As about 150 participants of the India International Regatta braved the north-east winds of the bay of Bengal, to finish of races, Thai coach Tonny Tan, casually steered his boat in the swells of the sea in Chennai. At 75 years, he fought against the winds in Chennai alongside his students by driving the coach boat at the recent regatta in the city.
This Singapore native first bumped into sailing in 1970 and remained hooked to it ever since. “At that time, Singapore had no proper sailing facilities and it was left over by the British in Singapore called the Singapore armed forces Yacht club where I joined and started sailing with them learning from a British expert who stayed back in Singapore still working with the armed forces,” he recounts his early days as a sailor. Unlike the kids these days, who begin sailing at a very young age, Tan began only when he was 29 years old. “I started at the age of 29, which many today say was very late. But I did not turn back, I carried on and on and every weekend went on and on until I became a national sailor,” he says.
His career as a professional sailor began with him being a part of the Singapore sailing team in 1973, three years after he began sailing. A gold medalist in the 1985 sea games held in Thailand, by sailing the enterprise class, Tan stumbled upon the class when he came down to India in 1982 for his very first Asian Games that was held in New Delhi that year. “When I came to New Delhi, I saw a class of boat that I had never seen before, the enterprise class and I just happened to get a feel of that boat and I went back home and I had decided that I want to sail that particular class,” he said. Working towards mastering the class, he went on to import a boat from Britain. The boat and its training did cost a lot to him, but when he went to the World Championships in 1985 in Hong Kong and bagged the gold medal therein, it was all worth it. But, Tan did not stop with just the enterprise-class; he went on to try various other classes including the different lasers and 470.
He continued to sail for Singapore till 1990 when he turned from a sailor to a coach. This transition came about when the then President of Singapore asked him about when he is going to stop sailing and start coaching. “during the period when I was sailing and racing, I did a lot of teaching to the club sailors and the upcoming sailors,” he says, as he embraced the change and has since then, moved on to become a freelance consultant coach, who is driven solely by seeing his students perform well. To him, his fees and monetary matters are secondary as his sole focus is on improving the quality of the sport and the sailors.
As a coach, Tan has been the mentor of many protégés that have made a mark in the history of sailing. As Singapore’s national coach in the laser class, he produced two gold medals in the 1993 SEA games in both the men’s and the women’s category. His student, Tracey Tan won the Singapore’s Sports girl of the year award in 1993, the same year in which he was awarded the Coach of the year. In 1994, Ben Tan, another of his students, won the Gold Medal in the Asian Games. Both of them went on to represent Singapore in the Olympics in the year 1996 in Atlanta. These achievements were just the beginning of Tan’s Career as an extraordinary coach. He played a very crucial role in making Singapore Asia’s top sailing nation by fuelling the performance of the sailors in the 2006 Asian games and being the guide behind over 16 junior and youth champions from Singapore.
In 2007, he was offered to be the coach of the Thailand National Team, and produced remarkable results for them, making them outstanding sailors especially in the Optimist class. His student, Nopakao Poonpat, was the Girls optimist champion in the 2010 Asian games.
Indian sailor, Varun Thakkar also happened to be coached by Tan for the youth Olympics, but that is just not it, his ties with the TNSA strengthened when he came on a three-week coaching camp for the Indian Optimist sailors in Chennai in the year 2009. “I coached a bunch of 8-15-year-old optimists and was here during the very first IIR,” he recounts on his return to the club and the city after over 8 years as the Thai National Coach. “I am glad that I came back and got to see all my old friends,” he said.
“To be a good sailor there is a lot of things, it doesn’t take a sailor a short time, it’s a lot of years; development in racing conditions and meeting completion, racing with different people helps a sailor grow. One has to train to be good,” he adds. Currently coaching the optimist class of sailors of the Thailand national team and Tan also a part of the Olympic Pathway steering committee of the Singapore Sailing Federation.