The small advertisement in the Kuching newspaper grabbed us. On 16 August, there would be the annual 26 km bamboo raft race sponsored by the Padawan Municipal Council in conjunction with the Ministry of Tourism Malaysia and other agencies. Since we have nautical experience, it seemed like a fun way to spend a Saturday so my wife and I teamed up with our American sailing friends, Bruce and Alene. The four of us arrived in Malaysia on our own two yachts after sailing away from the shores of the U.S. over 8 years ago. For all of us, Malaysia was a highly recommended, a must see, country.
As we have traveled the world’s oceans, we have seen plenty of bamboo. Bamboo is a hyper sized grass which grows mostly in the tropics but extends its range well off the equator as far north as Bristol, Rhode Island, U.S.A.. In Rhode Island, bamboo can be a nuisance weed or a landscapers 20’ tall visual block. In the tropics, it is used as a structural column, container to carry water or cooked food, split length wise to make a floor covering or shaped into hunting tools, …..you name it. For many of us tourists, large diameter sections of bamboo, lashed together, would become our sport mobile, our competitive raft on a muddy river for one of our most fun days in Malaysia.
In a rented car, we explored our way from Santubong, where our floating homes were anchored, to the Padawan town hall, command central for the big event. There were printed rules and an orientation to attend and a fee to be paid. Some experienced rafters take the event very seriously and construct their own raft to enter in the “Expert” division. Those rafts are crafted with smooth skin bamboo, a raked front entry and other streamlining features finished with a perfect paint job. It is required to have four people per raft, no more. To cross the finish line with only 3 on board is frowned upon and disqualifies the team from any prize potential. Sailing the oceans on a seaworthy yacht, we were to find out, has little in common with commanding a water level raft down a river and through white water rapids. We entered the amateur “Hotels and Tour Agencies” division. Like most participants, we paid a private contractor to construct our racing machine.
Warming up to the anxiety of competition, we arrived early in the morning of race day at the staging area, of the Sungai Sarawak Kiri (River Sarawak Left), to inspect the fine points of construction in the stack of rafts made by our nautical supplier. Like most other rafts, they were all rudimentary, freshly chopped down green sections of 4cm diameter bamboo all lashed together with the engineering idea of hopefully sticking together long enough to get to the finish line. It was appearing speed in this race had many motivations. We were supplied with long skinny bamboo poles which would reach bottom in most of the river but as advised, we brought our own paddles. A little food, cameras and small bottles of water were stowed in dry bags and securely lashed to our floating sled with twine which would just slip between the gaps in the bamboo sections.
It was not a LaMans start. Each crew had its own number/color coded banner to display for a sequenced start. The “Women’s” group of competitors started first then our “Hotels and Tour Agencies” followed by “Government Agencies”. Further up river was the starting line for the “Men Open” and “Expert” teams.
Besides our “Team U.S.A.” , there was another international contingent from South Africa. This top notch looking group of aquatic athletes would be starting just behind our number. But the four crew were solid oversized men who looked like Navy Seal or Special Forces. Their large beer cooler and good humor is what was barely keeping their skinny diameter bamboo raft from fully submerging. Certainly they needed two rafts stacked on top of each other. Shortly after the start and around the first bend of swift water, their awash raft no longer seemed a competitive worry for us.
Being novices at this new sort of competition, it took work to get our paddling coordinated and keep one of the fronts rather than the side of the raft moving in the lead down stream. But Bruce was at the steering paddle in the stern yelling the commands to his hard working crew, Alene, Rebecca and I. “And remember, as they said in the movie Ben Heir, “The only reason you are alive is to serve this ship!” And a happy ship it was, carrying us down a valley of beautiful scenery. In tight river bends, to avoid shallows or small rock islands, I was the pole man to push across the river bottom where the paddles against water did not give enough bite. As we saw rafts do full circle turns in the faster current, or make a bad route decision and become stranded in thin bubbling water or overturned in deeper, we thought it most prudent to work harder at simply not making mistakes. So we settled back and let the current do most of the work for us as we concentrated on navigating a good route.
We passed a few rafts. But both of the Air Malaysia raft crews, also in the “Hotel and Tour Agencies” division, passed us. It was obvious they were experienced bambooers. There was no hope for us to not let all the “Professional” division crews from outpacing our generic creation. Those crews had fully synchronized powerful paddle strokes or if the crews used the bamboo poles, they used full reach leverage and on the aft water exit, used time saving twirling pole movements to bring the pole forward again. Anytime a raft machine from any division jockeyed into a new position, there was always a fun, encouraging, conversation in the passing.
After 4 hours on the river and clothes thoroughly soaked, “Team U.S.A” spread a wake across the finish line, in the middle of the pack. The lashings on our race machine held together but our platform was sloshing a bit lower than at the start. Our hearts had become attached to our able craft, our bundle of bamboo, our river yacht, but reluctantly we beached it on the river bank so it could be stacked with the others.
The awards ceremony filled the town hall at the finish line; speeches and much applause. All of us who did not pick up a trophy still went away winners. It isn’t from just this one fun day and the Malaysians we got to play with, all of Malaysia is proving to be our favorite place in the world.