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SINGAPORE: It was an unusual sight for spectators at last Sunday’s National Sailing Championships, as six toy-sized, unmanned sailboats raced alongside the regatta dinghies at East Coast Park.

The brightly coloured, wooden-hulled boats called jongs sailed in an exhibition event organised by the Singapore Sailing Federation (SSF), as part of efforts to revive the centuries-old Malay tradition of jong racing.

“We want to recognise that this is very much part of Singapore’s history and tradition,” said SSF chief executive Lim Han Ee. 

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Up to half a century ago, jong racing was popular with children, while their larger manned versions called kolek were sailed by older men around the coastal areas like Katong, Siglap and Pasir Panjang.

(ss) Sport Singapore Boys and Kolek

Kolek races held on Singapore’s beaches in 1928. (Photo: Sport Singapore)

Mr Fawzi Nasir, who co-organised the demonstration event, used to sail his family’s kolek around St John’s island where he grew up in the 1960s.  

“It’s a dying sport. Since the 1970s we haven’t had these traditional races in Singapore,” said the 48-year-old.

(Read: An island-boy’s race against time and tide, Singapore family helps bring back centuries-old tradition in Riau islands, and A yearning to bring kolek races back to Singapore.)

Mr Rohaizan Zain, SSF assistant general manager, said: “Our older staff have memories of these jongs – some used to stay on Pulau Tekong or the other islands, and these are the activities that they lived and grew up with.” 

(ss) jong - Fawzi and jong

Mr Fawzi Nasir

Said Mr Lim: “We’re doing this with the view of bringing it back as a race in the Pesta Sukan – it’s a great way to re-engage the community and welcome new people into the sport of sailing.”

Mr Rohaizan added: “This is also a way to make our young sailors realise that we have deep roots in sailing – these traditional boats originate from here, it’s part of our maritime culture.”

THE SPORT’S COMEBACK

Jongs come in different sizes – from hull lengths of less than a metre, to almost two metres long. The bigger ones could easily be mistaken as a boat meant for man, but jongs are designed to sail on their own, unmanned – meaning every component of the boat has to be carefully adjusted before it is set into the water.

(ss) jong - Different jong sizes

Jong in different sizes.

“You need to calibrate the sails and outriggers, and it really takes some skill on reading the wind direction,” said Mr Fawzi.

Unlike a normal sailing dinghy where a sailor leans out from the boat, the jong uses a weighted beam called an outrigger attached to its side. This enables the sails to catch wind, propelling the boat forward without capsizing.

 Jongs can reach speeds of up to 8-10 knots – impressive considering these boats are made by hand, and often by islanders with no formal training in boat making.

“It may look very simple but once you get into it you realise that these guys are masters at what they do,” said Mr Lim, an ex-national sailor himself.

(ss) jong - Calibrating the outrigger with weight

Calibrating the outrigger with added weight.

Mr Lim only came to know about the sport about a month ago when he brought a team of sailors from Singapore to witness a regatta in Desaru, where almost 200 participants showed up with their jongs.

“It was helluva fun. People were really into their discipline and activity, and I thought, ‘wow, why don’t we have this in Singapore?’” he said.

In other places like the Riau Islands, traditional regattas still take place frequently – and these kampong-versus-kampong competitions attract spectators by the thousands.

Mr Lim says the SSF will start a category for jongs in the next Pesta Sukan Regatta in August.

(ss) jong - Releasing the jong 1

But looking for participants may not be so easy, said Mr Mazlan Nasir, Mr Fawzi’s brother.

I called all my old-time kampong friends to come for this demo event but no one was interested, and none of them have jongs anymore.

Still, people like Mr Fawzi’s family and Mr Lim have ambitious hopes to revive the sport: “We will start small. All you need is five or six jongs for a race, but if we can get more than 20 participants, that would be a good number.

“We will gauge the interest and if people start coming, they want to buy (jongs) and participate, then it’s a way to grow the community,” said Mr Lim. 

(ss) jong - Mazlan's family looks on

Mr Lim also hopes to attract participants from Indonesia and Malaysia in the future.

“It’s one of those things that can easily go into the hundreds. Then it’ll become a regional Southeast Asian event,” said Mr Lim.

Boatmaker Mr Ilol, 58, who came to Singapore from the Riau Islands for the jong demo, said: “I’ve been sailing jongs since I was a kid. In the past we only played it in kampongs, but now I feel very proud that it’s becoming an international sport. It’s part of our Malay culture and we should preserve it.”

Watch CNA Insider’s earlier video, Racing Time And Tide

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