Wong Tet Choong, better known as ‘TC’, became one of Singapore’s most famous sailors last year. Having explored much of Southeast Asia he set off in early February 2020 sailing his Leopard 50 Ximula III through Indonesia on his way to the South Pacific. However, as Covid rapidly spread around the world, borders quickly closed around him. His family back in Singapore were worried about him alone at sea, with nowhere to berth. Turned away in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Tuvalu (where he was able to buy and receive fuel and food from a distance) he was eventually allowed into Fiji in late April. The episode generated international headlines through the likes of the BBC and The Guardian. He has been living on his Leopard, away from his family in Singapore for over 20 months. “I’ve been sailing around the islands in Fiji and I video call my family almost every day,” says Wong, who had been in the country for just over a year when he turned 60 this May. “Once the borders reopen, I’ll resume my journey”.
Wong began boating three decades ago, picking up a small secondhand powerboat in 1992. He also rented boats to cruise around Singapore with the staff of his company, Zhaplin Work, a company that grew on the back of the innovative Ximula wardrobe system, an award-winning product still used throughout condominiums and other residences today.
In 2013, after almost two decades of “working hard and saving up”, he was able to buy his first sailing catamaran a Lagoon 400 S2. Wong used the boat regularly, sailing almost every week with family, friends, or staff. Early trips included a one-month expedition from Singapore to Phuket with his family who also joined him when he took two months off in 2016 to sail to Koh Samui.
In 2017 Wong briefly owned a Beneteau monohull, frequently sailing to Phuket with his staff and participating in regattas. However, he resumed his search for a catamaran, a design he liked because of the comfort and space also because the saloon and galley are further above the water than a monohull. “My wife gets seasick easily, so this allows us to have a view of the horizon even while we’re indoors.” Wong’s search ended when he met Kit Chotithamaporn, Leopard’s Yacht Sales Manager Asia, at the Singapore Yacht Show. Kit showed Wong the new Leopard 50 and Wong ordered a unit that arrived the following year. Wong sailed his Leopard 50 to both Phuket and Krabi, spending between 1 to 3 months there each time exploring the area.
Having visited much of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, Wong started to expand his horizons. “I realised I still had many more destinations to explore so set my sights on the South Pacific”. He painstakingly planned and mapped out a journey that would take in Tahiti and other islands in French Polynesia. On February 2, 2020, he finally embarked on his journey from Singapore with two friends, although he was soon sailing alone after they disembarked in Indonesia at the end of the month.
Wong was heading towards Papua New Guinea, where he planned to stock up on fuel and food when his Raymarine auto-pilot broke while still in Indonesian waters. Seeking a harbour he was sent away as lockdown had just begun and soon all the South Pacific islands were in lockdown. He continued east to remote Tuvalu, where he couldn’t land but was allowed to buy food and fuel, using his rubber dinghy on a line to make the exchange at sea. As if things weren’t tough enough, strong winds from Cyclone Harold a full 500nm away led to Ximula III hitting coral and damaging a propeller.
Back home, his family contacted Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which tried to secure a place for him to dock in Fiji. “My family were very worried when borders started closing and I was facing trouble, being chased out of islands I tried to seek shelter at. I constantly kept them updated on my location and status whenever I had some data connection, but it was still a scary situation when things were breaking down and I could not find shelter to fix these issues.”
Good news finally arrived when he was informed that he would be allowed into Fiji if he passed a Covid test, which he was confident of passing after spending three months at sea and two months completely alone. “We’re still very thankful to our Singapore Government for responding to our call for help and reaching out to various countries to allow me entry. The wait was stressful, but we managed to get special approval from Fiji. We’re also immensely grateful to the Fiji Rescue Coordination Center. They monitored my location and towed me out of the strong winds and currents to safe harbor. On my journey, I’ve met and been inspired by many sailors who have sailed around the world,” he says. “There’s an amazing sailing community here in Fiji and I’ve made many friends from many different countries.” Once borders open, Wong still plans to use Fiji as his base as he resumes his journey around the South Pacific before eventually sailing back to Singapore.
This article is republished by kind permission of
Yacht Style magazine.
WORDS NICK HUNG PHOTOS TC WONG