BY YP Loke on 6 Apr 2022

The aftermath of Covid-19 lockdowns presents a prime opportunity for the local boating industry. But society and the state must seize the initiative, says YP Loke

In Singapore, as in many countries, boating and water sports are thriving despite Covid-19. Worldwide, boat owners have returned to the water with a vengeance after being stuck at home.

The claustrophobic effect of lockdowns has led to a yearning for wide-open spaces and reconnection with nature – boating and water sports certainly deliver on those fronts. What is unclear is how long this pent-up desire to embrace the great outdoors will last. Nonetheless, boating has a window of opportunity to highlight and promote its healthy, outdoors side to the public and policymakers.

But there are challenges. Many yacht builders are suffering from supply-chain disruptions and manpower shortages. With domestic sales outpacing supply, the temptation is to neglect export sales. Higher shipping costs do not help. The result is a longer lead time for products to reach Asia. Another consequence of Covid is border closures. While quarantine-free air travel is revving up in most countries, this is not the case for cross-border yachting. As a result, superyacht transits in and out of Singapore are few and far between.

With boaters and divers (most of whom would normally travel out of Singapore to dive in Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia) stuck in Singapore, the few recreational anchorages available locally are congested, creating safety concerns.

The Singapore Boating Industry Association is working with public agencies to promote safe yachting practices. In this regard, the Singapore Sports Council is working with the community to draft a national standard for open-water sports safety. The [Singapore Maritime and] Port Authority has also formed a working group with key stakeholders to review pleasure craft safety in local waters.

With borders closed, the need for open seas and inter-region connectivity has become more apparent. This is one of the themes of discussion for the soon-to-be-formed International Council of Marine Industry Association (Icomia) Asia Working Group (AWG), chaired by Lawrence Chow, who is also chair of the Hong Kong Boating Industry Association and an Icomia executive committee member.

With maritime identities in our cultural make-up eroding away, recreational marine activities can reverse this trend by cultivating or rekindling a maritime ethos

With just a handful of members in Asia, the Asian voice in Icomia is not as strong as it could be. The AWG aims to increase this with – hopefully – more Asian countries coming on board. It is by far the best platform to get countries together to promote regional boating, share uniquely Asian insights within the boating industry, and discuss the best practices to help grow regional boating.

The Asia Boating Dialogue (ABD), which last ran just as Covid-19 reared its ugly head, is set to be the best vehicle for AWG outreach. In Asia’s relentless march towards economic prosperity and with its bid to catch up with other areas of the developed world, regional governments have little patience for growing their respective domestic recreational marine sectors, assigning them low levels of national significance.

The conventional measures of economic value do not do us justice. The benefits of boating and water sports are often intangible and hard to monetise, such as the stimulation of wellbeing as people flock to the water, post-pandemic lockdowns and restrictions. The industry laments that young people aren’t interested in joining the maritime workforce, which is in dire need of manpower.

With maritime identities in our cultural make-up eroding away, recreational marine activities can reverse this trend by cultivating, or rekindling, a maritime ethos among our more youthful generations.

The renowned 20th-century French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry summarised this approach succinctly by noting: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Policymakers – please take note.

About the author

YP Loke is the managing director of Singapore-based Spinnaker International, a company specialising in technical and advisory services in the recreational marine sector.  He also chairs the Singapore Boating Industry Association.