Sailing is for everyone, so all aboard!

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“Sailing is not just a rich man’s sport. That’s a misconception,” said Shawn Rathgeber, 33, his eyes ablaze as he spoke to Star2 during a recent interview.

He was a participant in the 27th Raja Muda Selangor International Regatta (RMSIR) that took place just last month.

“Of course, if you want to own and race a very big boat, it can be very expensive,” he explained. But if you want to sail in an optimist (a small, single-person dinghy for children up to 15 years of age (usually used to learn sailing), it costs far less.

“In fact, you don’t even have to buy a boat,” he added. “In the recent Raja Muda Regatta, there were boats that you could rent to compete.”

Rathgeber, who was born in Bremen, Germany, to a Malaysian mother and German father, started sailing at the young age of eight because his dad was into it. In 1991, he took part in his first RMSIR.

The political science major who specialised in security studies in Bavaria, Germany started sailing in Germany mostly by delivering boats for charter companies. Rathgeber said that he started seriously racing when he returned to Malaysia.

Shawn Rathgeber teaches sailing at the Royal Selangor Yacht Club in Port Klang during weekends. — AZLINA ABDULLAH/The Star

Shawn Rathgeber teaches sailing at the Royal Selangor Yacht Club in Port Klang during weekends. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah ABDULLAH/The Star

“In early 2011, when I came back to Malaysia and joined the Royal Selangor Yacht Club (RSYC), I started racing again. I did almost every harbour race, and started doing regional events, everything from the Raja Muda, Round Hainan Race, Koh Samui Regatta, to the recent DBS Marina Bay Regatta.”

“In racing, you really need to have an in-depth knowledge of the rules and tactics to control or defend an attack from your opponent. And, you also need to know the basic rules of sailing,” he explained. “It’s one of the things I like about sailing. It requires a lot of forward thinking and strategy.”

Commenting on this year’s RMSIR, Rathgeber said: “28 boats came from all over to join the week-long regatta. Despite ending up just outside the podium on fourth position, I enjoyed racing with Jeff Harris, the commodore (president) of the RSYC on the Nijinsky. He’s one of the most focused, well-mannered gentlemen I’ve ever met. I learnt a lot from him as well.”

Rathgeber (middle) sailing in the recent Raja Muda Selangor Regatta with Team Nijinsky.

Rathgeber (middle) sailing in the recent Raja Muda Selangor Regatta with Team Nijinsky.

Why did he choose sailing?

“Sailing is very multi-faceted,” he replied. “There are so many disciplines to go into – physics, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, geography, meteorology, team psychology – in order to produce a good result. That’s what makes it so exciting.”

What with his day job as a risk management consultant, teaching kids to sail, and serving as honorary secretary at RSYC, he doesn’t have much time for other pursuits.

When asked where his favourite place to sail is, he said without hesitation: “Port Klang!”

“There are so many nice places to sail. But if I had to pick one place, I’d go with RSYC because it’s where I grew up. That’s basically the Straits of Malacca. The sky and sea are blue, and everything is beautiful.”

What’s special about the regatta? He replied: “There are a lot of social activities besides sailing. There are live dances, dinners, and rickshaw races … in Penang mostly.”

The Raja Muda Regatta was not just about sailing. There were under fun activities like rickshaw races in Penang.

The Raja Muda Regatta was not just about sailing. There were under fun activities like rickshaw races in Penang.

How does Rathgeber choose sailing teams? His reply: “It’s good to have people who actually know the boat. Owners will approach you as well, so it’s up to you to decide.

“Initially, when you start doing all these regattas, you take any ride you can get. And you do any job that is asked of you. But, at some point in time, after you’ve gained experience, you’ve more freedom to choose who you would like to sail with.”

As for his most memorable sailing experience, Rathgeber said, “If you win a regatta, it’s everything.”

But he added, “Even if you don’t win a race, there are lots of experiences that you get. You look back and try to analyse how you can do better next time. It’s just great being out on the water.”


Above: Sailing involves some knowledge of physics, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, geography and meteorology.Left: The Raja Muda Regatta was not just about sailing. There were other fun activities like rickshaw races in Penang.

Sailing involves some knowledge of physics, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, geography and meteorology.

What’s needed to sail?

Do you need to be fit to sail? Not quite, according to Shawn Rathgeber, who teaches kids to sail at the Royal Selangor Yacht Club (RSYC) in Port Klang, Selangor.

“Anybody can sail, it just depends on the boat you’re on, and the expectations of its owner ,” he explained.

“If you are sailing on a fast racing boat, the loads can be quite heavy and it’s hard work. But if you are entering a cruising class, it’s all push buttons and electric switches, so it’s super comfortable. You’ve even got air conditioning and freezers on board.”

Rathgeber doesn’t believe that there’s an age limit to sailing.

“A seven or eight year old child can easily sail by himself or herself after a couple of months of lessons. There’s no other sport where you put a child on a vessel, and let him or her be in control of everything … of course, with us coaches following them on the chase boats,” he said.

What’s great about training in single-person optimist boats is that it builds a lot of self-confidence in kids.

“They might feel intimidated by the sea initially, but once you teach them how to handle it, they’re fine,” explained Rathgeber. “Ultimately, they will reach the point when you tell them, ‘Go to that buoy!’, they’ll automatically race each other during the training session.”

On the other end of the spectrum, even those aged 70 and over can still sail.

“Jeff Harris, who is one of the veterans in sailing, is in his 70s,” he said. “So, there’s really no age limit unless you really can’t walk anymore. And if you’re the boat owner, you still can get a crew together to sail a powerful boat and everybody can enjoy their time on board.”

Boat crew handling the sail ropes when racing from Penang to Langkawi.

Boat crew handling the sail ropes when racing from Penang to Langkawi.

As a sailing instructor, Rathgeber said he has had his fair share of “funny” experiences.

“When the kids are doing capsize training, we put the optimists into the pool and ask one of the kids to demonstrate. So when the boat capsizes, you have to put it upright again.

“But, while you’re doing that, the kids who are all seated at the side of the pool, start pushing one another into the water. I mean they’re kids, I should be angry, but it’s also funny and I really can’t yell at them,” he said, laughing.

“Kids often surprise me. Sometimes, it’s the naughty ones who actually end up doing something different, and you think, hey, that’s not too bad!

“If you always follow, you will progress, obviously. But only to where your coach is taking you. But if you try other things, you can progress beyond your coach, in that sense,” he added.

When asked if there were any “bad experiences” when sailing, he replied: “Breakages and damages on boats – that’s never fun. But as long as it’s only to the boat, there’s insurance coverage for that.

Kids learn how to read the winds and handle sails in these small boats. — Filepic

Kids learn how to read the winds and handle sails in these small boats. Photo: Filepic

“But, getting injured is worse. Thank goodness, I’ve not been through any major injuries. But when you sail, there is massive action, so you have to be prepared for some minor injuries like bruises or blisters from the ropes if you don’t have gloves on or the gloves slip,” he said.

Often, parents have safety concerns about bringing their kids for sailing lessons.

“But, it’s fairly safe,” assured Rathgeber. “On an optimist, there are very few things that can go wrong. Typically, we train seven to eight kids with three coaches. So we would see if a boat’s going to capsize or if it’s going off course, we can just whistle and call them back. On a big boat, of course, you have to be much more careful and alert.”

“Sailing is very accessible, and I’d actually like to invite people over to the RSYC to try it,” he concluded. “Many people think that because RSYC has got the word ‘Royal’ in front of it, it must be pretty expensive, but it’s a very approachable club actually. The prices are reasonable and the location, fairly accessible.”

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