Without wind, switching them isn’t a big deal.)

Most of the ‘executive team’ cheating has been stopped. For example: Team helicopters aren’t allowed anywhere near the racecourse now, and are especially prohibited from ‘blowing back’ the completion.

There are advantages, of course. There’s no reason to take down your sails between races or weekends—which speeds up getting underway.

Not all the trends are benign. Painting your deck flat black and then drifting down the course under spinnaker to victory on the self-generated thermal requires asbestos sailing togs—not something most temperate zone sailors have.

The races tend to be short, as do the courses. During the highly competitive Raffles Regatta, the first vessel able to sail up to its mooring ball … wins!

Barnacles are, as mentioned, quick to grow. And it you carefully observe a barnacle in the wild—you’ll note it filters water constantly. Thus, a number of boats secretly ‘encouraged’ barnacles pointing aft, and scraped ‘em away if they pointed forward. The result was dramatic—with the ‘barnacle enhanced’ craft achieving almost ‘turbo’ like speeds.

Such slight input makes the local racing tacticians ultra sensitive. One bragged to me that he could tell the difference between sailing and being aground ‘with my eyes closed!’

Maybe, maybe not.

Many of the less serious racing craft in Southeast Asia have barbeque grills on the aft rails, and thus the Asian nautical sayings of, “Smell the meat, Trim Spin Sheet” and “No Smell Grill, going Windward Still!”

Yes, cruising Asia is different. You don’t follow your cookie crumbs home—rather your grains of rice. Female yacht racers in Asia tend to wear inflatable PFDs under their blouses—and the bigger, the better. Part of the reason male Asians struggle with being competitive is because they’re curse-challenged. I mean, Christians can evoke JC and/or his Dad—while screaming “Buddha!” or “Confucius!” hardly carries the same weight.

Yeah, there’s a lot about cruising Southeast Asia that I never anticipated. For instance, all the ‘ships’ bells’ aboard racing yachts from Vietnam are made from U.S. artillery shells. “Ah so,” they say with a confident, brazen wink to us American sailors, “we win twice!”

The Khmer Rouge aren’t much of a threat on the race course—having killed everyone who spoke French, could add numbers, or read words. Yes, “Cambo is slo-slow,” is the accepted wisdom from Tokyo to Sri Lanka.

Ditto, the wealthy Filipino sailors—perhaps all those pairs of shoes are slowing them down?

Thai sailors haven’t done well since their king Bhumibol Adulyadej became ill—having red and yellow shirted Buddhists rioting on the foredeck is always bad for boat speed. (The King took Gold in 1967 in the Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) games, and holds a speed record in Vega 1, an OK class dinghy he built—which is amazing, considering all the gold he normally wears. (Alas, even with his $35 billion in assets, he’s still just as becalmed as the rest of us.)

Burma is pretty much out of it, as the junta regularly shoots crewmembers for a bad spinnaker set, sloppy roll tack, or barber-pole jib furl.

Indonesian crews tend to desert and become busboys—wherever/whenever they race abroad.

Recently I was invited to race at the Changi Sailing Club in Singapore during the 15th annual Ambassador’s Cup. I thought, you know, that the Ambassador’s were us—you know, that we the crew were ambassadors of sailing. Not so. The ambassadors were actually real diplomatic ambassadors, and you had to cross the finish line with one—alive!—in order to win. My favorite ‘diplo’ was from Peru. No, he didn’t know how to sail—but that dude could sure party!

Yes, it’s strange racing, cruising, and sailing in airless Southeast Asia—where a yacht racer’s only chance of surfing off on a spinnaker run is to hop atop a tsunami.

Editor’s note: Carolyn and Fatty are currently enjoying their Southeast Asia sojourn, and will soon be sailing out to the Thai sticks… or rural countryside of the Land of Smiles. 

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