My mind wandered suddenly to the rough salty waters of the Bali sea far below, where 13-year-old Noppakao Poonpat, nicknamed "Nine", was competing in the 13th Asian Sailing Championship, held from Oct 7 to 13 in Bali, Indonesia.
It may be a bit of a stretch of the imagination to picture the young Thai as a divinity, but she certainly ruled the waves in her age class in the Optima sailboat division (aged from nine to 15) at Bali, winning all 10 heats to easily take the gold medal home to Thailand.
And she was joined in the winner's circle by 16-year-old countryman Natthawut Paenyaem, who rode to glory at the helm of a Laser 4.7, which like the Optima is a one-person boat. Keerati Bualong, also 16, took the silver in the Laser 4.7 division at the Asian Sailing Championships at Bali, which were contested by teams from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Kazakhstan.
Sailing has experienced a surge in popularity in Thailand, especially since the first Phuket King's Cup Regatta 18 years ago. There are now more major sailing events held off Thailand than anywhere else in the region, but these are mostly restricted to larger craft than the one- and two-person vessels which duelled in the Bali sea in October.
While it does seem the gods were smiling on the youthful 14-member team fielded by the Yacht Racing Association of Thailand (YRAT), their success can mostly be put down to an excellent work ethic and a dedicated coaching staff, led by retired Rear Adm Sunan Montharpalin, also the team manager.
In recent years, PTT Exploration and Production (PTTEP) has become a full sponsor of the YRAT.
ML Sidhichai Jayant, manager of external relations at PTTEP, said the company became interested in supporting sailing in Thailand for several reasons, one of which was to show respect for His Majesty the King.
ML Sidhichai said his company was involved in a number of philanthropic endeavours in Thailand, and this particular project was undertaken in large part because of PTTEP's offshore oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Thailand.
He said the company wanted to involve more people, especially the young, in the sport of sailing.
ML Sidhichai noted that in most countries the national sailing team is subsidised by the government, but in Thailand it is very difficult to use government money to support sporting or artistic programmes.
|YRAT sailing team and coaches in a group photo at Bali.|
The YRAT-PTTEP combination is filling the gap and it is paying off in a string of victories. Besides the world-class performances of the likes of Ms Nine and Mr Natthawut in Bali, a team made up of brothers Damrongsak, 38, and Kitsada Vongtim, 26, won gold in the Hobie 16 class.
Thailand took home the most medals in Bali to win the team championship, repeating an earlier success in the sailing competition at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in December 2007 at Pattaya's Jomtien beach. There they finished the competition with 10 gold medals, two silver and two bronze from the 17 sailing events. Ms Nine won at Jomtien as well, as did 16-year-old Navee Thamsoonthorn.
Last year, off the waters of Istanbul, Turkey, at the International Optimist Dinghy Association (Ioda), Ms Nine claimed fourth best in the world in the Optima class at the age of just 12.
The YRAT has a clear connection to the Thai Royal Navy. The team lives in Chon Buri province and practises at the naval base at Sattahip. Most of the coaches are active and retired naval officers, and most of the younger sailors are the children or younger siblings of naval officers.
Rear Adm Sunan has been on the committee of the YRAT for around 30 years, and oversees the training of the Optimist division. He has led many a Thai regatta into competition and is still an avid sailor.
Rear Adm Sunan said the biggest change he has seen over the years is the greater emphasis now on involving youth.
Navy Lt Veerasit Pvongnak, head coach for the Laser division, agreed the key to continued success for Thailand in competitive sailing rests with its youth. The fit-looking lieutenant, who competed as part of the Thai team for many years, said the young members of the squad go to a regular school in Chon Buri in the morning and practise most afternoons in the Gulf of Thailand.
|‘Nine’ displays her first place award in the Optima class.||Keerati Bualong, silver medalist in the Laser 4.7 division.|
Coach Tonny Tan is an exception to the YRAT norm in a number of respects in that he is not an RTN man and isn't even Thai. For many years the Singaporean was involved in coaching the city-state's national sailing team and also edited a publication on the conditioning and ancestry of race horses competing on the Singapore circuit. He came over to the Thai side before the December 2007 SEA Games and made a major contribution to the success there.
The YRAT, established in 1964, has since 1987 been under the patronage of His Majesty the King, who is himself an accomplished sailor. In April 1966, His Majesty sailed a 3.9 metre dinghy from Klai Kangwon Summer Palace, Hua Hin in Prachuap Khiri Khan province, to Sattahip bay in Chon Buri. The following year, the King and his eldest daughter, Princess Ubolratana, then 16, took the gold medal in the OK Dinghy class at the 4th Southeast Asian Peninsular Games.
Watching the young sailors manoeuvre through the choppy waters off Bali brought home the fact there is a strong component of athleticism as well as skill required to put the small boats through their paces. It's also easy to see that youthful agility can be a distinct advantage here.
Ms Nine and Mr Navee appeared as tireless jumping jacks, popping up on either side of a constantly shifting boom as they measured their skills against the forces of nature.
At a dinner held for the team, Lt Veerasit introduced me to some of the members. I asked Ms Nine if she had ever been struck by the boom. Smiling, she confessed that she had "at first".
At the awards ceremony the next night it was apparent the trend towards youth was universal among all the teams competing in Bali. The crowd was overwhelmingly made up of attractive, fit teenagers. It was refreshing in a way to see so many young Asians who weren't afraid of getting out in the sun, although some of them, mostly young women, obviously go to great lengths to stay as pale as their peers who spend their days roaming the shopping malls of Bangkok and Hong Kong.
Not exactly the high-brow event that might be associated with yacht racing, the awards ceremony was nevertheless a lot of fun. After the awards had been handed out the organisers distributed angklung, a musical instrument made of two bamboo tubes that resonate when struck, attached to a bamboo frame. A local celebrity explained that five different sets of instruments had been passed out, each with a different tone, and then proceeded to teach the audience a few songs.
The Optima racers left Bali knowing they would only be back in Thailand only for a week or so before heading off for another competition in Qatar, from Oct 24 to Nov 1. There, against a much larger field of 61 boats from 11 countries, including Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, Ms Nine placed third overall.
Next stop is closer to home, at the Asean Optimist Championship 2008 from Dec 13 to 20 at Varuna Yacht Club in Pattaya.