A graceful sport: The Phuket King’s Cup Regatta

There really is something eternally graceful about the wind filling the sails of a yacht and carrying it along the ocean’s surface. Forget your mobile phone and the only noise you’ll hear might be the flap of a sail, the call of one crew member to another, the sound of the yacht’s hull slicing through the waves… It’s an essentially peaceful and calming activity.

Throw in some spectacular scenery, add a dash of competition, and the world of yacht racing is understandably something that many people find irresistible.

"I like to be outdoors, to have the wind in my face, to work up a sweat," says Radap Kanjanavanit, who has been on the organising committee of the past two Phuket King’s Cup Regattas. "Phuket – well, it’s one of the best sailing grounds in the world. There are beautiful beaches, there’s wind, warm water. It’s quite spectacular. And I’m not saying that because I’m Thai – I’ve sailed in places all around the world."

In Asia, it’s hardly surprising that the premier yachting event has become the Phuket King’s Cup Regatta, held throughout the week of His Majesty the King’s birthday in early December. All of the essential ingredients are there: plenty of world-class boats – there were more 96 registered in December’s event from as far away as China and the Philippines – the unrivalled scenery of Phang Nga Bay and the Andaman sea, and a friendly sort of competition where the only prize is glory. The King’s Cup itself stays safely behind lock and key, while the winners in each class are awarded a replica. This year’s racing class winner – the overall winner whose name is engraved on the Cup – was Beau Geste, a Malaysian boat owned by Karl Kwok.

I was there for the most recent Andaman Sea Race, the focal race of the regatta, with a group of around 15 other journalists. We took to the sparkling sea in a spectator cruiser with our host Charlie. As Charlie steered us novices out to the first marker – unfortunately we missed the start – he generously explained the rules of racing to us. He interrupted himself only to marvel at some of the yachts as they made particularly skillful turns and released their vividly-coloured spinnakers, almost iridescent again the pale blue sky and sea.

But as far as those rules went, we were lost: he was talking another language. There are various classes and divisions, and a complicated handicapping system – at least to the novice – that’s based on the technical and design features of the boat. To the uninitiated, therefore, it’s darned near impossible to tell who’s winning. "Sailing is not really a spectator sport in the way that say, tennis or golf is," admits Radap. "The start is very exciting, but if you don’t know how sailing works, it’s difficult to tell who’s leading."

It was back in 1987 that Radab’s father, yachting legend Dr Rachot Kanjanavanit, and friends ML Tridhosyuth Davakul and Christopher King – all sailing enthusiasts – started chatting about the possibility of organising a sailing regatta to honour His Majesty The King on his 60th birthday.

There’s no way they could have envisaged that their dream would turn into Asia’s premier yacht racing event, boasting the largest annual gathering of keel boats, multi-hulls and traditional craft in Southeast Asia. And in the entire Asia-Pacific, it’s second only to Australia’s challenging Sydney to Hobart yacht race. "It’s a different race," says Nigel Hardy, president of the 1999 and 2000 organising committees, and treasurer on the two committees prior to that.

"The Sydney to Hobart is a blue water classic race – it’s go go go and highly technical. It’s serious stuff. The King’s Cup is more a lifestyle regatta. It’s serious – the guys who turn up are very serious about winning – but there’s only racing during the day, and then some superb parties in the evening." Nigel compares it to Antigua Week in the Caribbean, or Australia’s Hamilton Island week. "You enjoy sailing at these places – you don’t get cold!"

The 14th King’s Cup Regatta in December was another success, marred only by a lack of wind that led to some races being called off. "Three out of five races had some classes that didn’t finish," says Radap. "But this was out of human hands."

"The light weather did make it difficult from a sailing aspect," says Nigel. "But the number of parties that we had was superb, absolutely superb. Overall, everybody was still very pleased with the Regatta. It was enormously successful. Hopefully next year it will be even bigger and we might even get a bit of wind."

During the previous 13 races, there’s more frequently been too much wind, leading to equipment breakdowns. The 1999 race saw the worst accident of the regatta’s history, when yacht Monsoon Blue collided with Stormvogel at their race’s first mark, and sank as it was being towed back to shore. This year the salvaged and renovated boat took to the water again, rechristened as South China Sea Express.

A distinctive feature of this year’s Andaman Sea Race was that it centred around Phuket. In the past the race had focused on Koh Phi Phi and Krabi, but this year it headed to Racha Island instead for logistical reasons. "The media liked Phi Phi because the spinnaker start against the cliffs of Krabi is so spectacular. So we’ve faced some criticism for not including it this year," says Radap.

It hasn’t always been easy-going for the Regatta, which requires some serious sponsorship to go ahead. In 1998 it was looking like it might not go ahead at all. "By September we still didn’t have sponsorship," says Radap. But then the Kata Group stepped in to host the event, and Iridium stepped in as the major sponsor. "Every year has been blessed – it could be because HM the King’s name is involved."

For 2000, Volvo was the main sponsor, along with the Kata Group, who hosted participants at the Kata Beach Resort, House of Kangaroo, the QBE Insurance, the Boathouse, Sunsail, Laguna Phuket and Thai Airways International.

As Charlie eases our boat towards Racha Island, he gazes out with a look of admiration at the yachts ahead. "Those sponsors are smart," he says. "They reach a lot of very influential people when they sponsor a race like this."

What is it that these sailing enthusiasts enjoy about racing? Radap sailed this year in Cedar Swan, a boat built by his father, and picked up second place in his division. "I like the pressure of racing – I don’t know if I’m insane or not, but I like pressure," says Radap.

As president, Nigel didn’t race this year or last – he felt that he had too many commitments to fulfill on land. But he loves to race. "I love the challenge of making a yacht go faster than someone else’s, the technical aspects of getting a boat to perform. I enjoy sailing, but I enjoy racing more so. I couldn’t be a happy sailor if I wasn’t racing."

Our boat pulled into an emerald bay on Racha Island to wait for our lunch to arrive while the race continued. We swam, lazed in the sun, fed the fish and watched an eagle soar in the skies above us. "It’s from Malaysia," someone said. "It’s a tourist eagle." By the time our lunch appeared and we headed back out, the race was over.

So we’d missed the start and the end of the race. But we’d seen some gorgeous scenery – Phuket is certainly majestic – some glorious boats and enjoyed our time on the water.

Now, where were those sailing schools I’ve heard of? I have a free weekend coming up…