Canoeing & O Captain! My Captain!

Great book recommendation by Taichiseal of the rowing book, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. And the wonderful excerpts from the book.

Which led me to fond memories of school-time experience on my canoeing team, and of an inspiring ‘O Captain! My Captain!’.


Don C said…

TS, this is good stuff. Truly inspiring.

I am reminded of my JC canoeing and dragon boat team back in the 90s. RJC was a latecomer to the sport of canoeing and dragon-boating, and when I joined the team in my junior year, we had only taken part in 3 or 4 Schools Nationals Competitions then, and with only out-of-podium results. And the pecking order even showed in the ordering of the canoe storage sheds for the different schools at MacRitchie Reservoir, the venue then for canoeing training and competition:
Shed #1 was taken by NJC, the reigning champion and canoeing/dragonboat powerhouse which had dominated the sport ever since it debuted.
Sheds #2 and #3 were taken by Hwa Chong and VJC, then the only schools to seriously threaten NJC, and which had managed to score some first place finishes in some years.
Sheds #4 and #5 went to ACJC and St Andrew’s, the perennial bridesmaids trying to get into the top three podium results.
And RJC got Shed #6, the last and grimiest lot at the end of the row.

And the numbering of the sheds mattered, with shed #1 being closest to the water and the little jetty which was the prescribed point to load the canoes onto the water, and the trail leading from the sheds to the jetty was at least about 500m long, and with uneven steps going up and down some slopes.

Imagine hoisting single and double canoes onto your shoulders/back and making several trips (cuz sometimes our girls simply have no strength left after a strenuous training session, and we guys of course gotta help them. But the seniors soon put a stop to that…) to and from the shed to the water and back for every training session. And all the while we are sixth and last in the queue and with the narrow walkway/space in front of the sheds, sometimes we have to stand and wait there with a double canoe on our shoulders while NJC/Hwa Chong/VJC/ACJC/Saints people jam up the tiny space washing down and putting away their canoes.
[But after a while we stopped complaining: there were a couple of really pretty girls from the ACJC and Saints teams. We would grab every chance we could to walk pass their sheds and try to catch a glance at them, and ahem, to try and catch some glances at us…


Photo credit – Flickr

But enough of that; what I really wanted to say was about the inspiring stuff.

At that time, canoeing/dragon-boating was way, way down the prestige and pecking order within RJC; we were about as far away as can be from the adulation and accolades given to RI/RJ’s traditional trophy sports of rugby, track & field, swimming, tennis (which I am sure you are aware of). Which also meant a corresponding lack of support from the school. Case in point: while the rugby, track and swimming teams had special time-slots for the school weights-room apportioned for their exclusive use, we had none. Our coach and teacher-in-charge was nonexistent and AWOL for almost all of our training sessions. In fact, the pudgy principal Mr Lee FS seized upon this last point and wanted to shut down the canoeing team and remove it as an offered ECA from the school.

It took the sheer perseverance and dogged determination of my seniors (the Year Twos, I was Year One freshman) in the canoeing team, especially the unifying and inspiring leadership of our team captain Hoon Kiat, to keep the sport intact within the school, and to train towards the Nationals.

I still remember his ‘pitch’ during my freshman orientation week when he and his team members were trying to recruit freshmen into the junior team. He said if we joined, we would be joining a sport and team overlooked by most of the school, disdained and scorned by the other sports teams, and despised by the Head of PE dept Mr K and the school principal, Mr Lee FS. We would have no coach to train and guide us, no teacher-in-charge to fight for us and protect us.

And we would train and train and train, every single day:
at the reservoir, at Kallang river, on the cross-country trails, on the old Roman rings at MacRitchie near the sheds, in the weights-room, on the track, at the pull-up bar next to the school track (which became known as the Canoeists’ Corner. We had to do 100 pull-ups everyday, counting from the time we got to school till before we leave at the end of the day. We had a buddy system to make sure we don’t cheat. We were at our Corner all the time.)…

And on top of all that, HK said we also have to make sure we score 4 As for our A-Levels, to prove to all our naysayers in school that we could train hard and study hard too.

With a pitch like that, how could I resist…

At the end of their senior year, our captain, HK and the senior team accomplished all that they set out to do, and more. The senior team won the A Division Canoeing Championship at the Nationals that year, and stunned our rival teams and their coaches (save one…), as well as our own schoolmates, teachers and principal in RJC. A few of us juniors were privileged to be reserves on that team. The feat has not been repeated since. (Sigh, the following year, my team-mates and I only managed to place fourth overall. And as far as I know, we have not come anywhere near first again in the years since…)


Photo credit – Flickr

Additionally, every member on that senior team got their 4 As in their A-Levels, and a few individuals, whether as a result of the tough canoeing training, or probably because they were already gifted athletes to begin with, also competed in many other sports with good results. One of them, the star of our senior team who set a record time on the technically-difficult and fiendishly-arduous event of 1000m kayak, went on to win gold in cross-country and track events, and also played for the soccer team.

So sorry for this long comment. But your excerpts above from this rowing book made me think of my initial time in canoeing when my confused paddling in circles and countless capsizes suddenly crystallized, crested and straightened into ‘effortless’ stroke after stroke after stroke…
And the delight at the moment when me and my doubles partner and our paddling seemed to meld into one unit and one precise machine, when our every stroke matched perfectly and you could feel it in your very being that finally!, we are not paddling ‘against’ each other, not wasting any stroke and work and energy we were putting in, but that every pull-and-push of this paddle-flywheel goes 100% efficiently into propelling us farther and faster ahead…

And especially for the inspiration that was my seniors and our captain, HK. He was truly: O Captain! My Captain!
They really were like a single well-oiled machine. And all heart.

Those were the times…


3 thoughts on “Canoeing & O Captain! My Captain!

  1. Heh, not in any of them lah. I found these pics on Flickr, and from the date-stamp, they appear to be taken only a few years ago in 2008. My batch of canoeists precede these young juniors by more than ten years! I am their grand-grand-grand-grand-… …-grand-wobbling-on-a-walking-stick-grand senior!
    Dang, that made me feel old…
    [And not that I am judging these juniors, but they do seem to look to be a little on the slim side to be canoeists. Where are the hulking beasts?]

    And the sport seemed to have evolved over the years. Most of the race categories at the Nationals during my time were still based on the old flat-bottomed S4 canoes, with only 2 marquee categories using the then-considered new and flashy K1 sprint kayaks. We didn’t even have K2/K4 categories then.
    And the S4 single and double canoes we were using for training and competition were large, bulky and very heavy contraptions, compared to the narrow-hulled, sharp-bottomed and lightweight K1/K2 kayaks seen in the first pic above.

    But the good thing about S4 canoes were they made for great sea-going canoes with their all-round seaworthiness and they had plenty of space to store cargo for those fun 3-days-2-nites island-hopping and camping expeditions. We could pack and bring along portable gas burners, mess-tins, canned food, instant noodles, water, even tents. Those old double sea canoes were huge and almost un-capsizeable.
    Almost…until you run smack into a freak thunderstorm in the open South China seas without any shore cover, but that’s another story…

  2. Hello senior, i chanced across this post. I’m from the 06/07 batch. Still helping out with the team now and then. Things have changed even more since my time. Back then our holy grail was also the team championship and 4(or5)As. Long story short, the girls team picked up a couple of medals in the races before nats, but we did mess up on the real thing. The second part did follow though, almost all of us got straight As. Those were really awesome times.

    Will be sharing your post with the current team, hope it can inspire them in some ways.

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