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Wednesday, October 19, 2016
A Reflective Journal: Sailing at the 2016 J24 World Championships

By Omar Agoes
IDEAS Fellow


Ichimokusan!: Japanese for as fast as one can go

What does a shipping manager, housewife, school teacher, marina officer, law student, and banker have in common? They are all serious about their sailing.

In September 2016, team Angel from Singapore raced in the J24 World Championship in Wakayama Japan. This team of non professional sailors took leave from their daily jobs to race against the world's leading sailors.

They came fourth in the world's largest keelboat one design sailing class; and this is their story.

We are Fat

It is the third J24 World Championship for team Angel of Singapore, and it has been five years since our team participated in a World Championship. The last one was in Malmo, Sweden where the winds were strong and waters cold. We were getting rusty and had been long overdue get some "world class" action.

The J24, is commonly sailed by a crew of five people and has a regulation which that limits the total crew weight to a maximum of 400 kilograms. In general, a sailboat with more crew weigh goes faster, as it has a better ability to keep the boat upright. Our crew weight was our first challenge. From two years prior to the championship we had to decide on how many people will be crew.

The past two world championships we sailed with a crew of five. But never close to the optimum weight of 400 kg, but adding another crew to six would easily cross the 400 kg limit as well. Despite this, we decided to try to sail with a crew of six and get as close as possible to perfect weight. We needed a lightweight 6th person. And the rest of the existing five will have to lose weight to accommodate this additional person.

For for two years we all obsessed about our body weight. For two whole years!

When I landed in Osaka airport, I was having lunch when the skipper text me. "we are in trouble, we are overweight.....don't eat." Our team starved that night. Walked for over an hour to the supermarket in the small town of Wakayama and went to bed hungry. We skipped breakfast, went to the toilet with a mission, walked to the weighing room thirsty, stripped down to our underwear and weighed a total of 394.7 kilograms. We collectively lost eight kilograms between the six of us that night!

That night we experienced the life of a supermodel, without the long legs, beauty, and fame.

I never felt so conscious about my weight. Despite running regularly, it was hard to lose more weight. Our hero in this weight struggle is our mast man Joel, who lost a total of 10 kg in the past eight months. This worked very well for us, although I am not certain if he did this for the boat, or he just wanted to look hot for the babes at Singapore Management University.

You're Going Where?

When I tell non Japanese I was going to Wakayama, they say; "where is that, which country are you going to' When I tell a Japanese I was going to Wakayama, they just say; "Why?"

I expected the countryside would have an authentic feel of the real Japan. This was far from the truth. Our hotel in this "Japan countryside" was a replica of Venice, complete with a small canal and gondola. While across the street was another replica of a European castle. This entire non- Japanese architecture is located next to something that looks like a huge power-plant. Nobody really seems to come to the attractions here, but in the middle of the night there would huge crowds in the dark with their phones searching for pokemons.

Wakayama is South of Japan's second largest city of Osaka and is the training center of the Japanese Olympic sailing team. The hotel and the Marina is a ten minute drive to the small city of Wakayama.

We chartered a boat that was formerly named Siesta. There are two other former Siesta's one chartered by the German team and the other by the Peru team. The "living" Siesta is sailed by a Japanese team who were really nice guys which helped with many of the things while we were there.

There were 44 entries in this world championship, and we see some familiar faces from previous races. One honorable mention is boat number 10 from GBR (that's the coutry code for Great Britian). It was helmed by Stuart Jardine. Stuart is the oldest competitor in the fleet, he is 82 and the last time he was in Japan was in the 1964 Olympics! Stuart is a familiar face with the crowd as he is also an official measurer, on this race he is a competitor.

After a long day in measurements we were happy that the boat passed qualifications, and we were certified legal to race. They measure everything; our weight, boat weight, lengths and dimensions for all sorts of things including sails. In a One design class like the J24, all boats are strictly identical. The aim is to ensure a level playing field for all.

In reality not all boats are the same. Some are older, some are in better shape, and some are set up a bit differently. Our team spent three days before the race to make sure the boat was in racing condition. This involved lots of polishing, repairs, and the most frustrating was adjusting the mast which was slightly bent. Not fixing this would mead the boat would go faster in one direction and slower to another. Fortunately this was resolved, because it would have been disastrous if this happened. I don?t want to be technical, but the solution was not about bending things, but it was about seeing things differently. It was about bending the mind instead of the mast.

