Dire straits

DECKEYE VIEW: RAJA MUDA REGATTA MALAYSIA

For racers and cruisers alike, there were as plenty of challenges on the water, and fun off it, reports Herb McCormick.

The aroma was unmistakable, and given the circumstances, it was as sweet as a bouquet. We were eight hours into an 88-mile passage from Port Klang to the island of Pangkor on Malaysia’s Malacca Strait aboard Geoff Hill’s Lyons 49, Strewth, and it had already been an eventful voyage’ for all the wrong reasons. We’d had a good start on this, the first of three overnight point-to-point races in last November’s 18th edition of the Raja Muda Selangor International Regatta (RMSIR), but it had been mostly downhill from there.

Early in the piece, we’d snagged one of the Strait’s endless fishing nets, and while we’d managed to extricate ourselves with minimal drama, it had been a harbinger of ill tidings, mainly in the form of vanishing wind. When it disappeared altogether, and we found ourselves not only incapable of gaining headway in a foul tide, but going backwards -with dispatch – we’d been forced to deploy the anchor. In honesty, fooled by a miserly puff that failed to materialisze into any sort of real pressure, we’d actually set it twice.

It had all the makings of a long evening.

Then, suddenly, from the west, there was that deep, dusky odour, a portent of changing fortune. For what we smelled was smoke, off the mainland, wafting in on a chariot of fresh breeze. And while it was by no means a fresh gale, there was enough of it to once again make Strewth a going concern.

By dawn, we’d managed to hoist and hold our big asymmetric kite on an extremely close reach, and we managed to keep it flying right across the finish line just outside the dramatic island landfall of Pangkor Luat. The event organiszers describe the Raja Muda as Southeast Asia’s ‘most tactical, challenging regatta,’, and after our placing in the first race – a distant fourth in IRC Class 3, behind David Lindahl’s Swan 42, La Samudra,; Dr. Jon Wardill’s old IOR warhorse, Australia Maid; and Andrew Findlay’s Beneteau First 45f5, Impiana – we had little recourse but to agree.

Some 42 boats in six classes competed in the 2007 Raja Muda, and the fleet couldn’t have been any more diverse. The showstopper in IRC Class 1 was Hong Kong billionaire Frank Pong’s Reichel/Pugh-designed 75ft-foot sled, Jelik (which, despite her long waterline and professional crew, was nipped for line-honours in Race 1 after falling into a big, windless hole, by the regatta’s defending champion, the Mills 51, Fortis Mandrake, co-owned and skippered by Fred Kinmonth and Nick Burns). The wild card in IRC 1 was held by veteran Aussie campaigner Ray Roberts aboard Quantum Racing, in a brand-new, Malaysian-builtd DK 46.

The IRC Class 2, the premier cruising division, was the domain of the fleet’s two regal entries, Dr. Ian Nicholson’s Dubois 80, Intrigue, and Hans Rahmann’s Judel/Vrolijk 70, Yasooda. On the other end of the IRC spectrum, Class 4 was not only the event’s largest division, it was also the most competitive, with boats like Bob Howison’s Elan 340, Aquavit IV, Keith Dunn’s Mount Gay 30, Lunchcutter II, and Gerry Firth’s Beneteau First 34.7, Endeavour of Whitby, all vying for top honours.
One of the unique aspects of the Raja Muda is that it’s a cruising rally as well as a hotly contested regatta. That was evident in the roster of boats signed up in Classes 5 and 6, where entrants were allowed to switch on their engines (the duration of which was reported to the race committee and factored into the scoring) to keep pace with the racing yachts when the going got light. These classes including flat-out cruisers like Jay Jarvis’s distinctive cat-ketch, Blue Jay, and Gavin Welman’s Hallberg Rassy 53, Rascal, as well as the fleet’s classic entries, including Royal Selangor Yacht Club commodore Richard Curtis’s gaffer, Eveline, and Simon Morris’s famed Sirius 1935, which holds the distinction of being the first Australian-flagged yacht to circumnavigate.

Along with the diversity of the field, the other interesting thing about the Raja Muda is its unique format, which blends passage racing with inshore, round-the-buoys contests. Happily, the offshore races become shorter in duration as the week commences, so after a day of recuperation and the requisite prize-giving dinner and party, it was time to reconvene on the starting line for Race 2, a 65-miler from Pangkor to Penang Island.

