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Ladies and Gentlemen,
A digression. Something about myself. When I was in Singapore from May last year to November, a lady whom I knew said to me that I was just like a 10 year old boy who never grew up! In fact that was the nicest words anyone ever said to me. I hope I remain so. Forever.
I knew Singapore well but the bus rides, MRT stations etc were new to me. I was after all many years away from Singapore. I asked her to take me to Changi beach to look at planes landing, to Labrador Park to see the ships pass by, to the railway tracks to see the trains go by. I love to see ships, planes and trains. And she said to me, I was like a 10 year old boy. But truly I love these things.
I think she guessed this was the last time I could see Singapore, since as you know, I was soon thereafter banned from entering the country by orders of Lee Kuan Yew. I think she felt sorry for me and she obliged by taking me to see ships trains and aeroplanes.
My father when I was a child took me on Malayan Railway trains almost every Sunday morning to Kluang or Segament in Johore only to catch the oncoming southbound train back to Singapore. I was fascinated by trains. I used to visit Paya Lebar airport to watch planes landing one after another, watching their glide path, holding steady straight and level just above the runway, before flaring with nose slightly up and tail down just before touchdown. I used to pretend to know certain officers on ships docked at Keppel Harbor and get passes to board them. On one occasion, I managed to board the MV Laos docked at the Keppel Harbor, I went to the galley and ordered Courvoisier Cognac, drank so much, that the French bartender took the cap off the bottle and told me to take it easy, reminding me it was Courvoisier that I was messing with. I was 17. It was my luck that I still managed to walk off the gangway to the dock in that state and not fall over the rail into the water. I am not sure whether this vessel is still in service. It belonged to a French company Messageries Maritimes. At that time, it was a cargo passenger vessel plying between Singapore and Vietnam, formerly French Indo China.
Any man is molded by his childhood. I had a happy one. My father had great wisdom and understanding of how a boy should grow up. My life with my father and mother was full of adventure stories, of Treasure Island, of Alexander the Great and his conquests around the world. Of mountaineers and sailors and airmen. He was a great newspaper reader. Once as a boy, he told me Gamal Abdel Nasser occupied the Suez Canal. Of course I did not know anything of Nasser or what in Heavens was Suez. But I knew it was a big thing, seeing the expression on his face. And it is these things that develop curiosity in a child. And also principles. Yes, principles, very important. He used to tell me always to speak the truth, never mind even if they take your head.
And of course, as a boy, I used to take all these things seriously. I admired airmen who made history by flying around the world in light aircraft, of sailors who crossed the oceans in nothing more than dinghies, of Edmund Hilary, first man to conquer Everest in 1953, of Dr. Bannister who ran the 3 minute mile. Of Krishna and Arjun in the Hindu Mahabharata, who overcame the evil in battle.
And it is these things that stayed with me ever since. And thank God, I am this way, thanks to my father and mother.
Honor is the foundation upon which everything has to rest. One has to earn money with honor, because without honor, it is worth nothing. It is better to be poor and honorable, than rich with dishonor. That is the teaching of my late father which has stayed with me forever.
I learned sailing at Changi Sailing Club. You could hire sailboats then. I once took out a 420 sailboat and took it around Ubin. It is surprising how narrow the channel is on the north side from Malaysia. I would say, perhaps 300 feet.
Later I bought a Laser dinghy. It is a cat rigged, unstayed single sail one man boat, about 14 feet. Once I had a life and death incident. I took out the Laser, crossed the channel towards Ubin and headed towards Tekong Kechil, then Tekong Besar, and almost before Tanjong Pengarrang village in Johore, hit high wind. Not being an experience sailor then, about 500 feet from the Tekong shoreline, the boat capsized and turned turtle, with the mast underwater pointing to the sea bed, and the hull facing up. To right the boat, I climbed on the hull, grabbed the centerboard sticking up and managed to right her up. Only problem was the wind was abeam, which meant that she capsized again to the other side.
The trick was of course to face the bow into the wind and then try to right her. That way, the wind will not catch the sail when upright. This I soon realized swam around and turned the bow into the wind and managed to get her up. I then climbed from the transom on to the boat. Only problem now was, the mainsheet had slipped from the shackle block which meant that I had no control of the sail. The mainsheet was flapping in the wind at the end of the boom. The only thing I could do was to grab the boom with one hand, tiller on the other and managed to reach Tekong beach.
I was famished, dehydrated. No water to drink at all. Dying of thirst. I met a Thai worker driving a tractor on the beach. I think they were constructing Tekong Army Camp. I used sign gestures to say I was thirsty. He took me on the tractor to a large barrel containing water. I drank to my fill. The time now was almost 5 pm. It will soon get dark. I had to get back to Changi Sailing Club. I tried to push the boat back into the sea and get on it. Problem was each time the waves pushed it right back. Anyhow after a few attempts I managed to get on it and sail it.
The wind had almost died down. It was night fall. I was underway, but only just. Just after I passed Tekong Kechil it got completely dark. I was on the north side of the channel heading towards the beacon across from the sailing club. I was sailing very slowly just beside the beacon, about 2o feet away from it, when my hull hit a rock underneath! What! I was 20 feet away from it! Surely the water is deep enough. It was low tide you see, and the rocks were just under the surface of the water, unseen. And what was worse, there was no wind. And mine was a sailboat. No motor.
So I got out of the boat and stood on the submerged rock holding it. My boat had no lights. Not even a flash light.
Mind you the narrow channel between Ubin and Changi Sailing club is busy with large tankers and cargo vessel traffic moving across. By now there was no wind at all. If I did attempt to sail the boat across the channel, with what wind I had, what happens if the wind dies completely when I am in the middle of it, with a tanker coming straight at me!
I had to make a decision. One, abandon the boat, swim to the beacon and wait till morning for help. Two, take a risk and cross with what little wind I had and hope it will hold till I reached Changi shore. I told myself, Gopalan Nair, do or die, I will risk it. I am going to sail it across and hope for the best. There was a little wind and I managed to inch forward. I was hardly moving. But when I was in the middle of the channel, my worst nightmares came true. From the west Pasir Gudang side, true enough there was this huge vessel lying high above the water heading straight at me. And I was stuck in the middle with no wind! I could not move! The ship was going to hit me!
You learn in sailing a principle that if you rock the boat left to right hard repeatedly, you will get a little forward propulsion. And this is what I was doing frantically to move the boat out of the way of that ship. When he closed, he sounded his horn. Obviously he saw me. The channel being so narrow and deep water only in the middle, the ship can hardly maneuver out of my way.
I was lucky to be about 10 feet clear of that big ship when it passed me. It was lying very high above the water; with its huge propeller blades half exposed, obviously empty except for ballast, emerging from the water and splashing it with a load roar each time when they came around hitting the water. I was lucky my boat was not pulled towards it, being so close, as that would have been the end of me.
Tired haggard bruised and famished I managed to beach the boat on shore. The time now was about 9 pm. On the beach with a large beer in hand, and pot belly, there a large Australian. I told him briefly what happened. You can imagine my irritation when he asked me whether the boat was all right! For heavens sake I nearly died!
Rider Haggard's King Solomon Mines has a dedication at the beginning which reads as follows:
This faithful but unpretended record of a remarkable adventure is hereby respectfully dedicated by the narrator Allan Quartermain to all the big and little boys who read it.
Truly some boys never really grow up. And that is the best life any boy can have, whether you are a big one or a small one.
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