While I raced competitively as a youth in Optis and Lasers—and loved to sail big boats in all the Caribbean regattas during the ’80s and ’90s—I fell out of Grand Prix yacht racing as I began to focus on circumnavigating a couple of decades ago. The few times I hopped aboard others’ boats and raced in the Med, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa were unsatisfying on two fronts: One, I didn’t seem to be able to completely focus on winning for the entire duration of the event; and two, the vessels and crews were disappointments as well. Once you’ve raced on top-notch racing boats that are designed, built, financed, campaigned, and equipped to win against similarly serious craft, well, it’s hard to go back to the mom-and-pop beer-can races.
Thus, my racing skills atrophied—delightfully so. Where I once would adjust a boat’s cunningham as we accelerated after every tack, as a cruiser, I set it for winter or summer, if that. On the racecourse, I used to joke about yacht racers “rushing to get it over with”; then I adopted a go-slow philosophy and took it to heart. I was in no hurry. I didn’t want to beat anyone; I just wanted to be. I wanted to happily exist in a watery world where God’s smiling face is reflected in every wave.
When a salesman at a marine-supply store in Cape Town boasted that a certain $100 gizmo would “save you at least a day, or perhaps two” on my upcoming nonstop passage back to St. John in the US Virgin Islands, I smiled and asked, “Do you have anything for $100 that would allow me to spend an additional week at sea?”
After all, racing aside, the sole constant in my 61 years of living aboard is the desire to be at sea. For me, Mother Ocean always works her magic. Who needs Zen when there’s a tiller in your hand?
Then COVID-19 reared its ugly head. Not only were my wife, Carolyn, and I forced by logic and common sense to stay put in Singapore, our options to use our heavy-displacement ketch that’s set up for offshore voyaging were slim. Sure, we sailed to Lazarus Island and Pulau Ubin many times, but we practically could have swum there as well. Thus, our bottom fouled. And, as the saying goes, we ended up aground on our coffee grounds.
This is the reality of world cruising: Sh-t happens, occasionally and pandemically! As lifelong cruising sailors, our job is to roll with the punches. So Carolyn and I manage to eke out some watery fun in whatever manner we can in whatever port we happen to be anchored.
Does “eke out fun” sound frivolous? If so, it is because, dear reader, you’re not in cruising mode. For a sea gypsy, smiling blissfully at the horizon is what it’s about. We carry our joy aboard and, if we’re lucky and skillful, our joy never runs out.
Which brings us to the charming Changi Sailing Club, where we’re sitting out COVID and where no stink-potters are allowed. Its roots go back almost 100 years. For Carolyn and me, having a sundowner on the palm-shaded veranda is to experience a taste of classical colonialism, set within the diverse cultural rainbow of the ultramodern nation state that is Singapore. Think Bogie and Bacall. While the club’s core membership is Singaporean, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Malay, there’s a smattering of imported expats from England, France, Italy, Holland and America as well.
Singapore is tiny. Land is scarce. Most homes are minuscule. And families often live multigenerational under the same roof. Thus, the British club concept never faded here in S’pore, and the pool, beach, clubhouse and three bars/eateries teem with family fun on the weekends. You can even rent a chalet for a mere $50 per night if you want a watery getaway from home.
At Changi, the focus is on affordable family sailing. The club has an extremely active fleet of big boats in the 20- to 40-foot range, and nearly 100 dinghies for rent by the hour. There are clouds of Optis, Lasers, Toppers and beach cats that flit through the large river anchorage seven days a week. The affordable sailing scene is further buttressed by the fact that a lot of expat sailors from Europe are stationed here by their global corporations for only a year or two, and they tend to buy expensive boats that they then have to sell quickly at a huge loss when transferred to their next high-paying assignment. As a result, boats are cheap in expensive Singapore.
As the pandemic restrictions dragged on from weeks to months, I, of course, could watch the local race boats milling within feet of our 43-foot ketch Ganesh for only so long without itching to be aboard.
And compared with other harbors we’d visited, in many ways the Changi Club goes to extraordinary measures to facilitate the racing. You don’t need a dinghy or tender because the bumboats, or launches, run 12 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s a small shipyard and launch ramp if you want to dry-sail. Gear lockers are available for your racing stuff, and after racing, nearly 20 sailors can shower at the club at the same time. During regattas, with three to four 16-foot Boston Whalers powered by 60 hp engines in use at all times, if a small boat capsizes or a larger boat runs aground, experienced assistance can be on-site within moments.
Best of all, there’s a permanent sea buoy for the leeward starting pin, and race-committee officials work from their own shaded world of flags and horns on the long T-pier that extends into the mooring field at the other end of the starting line.
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But the most remarkable thing about racing in Changi is the course itself. It teems with freighters, cruise ships, sampans, junks, kayaks, windsurfers, kiteboards, pilot boats, resupply boats, fuel tenders, floating cranes, full-on oil rigs and, of course, the local fishing fleet. If it floats, it is zooming around crazily past the beach at Changi.
But those aren’t the only challenges to yachtsmen. Plentiful numbers of 7-foot-long monitor lizards are common; perhaps that’s what has driven away most of the crocs. And there is a major tide in S’pore, and the ebb current in particular is quite strong. Then, just to make the racing a tad more exciting, rocks and volcanic shoals lurk everywhere. There’s never a dull moment when waterborne off Changi. (For those readers who can’t recall where they’ve heard of Changi before, our current mooring is within sight of the Changi Prison of James Clavell’s novel King Rat. Or, if you’re a World War II buff, this beach is where the Japanese slaughtered 10,000-plus Singaporeans at low water so the rising tide would carry away the bodies—first into town, then out to sea.)
Yes, Singapore history is rich with blood, sweat and misery.
But all the grimness of the island’s past and the pandemic’s presence is now forgotten as the starting gun sounds. If I’m feeling multihull, I race with the large fleet of dry-sailed Corsair trimarans or swing from the trapeze aboard one of the many Nacra beach cats. If I’m in a one-design mood, it is a Laser with my American pals or a Topper if I want to share sea yarns with the Brits. Last week I helmed an Olson 34 named Sapphire Star so that its owner, a Brit named Simon, could sort out his asymmetrical from his symmetrical spinnaker running rigging. Winds tend to be gentle in Singapore, so light-air rags are a must on the downwind legs.
Of course, Singapore sailors are smart—as befits a country with such a high educational standard—so the races are short and the parties long. And they’re also more civil: At the mark roundings, we politely discuss what “clear ahead” means so that no sailor loses face. Back ashore, the awards ceremonies have so many grinning nationalities involved, it’s like a drunken UN meeting for sailors.
So, yeah, I’m getting in some laid-back, emphasis-on-the-fun club racing while learning that in the age of COVID, stopping for extended port stays is now part of the global cruising game as well.
The Goodlanders are spending spring weekends being entertained by the racing scene in Singapore.