First Times'

For me this was a trip of many first times. First time I had sea snake soup, ate a turtle (Chef Narisawa said it was sustainable farmed ones), first time I ate whale meat (caught in the name if research), first time I had Kobe beef (which made me speechless), and the first time experiencing a typhoon!

The typhoon would come on the second day of racing. The news channel was all about this typhoon coming. Race organizers asked us to stay in the hotel and not walk into town. They were tying everything down preparing for the worst. I and our trimmer "DJ" were sailors who get excited when we see strong winds. So this typhoon was a big deal for us. We both never experienced one. We put on our foul weather gear and walked to the breakwater with a go pro camera. There, we were looking at the sea in strong winds like a pair of six year olds boys.

On race-day one, we did decently well and ended up number in seventh overall. Our skipper Vlado took a picture of the results and said "this is the best we will ever get on world level guys."

Day two of racing was canceled due to the typhoon. And the typhoon seemed to suck out all the wind, and the whole race was done in light winds from then on. Day three we did two races and the start line was a classic world championship start. It was aggressive! Every boat on the line, every boat eager, and they proved too eager as the race officer kept cancelling the start since most of the fleet was over the line before the gun. At the end of day three, we slid down to 13th place.

Our bad performance had a lot to do with poor acceleration at the start. Our competitors were used to large fleet starts, and in light winds when you start late you're dead. The boat just sits there going nowhere. As the bowman I signaled to the skipper let's go, let's go, but he just put his hands up as we had no speed. We were buried under so much wind shadow and got choked.

That day three was a day to forget. We were at times the last 5th boat in the fleet while racing and the worst result after catching people up was a 22nd finishing spot. It sucked being in the back of the fleet. It sucked seeing so many boats in front of you. When we rounded marks we had foul ups with other boats. In the past, we never protested any boat in previous championships; but in this championship we protested twice. Mark rounding?s became dogfights, and we kept getting fouled.

The one thing that our team was confident at was boat speed. Most of us had been on the boat for over eight years as a team and spent many hours training together in making sure we are fast. The boat felt good, so it was very frustrating for us to be dead in the water and accelerate slowly.

Starting like beginners

We came to race day 4 thinking this championship was a write off. We are 13th overall now with no hope for being on the podium of the top five. We went out with low expectations in our white team shirts.

On the start line we actually waited near the committee boat end like what sailors describe as "marshmallows". We stayed away from the fight and just wanted clear air and did not want to be choked of wind like the previous day. And lo and behold, we reached the upwind mark in second place. We sailed fast and looked like lucky bastards that got a wind-shift. That second finish was our greatest sailing achievement, finishing a second in a World Championship race was so unreal to us.

The winds died that day and race day number four only had one single race.

Trying to keep our luck, the next day we came back and wore the same white shirt. My roommate stared at me when I washed my shirt; he thought I just jinxed our luck by washing it. I obviously had more to learn the fine art of superstition.

The Return of the Marshmallows

One positive thing in this championship is, we did not screw up a single maneuver. Our training has ensured that we were fast in executing our tacks, jibes, and most importantly perfect mark roundings. If you ever raced keel boats, screw ups are very common ? but this time we were not making any mistakes. Due to the lack of competition in Singapore, it was hard to gauge if our maneuvers were good enough or not, but on this championship we delivered on this. Our skipper who is impossible to please was more quiet than usual.

We came to race day 5 having improved the score from 13th back to 8th overall after one single fantastic result the previous day. The Germans were leading the series after their consistent performance in the past three race days. In term of points, they were way ahead. As they left the jetty, they were congratulated and being waved at like they bagged this Championship already.

There were only 10 points separating position 4th to 13th. This meant that anyone from any of these positions can easily take the lead for fourth, or sink all the way down to 13th. The number 2 and 3 were both Japanese boats and they were busy trying to cover each other. This is the final day of racing and pressure to perform was high.

Winds were very light and race committee would have to wait a long time until we started. In our unwashed white shirts we set sail to the course just trying to hold our eight place. If we end the championship in eight, it would be our best ever position in a World Championship. In the previous championships in Sardinia, Italy we came 47th and in Malmo, Sweden we came 18th. So a single digit eight is a number we are were happy to live with and would be devastated to lose.

Now we raced with a plan, same smelly shirt (except mine), and the same game plan to start late but in clear air. In short, be a marshmallow! We hung around the start line waiting at the last minute. We hung around those timid boats which lack confidence or boat handling to aggressively start with the best sailors in the fleet. Marshmallows avoid fights.

