A regatta steeped in Sarawak history
FOR YEARS THE SARAWAK REGATTA has been a part of Sarawakian culture, dating back to 1872 during the reign of the first White Rajah, James Brooke.
Originally held to put out the violence between the warring tribes, today the regatta has become an international event, attracting tourists from around the globe to witness the thrill and rush of the participants during the boat races firsthand.
Held from Sept 4-7, I found the regatta’s side events almost as appealing as the boat racing. I found the Brooke Swim, for example, more interesting and highly amusing.
Interestingly enough, the race which sees swimming competitors racing to reach the other side of the Sarawak River first, was held in remembrance of how our first White Rajah, James Brooke, was said to have swum across the Sarawak River (from the spot where the participants took off) to escape a rebel force on February 2nd 1857.
It was also said that during the night of his escape, he managed to save himself by swimming between ‘jongs’ or sailboats anchored at the Sarawak River at the time, which probably obscured him from enemy eyes.
This year would mark the third time the race has been held during the Sarawak Regatta.
While it probably took about 10-15 minutes for the first contestant to reach the opposite shore, unfortunately some participants couldn’t complete the width of the Sarawak River and climbed up onto the rescue team’s boat in defeat.
Aside from the Brooke Swim, another race which the crowds were waiting for was the duck catching race.
Highly entertaining and amusing, the race sounds simple enough to accomplish. All the contestants had to do was catch a duck, and the first one to do so wins.
But, what if you had to do it while you were in the water?
When all 30 ducks were released into the river, the participants immediately swam swiftly towards them hoping to catch one quickly, but as an aquatic animal, one cannot just assume to catch a duck that easy.
As I watched some of the participants wrestle their ducks into submission, (some were lucky and able to do it easily while others had to swim harder), it was hard not to sympathise with those poor ducks as some got submerged underwater as the participants dragged them back across the water to the jetty.
Fortunately, some ducks managed to get away, swimming happily without a care in the world.
Although the regatta race has been held for 142 years in Sarawak, this year the regatta debuted an additional race; the international dragon boat race which was flagged off at Kampong Boyan, 500 meters to the finishing line.
Participated by 500 international paddlers from Brunei Darussalam, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Chinese Taipei, Taiwan, Macau, and Malaysia (Sabah, Penang, Putrajaya and Sarawak), the race was the perfect description of competitiveness between different teams, the cooperation between team members and an intense thirst to win was clearly seen on their faces as they paddled furiously forward in synchronicity.
The dragon boat race, which has an ancient tradition going back 2000 years ago, has boats with decorative dragon heads and tails powered by paddlers, a drummer and a steersman.
Today, it is an international race to commemorate a famous Chinese scholar-statesman, Chu Yuan who plunged himself into the Milo River in the Hunan Province when he found himself out of favour with the King of Chu.
The race which should have started off at 2 pm, was delayed to 4 pm due to difficulty in setting up the lanes with buoys. I imagine due to the long wait and the blazing hot heat, the participants paddled out their frustrations across the water.
Held for the first time in Sarawak, the race was an interesting one to watch. Before racing, each team from different countries had their own unique rituals before starting the race.
For instance, the team from Thailand asked for blessings from the water before starting the race by dousing themselves with the river water before bowing their heads to say a little prayer.
For the first round, the team from Thailand was the first to get to the finishing line followed closely by the Sarawak team. During the fourth and final round, although the results may not have been official and conclusive at the time, the crowd could not help but cheer loudly for the Sandakan, Sabah team when they were first to the finishing line, beating out the teams from the Philippines and Canada.
The Sarawak Regatta race has always been a source of pride and joy for Sarawak. As a Sarawakian myself, I am proud to have such a grand and fascinating event held in my own backyard since the race itself has a rich history and tradition.
I was disappointed, however, to spot litter and water bottles thrown into the same river. For a big international event, the organising committee had done a great job providing a gigantic rubbish bin for us to properly dispose our garbage as well as the cleaning crew for sweeping the street throughout the whole event, but instead, some preferred to chuck their rubbish in the river which has been the site of so much history.