From a tactical standpoint, there are two major items that must be taken into consideration on the passage legs of the Raja Muda. The first, observed Strewth navigator Ben Johnson, has to do with the breeze and falls under the category of conventional wisdom. Namely, if all goes according to plan, the wind at the start will kick in as a northeast sea breeze, die at dusk, and then fill in after dark as a land breeze off the Malaysian peninsula. That’s precisely what happened in Race 1.

The second matter is far less predictable but can be just as critical to the outcome of a race. Namely, at some point in the Raja Muda, you will encounter a thunderstorm, possibly of quite potent strength and demeanour. ‘We don’t really have weather patterns around here,’ said race director John Ferguson. ‘We have incidents.’

As it turned out in Race 2, both men could have been seers.

Our start was only average and for the first few hours it was hard to be optimistic about our progress as we worked to weather along the coast in light and fluky headwinds. Most of the bigger boats had tacked offshore and it was tempting to follow them, but we were making reasonable progress inside while avoiding the worst of an opposing current. Up ahead, savvy Ray Roberts and crew aboard his quick Quantum Racing clearly had the same idea, which was at least somewhat reassuring.

At nightfall, as usual, the breeze went on hiatus, but only for a brief lull, and when it returned we found ourselves on the right side of a massive lift, which couldn’t have been nicer. We rode it for all it was worth until, just ahead, some ten miles from the finish line, the lights of the high-rises on Penang were clear and bright.

And then, moments later, they were gone.

It was an incident, all right, a black squall of one, with winds that topped off at 30-knots and rain that came in sideways. It was all a bit of a blur – there was a headsail change or two, a tear in the luff that prevented the medium genoa from coming down, a bit of yelling, some distinct swearing, a spell when we were bare-headed before hoisting the number three jib – and then we popped out the other side in pretty much a patch of calm, which happened to be right at the finish line. We scored a second in class, a keeper for sure.

In bustling Penang, the action continued unabated. There were trishaw races ashore, a pair of inshore windward/leewards at sea – in a microcosm of Raja Muda sailing, the first blew the dogs off the chains; the second had to be shortened for lack of wind (Strewth distinguished herself, unfortunately, in neither) – and a fantastic awards celebration at a traditional clan house, a wonderful bit of local colour and culture.

The three-part play that is the Raja Muda had one more main act, a 55-miler from Penang to the duty-free port of Langkawi. Having profited handsomely on the right side of the course in Race 2, we saw no reason to stray from that strategy now. Once again, though a bit earlier this time, we were engulfed in a massive rainsquall from which we emerged with not a single boat in sight. After taking a while to gather itself and stabilisze, the wind switched on from the northeast and for a solid couple of hours we enjoyed the best sailing of the trip, close reaching at 8.5 knots on the direct rhumbline to the finish. It seemed too good to be true, and it was, for at the very end the breeze again faltered and we struggled to pass the finish line, short tacking in sight of the bloody committee boat in an outgoing tide for what seemed like hours. To add insult to injury, we soon discovered that, while it took us awhile to ramp back up to speed after the squall, none of our competition had slowed down, and we wound up closer to the end of the pack than the front of it.

But that’s yacht racing, and we still had a pair of inshore races to go, which were conducted in a zephyr of air under positively searing skies in the harbour just west of the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club. After a couple of mid-fleet results, we ended up fourth in our division, which, all things considered, certainly seemed about right. David Lindahl’s well-sailed, consistent La Samudra was the deserving winner of Class 3. The same could be said of Ray Roberts’ Quantum RacingSailing, which, in a most impressive debut, took Class 1 honours and the overall Raja Muda Trophy, representative of its performance as the regatta’s top boat. For the complete results, visit the event’s website (www.rmsir.com).

Looking back at the regatta – my first trip to Malaysia and sailing the legendary Malacca Strait – I found the entire experience exhilarating, if a bit exhausting (between the sailing and the parties, there’s not much down time at the Raja Muda). But the approach to the dark, craggy peaks of Langkawi was something special indeed. Much more than our previous stops, it looked and felt like we were on Asia’s doorstep, and that the challenging miles we’d put astern had earned us the right to proceed.

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