A gold medal sailor: His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand
15 October, 2016
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand passed away peacefully on the 13th October, 2016 in Bangkok. The soul of the nation and a father to the Thai people, he worked tirelessly for the betterment of his people throughout his life. He was also a sportsman and an exceptional sailor.
In addition to being an exceptional sailor, His Majesty was a talented craftsman, building many boats in his time. Twenty-five to be precise, all dinghies. His first was “Rajptain” an Enterprise Class dinghy. In 1965 in his first ever sailing race, His Majesty, with HSH Prince Bhisadej Rajani as crew, competed against 35 boats in a race from Pattaya to Koh Larn – a race which they won, beating Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh in the process. Graceful in defeat, the Prince later sent His Majesty a catamaran as a thank you for organising the race and a symbol of friendship. This was the first ever catamaran in Thailand and His Majesty named it Pla Duek, which is Thai for catfish and also a play on the word Duke.
His Majesty came across sailing by accident. In 1963 when he was rowing off Klai Kangwon Palace in Hua Hin he passed Prince Bhisadej who was sailing along, very slowly. This sparked His Majesty’s interest in boats which then developed into a passion with His Majesty and the Prince building a number of boats together in a room at the Chitralada Palace in Bangkok, and testing them in the palace’s pond.
All 25 of His Majesty’s builds are still in working order and are kept with the full fleet (100 in total, many of them gifted) at three locations: Chitralada Palace in Bangkok, Klai Kangwon Palace in Hua Hin, and Tha Wasukri in Bangkok.
In 1966, His Majesty created his own class of boats – “The Royal Mott Class”. These were designed within the parameters of the “International Moth Class” – an established class that allowed for innovation in design within a set of parameters. The parameters were a maximum overall length of 11 feet and a maximum sail area of 75 square feet. There were no restrictions on the width and shape of the boat, nor on the height of the mast or materials of construction. The “International Moth Class” was a development class, akin to to a modern box rule.
Between 1966 and 1967 His Majesty built a number of boats in the class using three of his own designs:
- Mod: a single masted dinghy, 11 feet in length and 4ft 7 inches wide at the beam, with a sail area of 72 sq ft, the design of which he registered at the Patent Office in Great Britain.
- Super Mod: a single masted dinghy, 11 feet in length and a fraction wider at 4ft 11 inches.
- Micro Mod: a single masted dinghy, 7ft 9 inches in length and 3ft 4 inches wide, designed specifically for juniors.
All were designed to be compact and suitable for Thai sailors. They are lightweight and therefore easy to transport and store, and are low maintenance. While a reasonably fast boat they were also designed to be relatively cheap to build. In fact, with the desire to encourage the promotion of sailing as a popular sport, His Majesty gave royal permission to the Royal Thai Navy Sailing Club to manufacture two models – the Mod and Super Mod – and sell at reasonable pries.
The Super Mod has arguably been the most popular of His Majesty’s design having been used in international competition, including at the 13th SEA Games in 1985 (in Thailand).
Following his success with Rajptain, His Majesty took an interest in the Danish-designed OK Dinghy and built four in Thailand, the first “Navaruek” in 1965, was followed by “Vega”. After building Vega 2 His Majesty renamed Vega to be Vega 1. The fourth and last OK dinghy His Majesty built he named Vega 3, later changing the name to “Awake” because the King liked to work late, and more recently to “New”. New is kept at Klai Kangwon Palace in Hua Hin.
Not only did His Majesty excel at designing and building boats, he regularly showed his prowess at sailing them with two notable achievements.
On 19th April, 1966 His Majesty sailed Vega from Hua Hin to Sattahip – a gruelling trip of approximately 60 nautical miles which took 14 hours. His Majesty later presented the rudder of Vega 1 as a trophy – the Vega Rudder Trophy – which is still competed for today, but this was not before HRH Princess Ubol Ratana raced Vega 1 against His Majesty in the 4th Southeast Asian Peninsular Games (now the SEA Games) in 1967 – His Majesty’s second notable sailing achievement.
At the Games, the OK Dinghy sailing competition was to be decided on the last race of the series, and on the last beat to the finish the Princess picked a wind shift and sailed across the fleet to finish the race in first ahead of the late Dr Rachot Kanjanavanit, with His Majesty in third.
Not only was it unusual for a father and daughter to compete in an international competition such as this, it was even more unusual that they tied on points, both winners. On 16th December 1967 world sporting history was made when His Majesty and HRH Princess Ubol Ratana stood on the podium at Thailand’s National Stadium, and were both presented gold medals by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit.
December 16th is now recognised as Thailand’s National Sports Day.
Plenty has been written about that historic achievement, but many forget that the two winning boats were built by His Majesty. Vega 1 is today kept at Klai Kangwon Palace in Hua Hin while Vega 2 is kept at Tha Wasukri in Bangkok.
Vega 2 has not been displayed in public for more than 20 years and just two months ago at the National Science and Technology Fair in Bangkok at IMPACT Muang Thani, a Royal Pavilion was set-up showcasing His Majesty’s boat building skills, and Vega 2 was the centerpiece.
At 50 years old, Vega 2 remains in immaculate condition – aging gracefully and still with the original sail. After that gold medal winning feat in 1967, Vega 2 was never sailed again and following a trip to Chiang Mai and subsequently Phuket more than 20 year ago, Vega 2 has been kept behind closed doors ever since.
It was a true privilege to view this boat. The craftsmanship alone is impressive, but the pedigree and history is unmatched, I hazard a guess, anywhere in the world. Vega 2 returned to its home at Tha Wasukri following the National Science and Technology Fair and following His Majesty’s recent passing, perhaps will never be displayed in public again. I feel honoured to have had to the opportunity to see this piece of history.
If you ever get chance, take a look at the sail numbers on His Majesty’s boats. Back when he built boats all Thai sail numbers had TH as the prefix – two letters. Today THA is used. And note the numbers, they always add upto nine – TH 18 (Vega 1), TH 27 (Vega 2).
In recognition of His Majesty’s contributions to sports, and in particular his skills as a dinghy sailor, the International Olympic Committee awarded the “Insignia of the Olympic Order” – the only reigning Monarch ever to receive such an honour. This was at the time of his fifth cycle, 60th birthday in December, 1987 – also the occasion of the inaugural Phuket King’s Cup Regatta which is celebrating its 30th anniversary in December this year.
By Duncan Worthington