To our surprise, we again reached the top mark in the top five and eventually finishing the race at fourth! We looked at ourselves and a bit in disbelief that our strategy was a winning one. Our stroke of "luck" yesterday was actually a solid game plan.

Unfortunately for the Germans, it was their worst race. They messed up huge. We came in fourth but they came in a horrible 26th. It was even a more devastating day for team USA, the former world champion Will Welles came out in 34th that race. It was very shifty and the course had many "holes", a sailor's term for a place with no wind.

With many of the top guys in the back and some marshmallows in front, the race rankings became a wreck. On that race we became 4th overall! Since we became marshmallows, most of the guys with better points than us have finished behind us.

The Anxious Wait

On the last day of the race, instructions say no racing should start after 3 pm. The winds continued to die and we waited around for hours. The Germans must have been most nervous as their lead has now been cut down. And if they continue to perform like that last race, they may lose the championship lead.

This is what?s intriguing in sports, in the morning you left the jetty smiling and a couple of hours later you are worried. We happen to know the German team from the championships in Sweden. Team JJ One chartered their boat to us because they missed qualifications to join the championship when their mast broke. We heard that in the World Championships last year they were 2d coming into the last day and they lost it on that last day. A monkey has been on their back. The Germans and us quietly not wanted another race to happen and hoped for the wind to disappear. They wanted to stay first, we wanted to stay fourth.

This was not meant to be. A breeze came in and the start signal went off. The pressure for this start was the most intense. They had to restart three times. This was the first time the black flag came out. A black flag start is when you get disqualified if you are over the line.

Collisions occurred, a lot of shouting amongst competitors. We were watching all of this, because marshmallows don't engage, they are timid sailors who watch on the sideline. They stay away from trouble.

Then again we were the fourth boat at the first mark! When that happened, we were like rock stars. We were leading the fleet again. Project Marshmallow was not a fluke. This race was particularly exciting because the winds were very shifty and we kept losing or gaining places on the course. Once again our teamwork and training paid off, we stayed focused and constantly execute clean maneuvers. We felt one with the boat.

We took over a boat on the last upwind and finished that race at second place again. With no more races, Team Singapore sealed our overall number four in the world.

Fortunately for the Germans, they did not do so bad, and became the first ever German team to win a J24 World Championships.

We are grateful to the Japanese organizers. They made sure we had all the food and drinks after racing. They staged great parties, and the boathouse had six free flow beer taps and a sake barrel throughout the event. On one occasion, we ran out of pizza, but in a couple of minutes, more pizza came and this was a true testament of a fantastic host who left nobody unhappy. The Japanese organizers were nothing short of impressive.

Less is More?

It is interesting to note that from all the previous three World championships; this was the one which we trained the least. However it was a most challenging world championship as finding time to train, money and resources was to burden our camping from the start.

The challenge from the beginning was not receiving any sponsorship. Joining overseas races cost money. We started selling our sails even before the regatta started. Our "For Sale" sign was posted before anyone else?s, and it kept getting discounted every day. Fortunately, after our good results in the last day; someone made an offer to buy our almost brand new sale at 50% discount.

The week after the Championships, we also said good bye to our boat in Singapore our lovely girlfriend, Angel. Due to the expansion of the Singapore airport, Angel had to move location and sail in an area which resembled a river. There was little point sailing in the new location. We are sad to part with her; we owe our fourth result to spending many hours training with her. Our goodbye gift to her is the best result achieved by a nation from South East Asia in the world's largest keel boat class.

Our crew in this championship is lead by Vladimir Borstnar (skipper), Ng Dao Jia "DJ" (trimmer), Rafaela Borstnar (center), Justin Koh (mast), Joel Tay (mast), and Omar Agoes (bowman).

I have learned a lot about sailing from being in team Angel, however the most important lesson I learned is about teamwork. We may come from different backgrounds and different age groups, but once aboard, we commit to the same passion; to help each other to do well and win.
When we step on the boat, we drop our daily life and put our soul into sailing the boat fast. Not just by doing our individual task well, but by helping our fellow crew to do their task well too. We depend on each other.

What makes teams Angel different is despite being very determined and intense in the race; once we cross the finish line we leave the race behind and not take anything personally. We move on, smile, and look forward to the next race.


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