His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was often described as a modern-day renaissance man by those who knew him well. He counted diplomat, linguist, translator, musician, artist and photographer among his dizzying array of talents. Evidence of this is not only found in the myriad press clippings and novels that documented his life, but also the legions of modern-day Thais who follow his example—snapping photos, playing jazz and building on social initiatives in his name.
Just as well documented, but often less talked about, were His Majesty’s skills as a sportsman. If you look at the country’s athletic landscape you’ll find the king’s influence all over it. He was instrumental in developing the nation’s modern-day sporting culture, building many of its sports programs, sponsoring athletes and bestowing royal insignias upon his subjects for sporting achievements.
The international community certainly took note. He’s received a plethora of accolades for his efforts, including the President’s Medal from the Badminton World Federation, Award of Merit from the Olympic Council of Asia, Golden Shining Symbol of World Leadership from the World Boxing Council and the Honorary Gold Medal from the International Olympic Committee—the latter being the highest out-of-competition Olympic decoration possible.
However, there is probably no other facet of Thailand’s sporting landscape more affected by King Bhumibol’s presence than the world of sailing. Today, Thailand’s yacht scene is thriving—both in terms of leisure boating and competitive sailing—and the country has become one of the world’s most desirable watersports hot spots. World-class marinas in Phuket and Pattaya are annually host to some of the best yacht shows in Asia, including the Ocean Marina Pattaya Boat Show, Thailand Yacht Show and Phuket Superyacht Rendezvous, and over the past three decades the country has become one of the premier destinations on Asia’s annual yacht racing circuit. King Bhumibol is often credited as the catalyst for this development, both by his example as an avid sailor as well as several initiatives to establish some of Thailand’s key sailing hubs, such as the Royal Varuna Yacht Club in Pattaya and the Royal Chitrlada Yacht Squadron in Hua Hin.
His sailing achievements in the 1960s are regarded as the inception of the country’s modern boating culture, and the old stories of these moments are legendary in local yachting circles. The first is arguably his greatest sailing victory, when he won the gold medal at the the fourth Southeast Asia Peninsula Games—now known as the Southeast Asian Games—on December 16, 1967. That day, HM King Bhumibol and his eldest daughter, Princess Ubolratana, battled choppy waters and a highly competitive fleet to tie for first place in the competition’s OK 18 dinghy heat—a race for small, single-person sailboats. It marked the first time in a global yachting competition that a father and daughter shared the podium together, and it was the young king’s first gold medal on the international stage. The moment was celebrated across the country as news spread abroad of the Thai royals who took gold together. The day was later named Thailand’s National Sports Day, and since then legions of Thais have followed in the king’s foot steps by racing dinghies at international competitions while bearing the nation’s flag—winning world championships and often ranking high in the Olympic Games.
“In a very short time, Thai dinghy sailors have reached world-class skill levels,” says Peter Cummins, a former sailing journalist for the Bangkok Post and Pattaya Mail who is also the author of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great—The Legendary Royal Sailor, an account of the king’s sailing legacy. Cummins understands the king’s impact on sailing from a unique perspective—he was the only foreigner to actually sail with His Majesty.
King Bhumibol’s achievement at the Southeast Asia Peninsula Games is widely credited with kicking off Thailand’s modern-day sailing success, but he earned the respect of sailors worldwide a year earlier after completing his now-legendary trans-Gulf journey from Klai Kangwon Palace in Hua Hin to the Thai Naval Base in Toey Harbour. Helming a small, single-person dinghy named “Vega,” the king embarked on a treacherous 16-hour journey across the Gulf of Thailand, most of it spent in the dark amid heavy winds and choppy waters. At the time, in 1966, it was believed to be one of world’s longest single-handed journeys in an open dinghy without land in sight, and, considering the horrendous conditions under which the king was sailing, an absolutely remarkable feat.
“If you spend a few hours in a small dinghy, fighting the waves and hanging over the side to keep from capsizing, you will understand the amount of skill needed to do what he did,” says Cummings.
After the crossing, His Majesty gave the boat’s rudder to the Yacht Racing Association of Thailand, and today the annual “Vega Rudder Race” charts the same course across the Gulf—awarding the Vega’s rudder as top prize. The event stands as a tribute to the king’s sailing accomplishments, as are nearly all of the annual regattas that have made the country a hotbed for competitive yachting.
“Every dinghy, keelboat and catamaran that takes the water here is basically a tribute and acknowledgement of the king’s contributions to sailing,” says Cummins. “His Majesty was the catalyst for Thailand’s sailing growth, starting in the 1960s and getting stronger every year. There are many events commemorating his maritime abilities, both here in Thailand and abroad.”
Arguably the most prestigious of those events is the Phuket King’s Cup Regatta. For the past 30 years, it has remained one of the most important regattas in all of Asia, drawing world-class sailing teams from across the world for a full week of on-water competition and on-land events showing Thailand’s strong maritime pride. Founded in 1987 as a means to celebrate King Bhumibol’s 60th birthday and his contributions to sailing, the event has grown into the largest regatta of its kind in Asia, boasting over 1,000 international and Thai competitors every year in addition to around 1,000 members of the Royal Thai Navy.
While the King’s Cup is certainly the grandest stage in the country, countless other yachting competitions, such as the Top of the Gulf Regatta, World Optimist Championship and Samui Regatta, are attracting skilled sailors from across the world to share in Thailand’s maritime pride. According to Cummins, this can all be attributed back to the king.
“All of the clubs, marinas, sailing associations and boat-building facilities across Thailand’s waterways and all the regattas, events and people in Thailand who enjoy sailing can basically be traced back to the king’s early sailing days in Pattaya,” says Cummins.
“The king’s love of the sea has been a shining example of fulfilment in a world overtaken by conflict, technology and materialism, constricting this very freedom we all crave. His sailing accomplishments are recognized throughout Thailand and abroad, and it will continue that way for a very long time.”
Royal Varuna Yacht Club