updated 22 Jan 2011, 13:30
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Tue, Jan 18, 2011
The New Straits Times
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Women: Romancing the sea
by Meera Murugesan

Malaysia: At a glance, Fay Khoo looks like any other trendy, urban woman window shopping in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.

It may seem like her biggest challenge is grappling with traffic jams, but her slim, athletic body and tanned skin offer subtle hints to the real Khoo - a woman who pits her strengths and skills against the open ocean.

Khoo, who has been sailing for 20 years, has proven that she can hold her own in what's essentially a male-dominated sport.

Most of us have glamorous visions of yachting, complete with cocktails at sundown and women in high heels, but manning a full-fledged racing boat and competing in an adrenaline-fuelled event in the sea is a whole different ball game.

It's physically demanding to begin with. Throw huge waves and strong winds into the equation and you've got a recipe for disaster, unless you're a skilled, focused sailor who's part of a well-oiled team.

"It's ultimately a very testosterone-driven masculine sport but I love it and I don't expect to be treated with kid gloves. I just give my best," says Khoo, looking sporty and attractive in shorts and a matching top.

She says it helps that she's no shrinking violet because competitive racing is a high stress activity and it's not the place to expect special treatment.

Last November, she took part in the Raja Muda Selangor International Regatta as a crew member of Baby Tonga. The yacht, sponsored by Strongbow cider in the race, emerged champion of the premier class in the regatta, Asia's oldest and most respected yacht race.

Khoo has also raced in various other regattas including the Phuket King's Cup Regatta, Singapore Straits Regatta, Asean Regatta and Hamilton Island Race Week in Australia.

Growing up in Penang with two younger brothers, Khoo, who describes herself as a "water baby", was already swimming by the time she was two.

Even as a child, she had a strong, independent streak, always wanted to do her own thing and enjoyed being outdoors, trying her hand at wind surfing, sailing dinghies and later, moving on to larger keelboats.

Getting capsized or bitten by jellyfish never deterred her. Khoo says her mother, a retired civil servant, did try to encourage her to do "girly" activities by enrolling her in ballet class.

"I would do a disappearing act once I was dropped off. My mum only found out when my teacher bumped into her one day and asked why they had stopped me from going to class," says Khoo, recalling the childhood memory with a smile on her face.

She eventually left for Australia to do a degree in English Literature and today, works as a food editor and columnist and is also the founder of Rhino Press, a boutique publishing house.

Khoo, who speaks five languages, including French and Spanish, also presents food and travel programmes on television.

Her career allows her the flexibility to go sailing whenever she wants and Khoo says the sea has a natural allure, one she finds hard to resist.

To keep fit, a pre-requisite for the sport, Khoo does kick-boxing and enjoys her sparring sessions.

"I like doing things that keep me on my toes. Working out at the gym is boring."
She says there are very few women competing at the level she does because it's not a sport women generally gravitate to.

Besides the fact that it's physically demanding, being under the burning sun and braving the waves while trying to prove their worth in a brash, almost all male environment puts many women off.

"Swear words, bad jokes and sexist talk are all part of the deal and some women just don't have the stomach for it."

And it can get rough, especially in a long race when the crew spend a few days on the yacht and there's little time for even personal hygiene. The men naturally never wash and women too must be prepared to forgo the usual comforts.

"By the end of it you look, feel and smell disgusting. It's not a sport for the faint hearted," cautions Khoo.

But she says this shouldn't deter women who are interested from taking the first crucial step. If they have an interest, they should head to the Royal Selangor Yacht Club and start learning the basics with the courses they offer for beginners. Whether women choose to take it to the next level is entirely up to them but with the basics, they can go cruising or simply enjoy the camaraderie of club racing.

"Sailing is fun, both on and off the water and sailors are a very sociable bunch. I couldn't recommend it more."

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