HSH Prince Bhisatej Rajani first became interested in sailing during his days as a student at Cambridge University during the latter part of World War II. Every Saturday, he used to row along the Thames River with a few other Thai students to go buy cakes at a local pub. It was then that he noticed the sail boats on the River and this is how the godfather of Thai sailing first became aware of the sport he would so greatly influence. He and his friends proceeded to hire a sailboat, and even though they couldn’t tack, they started making their sojourns to the pub by sailboat (a lot of rowing was involved).

When Bhisatej returned to Thailand he knew the owner of a Snipe class boat, whose mast was made out of solid teak. The boat kept capsizing, but Bhisatej bought it and tried to repair it. He wanted to take the boat to Hua Hin where his family had a residence, but back then it was very expensive to ship by lorry. So he decided to try and sail it there. Starting from Pak Nam in Bangkok, he unfortunately only made it as far as Ta Chine River because the boat leaked so much. Then while the boat was moored at Ta Chine, it was accidentally hit by a fishing vessel. The owner of the fishing boat repaired the Snipe and for the next journey, Bhisatej brought a crew and they made the trip from Ta Chine to Hua Hin successfully.

Bhisatej continued to hone his sailing skills by making trips from along the coast from Bangkok to Sattahip. He went with a friend named Rachot, whom he taught how to sail, and when they were tired or it got dark they would land and the fishermen would invite them to stay with them in their huts.

Then one day some members of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club decided they wanted to pursue the idea of starting a sailing club and Bhisatej became a member of the group tasked with finding a location for this proposed club. They decided the place to build would be Pattaya, but unfortunately the Sports Club Committee eventually rejected the idea fearing it wouldn’t succeed and the project would lose money.

But a short time later, in 1957, a group of people interested in water sports, fishing, water skiing, sailing and skin-diving answered an advertisement in the Bangkok Post by Walter Meyer, who was eager to form a marine sports club and that’s how the Varuna Marine Club was started. In the beginning, the Club didn’t have much money, so they hired a fishermen’s hut with the second floor being used as a dormitory, and the kitchen being located on the ground floor. There weren’t any proper restaurants in Pattaya back then, so members had to do their own cooking. And getting to Pattaya took a long time back then as well (4-5 hours), because there was no bridge over the Bang Prakong River. They had to go by ferry, and on the weekends there was a long queue. Nonetheless, the club was officially opened on the weekend of 15-16 February, 1958.

Bhisatej was the only sailor of the original group, so he became the Club’s first Captain of Sailing and he decided that he would build a dinghy (11’ YW Cartop Dinghy), which Club members would be able to use. Unfortunately, he built it out of Thai, not marine, plywood, so it only lasted about two years. This was this dinghy that Bhisatej took to Hua Hin, the one the King saw one day in 1963, while he was out rowing – the dinghy that sparked His Majesty’s interest in sailing.

A few years later, Bhisatej and the King met and the King told he would like to sail, but that he would like to sail a boat that he had built himself. The King had learned about carpentry at school in Switzerland, but needed Bhisatej’s help building his Enterprise, which he named the Rajpatan (meaning Royal Pattern), because of Bhisatej’s knowledge of boats and sailing. Bhisatej recalls that it didn’t take the King very long to build it (about five months) as he was very diligent and in the Chitralada Palace boatbuilding shop whenever he had free time. The International Enterprise Association allocated it the number E-TH-11111.

The first sailing race the King took part in involved a visit by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1965. While visiting Pattaya, the Queen decided she wanted to take Philip for lunch and to go skin diving at Koh Larn. They were originally going to go by speedboat, but the King thought it would be more fun if they sailed there from Varuna, so he could test out his Enterprise. The King was at the helm, and Bhisadej was his crew, focusing on tactics, landmarks, and speed of the water, as he knew the area quite well. The King crossed the finish line first on the windward side (they were upwind and reaching all the way), so it quickly became apparent that he was a good helmsman by nature. (Prince Philip later sent the King a catamaran – the nation’s first – as a gesture of friendship for staging the race. The King named the boat Pla Duek, which is Thai for catfish and a play on the word, Duke).

The King and Bhisadej later moved on to single-handed OK dinghies that they also built, and they sailed these from Hua Hin to Toey Harbour in Sattahip (this 64 nautical mile crossing would later be repeated three times and named the Vega Rudder race, an annual race with the King presenting the rudder of his dinghy Vega as the annual trophy. The event was later shortened to a coastal race for safety reasons). In March of 1965, the King invited members of the Varuna Marine Club to take part in a regatta at his newly established Royal Chitralada Yacht Squadron - for which Bhisadej was named Commodore - at the Klai Kangwol Palace in Hua Hin. (100 Ok dinghies in pristine condition are still kept at the palace today). After the regatta, Bhisadej announced that the King had conferred Royal patronage on the Varuna Marine Club, so on 26 April 1965 it became the Royal Varuna Yacht Club.

On behalf of the Royal Varuna Yacht Club, Bhisadej helped initiate a relationship with the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club that still thrives and the two clubs still compete for the Shell Trophy today. Varunians are always welcome in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong yachts that sail in Phuket’s King’s Cup are a result of the early seeds of that friendship.

Bhisadej doesn’t sail anymore, he quit a few years after His Majesty stopped sailing; his knees won’t allow it. However, he still works on the King’s projects, mostly out of Chiang Mai though he maintains a residence in the Sathorn area in Bangkok. Prince Bhisadej’s determination and ingenuity paved the way for the spectacular sailing you see throughout Thailand today. The beauty and glory of all the main regattas stems from his belief in growing the sport of sailing and making it accessible to all. We all owe him a great debt of gratitude.

(Sadly, Prince Bhisatej passed away on 23 July 2022, at the age of 100)  

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