Thursday, 19 March 2015

The racing kolek of the Riau Islands (and formerly of Singapore)

Growing up in Singapore, I was aware of racing koleks, but I don't think I ever saw them, except in photographs. They captured my imagination, and later I tried to find out more.

The kolek is a type of open undecked boat found in the Riau archipelago, Singapore and Johore. These places were once part of the Old Johor Sultanate, but during the colonial period they were divided between the British (Singapore and Malaya) and the Dutch (he Dutch East Indies, later Indonesia).

Alexander Hamilton's "A Map of the Dominions of Johore and of the Island of Sumatra with the Adjacent Islands" (1727). Illustrating mainland Johore, eastern Sumatra, Singapore and Riau Archipelago as a single political entity, the map was made a century prior to the partition of 1824

Warm weather, warm water and light winds in this region allowed the development of the racing kolek, a long, lean, low sailing canoe with enormous sails, tippy and easily flooded, steered by a paddle, and kept upright by crew members hanging out over the sides, with their feet on the gunwale, holding on to ropes attached to the mast. The boats were sailed throughout 

In Singapore, they were raced by the Malay community from the 1800s to the 1970s. The men who sailed the boats mostly lived in coastal kampongs (villages). When the kampongs were cleared for redevelopment, the inhabitants were resettled in high rise apartments, and the sport died out.

45-foot Racing Kolek, Singapore

from Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia, by H. Warrington Smythe. London 1906.

Lines of a Singapore racing kolek, published in the Yachtsman
from Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia, by H. Warrington Smythe. London 1906.

New Year Regatta, Singapore c 1905, from a postcard. National Archives of Singapore

In one respect the kolek was well ahead of its time. The method of keeping the boat upright by holding on to a rope attached to the mast, and hanging out over the side with feet on the gunwale only made it's appearance in England in the 1930s when Beecher Moore adopted a similar system for his boat Vagabond. (It's not clear if he worked it out for himself or got the idea from somewhere else). The first proper trapeze appeared in 1938, in Falmouth.

The good news is that kolek racing is alive and well in neighbouring Indonesia.

As I said, I've never seen them in action myself, but Sam Fadlil has written a lively description in his blog, and you can watch a video of a recent kolek race here.

Although Singapore is one of the world's greatest seaports, there is little interest in her maritime heritage. A small Maritime Museum on Sentosa was shut down some years ago, it's collection of boats left to languish in a warehouse. In its place, the so-called "Maritime Experiential Museum", a travesty of a of shopping mall cum theme park with educational pretensions, which I visited last year. It was a dispiriting and depressing experience. However, things seem to be looking up. The Singapore National Heriage Board has set up a Maritime Heritage Fund, and there is a new Maritime Heritage Centre.

Perhaps it's time for a revival of kolek racing, not just in Singapore, but in the neighbouring Malaysian state of Johor as well, where this sport was once practiced.

The big kolek races in Indonesia are held around 17 August, their National Day. The National Day of Singapore is on 9 August, that of Malaysia on 31 August. A great time for a kolek racing circuit between the three fraternal nations. I wish I could claim credit for this idea, but it was mooted 10 years ago. See the caption at the bottom of the last picture in this article.

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