By Gary Jobson
As I spoke to 40 youngsters in Thailand, I studied their faces carefully. The 20 boys and 20 girls ranged in age from 8 to 18. Not one of them had ever been on a sailboat. Over the next two days, me and a group of instructors from the Royal Varuna Yacht Club in Pattaya, would introduce these eager youngsters to sailing. All 40 were living at a facility run by the Human Help Network Foundation, a safe haven away from the abuse they had suffered earlier in their lives. An interpreter from the US Embassy in Bangkok, Oun Katpichai, repeated my words. There were lots of smiles as I told sailing stories. But the mood changed when I explained my purpose for being in Thailand. The late King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, had been an avid sailor. The King built 25 small sailboats with his own hands. Three of his boats were Ok Dinghies, which he raced for many years. I explained to the aspiring sailors that they would be sailing on the same waters the King had sailed on, and that I was sure the King would be smiling from the heavens. Tears welled up. I then realized how beloved the King was to the populace of Thailand.
It was quite an honor for me to be invited to Thailand for this Sports Envoy mission to honor the life of King Bhumibol. Ambasador Glyn Davies was with us for two days. He led a clean-up of a local beach, and went sailing with me and one of the instructors in an RS Venture. We had a beautiful 18 knot breeze on a warm day for our sail. There were three-foot waves breaking on the beach. Adding to the challenge of launching off the beach about 50 journalists were recording our every move. The beach was next to some rocks and a rope defining the swimming area. The water was shallow, and I had to keep the board almost all the way up, along with the rudder. All I could think about was not blowing the launch. Happily, we got moving and rode over the top of a few breakers and we were off. Disaster averted.
The United States Embassy in Thailand is one of the largest in the world. During the Vietnam War, Thailand was a staunch ally of the USA. Over 1,000 American and Thai employees at the embassy work hard to build good relationships in the region. During my five-day visit I spoke with about 10 embassy employees. I learned that they are very dedicated to their work. It was fascinating to watch diplomacy in action. The local Thai people welcomed the Americans at every stage of my visit.
The Royal Varuna Yacht Club was established 50 years ago. It is primarily a dinghy club. The fleet included a variety of catamarans, Ok dinghies, Lasers, Finns, several RS classes and some non-descript craft (similar to every yacht club in the world). On the weekend, the club fills with sailors, who mostly live about two hours away in Bangkok. The racing was spirited, and was highlighted by a race around Sak Island about five miles away. The biggest catamaran made the passage in 56 minutes. The Royal Varuna has held many major championships over the years. This coming July the club will host the Optimist Dinghy World Championship. Teams of five, with one coach will represent their country. At this writing over 60 countries have registered. Three Thai sailors raced in the Olympic Games in Rio last year, two windsurfers and a woman in the Laser Radial Class. All three were in the bottom half of their classes. The club’s manager, Seb Sukontok, told me they plan to work hard to develop future Olympic sailors.
The King was a strong competitor. In the Southeast Asia Games he won a Gold Medal in the OK Dinghy class in 1967. His eldest daughter, Princess Ubolratana tied for the lead and also received a Gold Medal. That day, December 16, 1967, was enshrined as Thailand’s National Sports Day in honor of the occasion. Among the dinghies the King built was a variation of a Moth. It was a speed open cockpit skiff called a Super Mod. The local newspaper, the Pattaya Mail published a 76-page book about the King’s sailing life in 2014 on the King’s 87th birthday. Among the stories was the King’s historic sail across the Gulf of Thailand in an OK Dinghy. The gulf is noted for strong winds and choppy waves. It was 60 miles across.
On the Saturday night of my visit Ambassador Davies and I were scheduled to give a presentation to 100 business and government leaders from the area. Unfortunately, the power went out in the city. I had a video presentation all set up with no power, we simply told stories for an hour.
After two days of sailing lessons, the kids from the Foundation were all able to sail around a short course off the yacht club. Throughout the program I was able to take all 40 of them for a ride on a Nacra catamaran. What a thrill for me to see their faces light up when we loaded up with three kids at a time, and took off at 20 knots. None of the youngsters spoke English, so it was all hand signals. During one ride I motioned that we were going to turn around and a young boy turned to me and asked, “tack or jibe?” That was impressive. The Ambassador, the embassy staff, and I were entertained by a troupe of Thai dancers and all the kids singing and dancing songs at a closing ceremony. I hope they have a chance to sail again some day. The Commodore and General Manager of the yacht club talked about making this an annual event.