Sunday, February 16, 2014

Back to Langkawi: Adventures with Aeolus

The New Zealand crew unfurls their
spinnaker and harnesses the wind
Yeah, nobody's going to read this one because the title won't be understood by anyone not possessing at least a passing acquaintance with Greek mythology, so I'll keep it light on the text, throw in a few pictures, and move on to the European vacation entries.

A few weeks ago (in mid-January), I was invited up to enjoy the spectacle of the 12th Annual Royal Langkawi International Regatta, yet inexplicably, they never use the word "annual" in the title of their event, which strikes me as odd. It's been held every year for 12 years now, at around the same time each year. So why is it not referred to as an annual event? Nobody seems to know, but for whatever reason, it's just the "12th regatta" there. Whatever. I've long given up on trying to understand the peculiarities and nuances of Malaysian English.

Being at the regatta was a great experience for me. I'm always happy when I'm on the water, and the gorgeous scenery in the waters around Langkawi Island never fails to impress. Speeding away from the sheltered harbor at the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club courtesy of a pair of 200-hp Yamaha outboards, it took us less than 15 minutes to reach our destination: just outside the race course for the thrilling action of, yes, the 12th Royal Langkawi International Regatta (RLIR). Drawing some 350 sailors crewing 44 yachts from 16 countries, this year’s regatta saw terrific weather and race-friendly winds on virtually all five racing days during the competition. Set against the beautiful backdrop of the cluster of Langkawi’s many islands and the emerald waters of the Andaman Sea, these nautical speedsters harnessed the brisk winds and put their considerable sailing skills on display. The spectacle of a small fleet of sleek yachts listing precipitously into the wind, with their crews deftly maneuvering the sails and unfurling billowing spinnakers to harness the power of the wind was seriously adrenaline-charged sight to behold. For me, of course, the challenge lay merely in getting a few good shots while bouncing and bobbing on the choppy seas.

Their sails backlit against misty mountains rising from
the Andaman Sea, the sailors are ready to race!

The crew of Jelik move as one with discipline and
experience to capture the full power of the 24-knot winds

Crews from New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Malaysia
let their spinnakers fly to narrow the gap late in the race

I'd never seen racing yachts with their sails full of wind zipping across the sea like this, turning their main sails into the stiff winds and, to this layman's eyes, looking many times as if they were perilously close to capsizing. I was particularly impressed with how fast they could stow the huge spinnaker once they pulled it down. Typically, from start to finish, the exercise took less than 30 seconds and the massive sail was not only down, but completely out of sight.

The crew and yacht that would ultimately claim the top prize,
the Australian-based Oi!

The grandeur of a masthead spinnaker on full display, as the entire
crew of Jelik take their position on the starboard side for balance

Jelik carves a path through the sea
It was a real treat to be on hand for the RLIR, both for the days at sea, and also the dinners, cocktail parties, and events each evening, held at different venues around the island (though all close to the yacht club). The competition drew sailors, enthusiasts, and media from 16 countries, including relatively distant New Zealand, Russia, and Australia. In the end, it was a seasoned crew of Aussies (on a yacht named Oi!, naturally enough) who bagged the top prize, with a sizeable Hong Kong crew manning the sails on the regatta's largest boat and runner-up, an impressive 77-footer called Jelik, a vessel to which my camera was continually drawn. Malaysia had a handful of entrants, too, the most notable being the pair of boats often called "the twins" for obvious reasons seen here.

Malaysia's twin racers, Utarid and Uranus, race by in tight symmetry

Surely, the exhilaration of competing in the waters surrounding Langkawi – apart from its eponymous main island, the archipelago actually includes dozens of smaller islands – must ascribe some of its pleasures to the sheer beauty of the area. With the blue-green waters of the Andaman Sea and northern extreme of the Straits of Malacca punctuated by a host of densely forested islands and dramatic limestone karsts, with sea eagles and Brahminy kites circling lazily overhead, the scenery here is certainly a visual feast. Langkawi rightly receives much praise for its laid-back island vibe, luxurious resorts, and fine beaches, but stepping off the land and going out to sea here, for me at least, added an entirely new dimension to the appreciation of this island.

The seamanship of Malaysia's naval crews on display

The crew of Oi! cheer at the dockside trophy presentation...
you'd think that thing would be a bit bigger, wouldn't you?

The 77-foot Jelik under full sail

Sunset at the harbor on the final day, just before the
big awards dinner

Honestly, I always enjoy my visits to Langkawi, but this one was special simply because I got to do something really new and different. I can only imagine the sense of accomplishment and teamwork that comes from successfully manning a racing yacht in a competition like this. It was a fun few days, I learned a little about sailing (mostly, though, I just learned how very little I know), and made some really good memories... and hey, managed to get a few decent snapshots, too!

Aeolus, by the way, was the Greek god of the winds... naturally a deity much-revered at any regatta!