Leopard 50 owner TC Wong shows wandering spirit
TC Wong made global headlines when the rapid spread of Covid left him stranded at sea in his Leopard 50 for months until he was eventually allowed into Fiji, where he has remained since. Now, the Singaporean is waiting for borders to open so he can continue his journey around the South Pacific on his beloved Ximula III.
Wong has owned his Leopard 50, Ximula III, since 2018
Wong Tet Choong, better known as ‘TC’, became one of Singapore’s most famous sailors last year. Having explored much of Southeast Asia in the past decade, he set off in early February 2020 for his biggest trip yet, 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 among those 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 news in Fiji, Singapore, Australia and elsewhere, even making international headlines through the likes of the BBC and The Guardian. However, if his situation seemed dramatic then, Wong couldn’t be more relaxed now.
Wong with his wife and children, who live in Singapore
Living on his Leopard, often at Port Denarau Marina, he has been away from his family in Singapore for over 20 months and appears in no rush to return home.
“I’ve been sailing around the islands in Fiji and I video call my family almost every day. There are so many beautiful islands to explore here,” 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 towards Tahiti, visiting as many islands and atolls as I can. I believe this will take two to three more years. I’ve received many messages and well wishes from people telling me they’d love to embark on a similar lifestyle. Actually, there are many people already living the life I do.”
THE CALL OF THE SEA
Wong began boating three decades ago, picking up a small second-hand powerboat in 1992. At the same time, he picked up an interest in sailing and rented boats to cruise around Singapore with the staff of his company, Zhaplin Work.
Wong (top) started sailing in the 1990s
“That was when I started to learn more about the boating lifestyle and community,” recalls Wong, who also enjoys rock and mountain climbing. “When I was sailing, I really enjoyed being able to play with the elements, harnessing the power of the wind and adapting as it changes.”
Still, his next purchase was another powerboat, a 34ft Riviera he had from 1996-97 when he often cruised south to the nearby Indonesian island of Batam with his young family. However, as money was tight, he was unable to sustain upkeep of the boat and had to let it go, vowing to return to sea when his finances were more stable.
“When I sold off the Riviera, I promised myself I’d get a sailing boat once I had the money and time. I wanted to sail further, as there were so many beautiful islands I wanted to visit and explore.”
Wong owned a couple of powerboats
Wong’s company started to grow 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, Ximula, a Lagoon 400 S2.
Wong used the boat regularly, sailing almost every week during the first year with family, friends or staff – “whoever was available and keen”. He typically sailed in Singapore and Indonesia, although early trips included a one-month expedition from Singapore to Phuket with his family.
He also joined several convoy trips organised by Nongsa Point Marina, where he learned from other sailors about Indonesia’s waters. Trips opened his eyes to the amazing islands around Singapore including the Anambas to the northeast and Tambelan and Badas to the east, off the west coast of Borneo.
Wong’s Leopard 50 Ximula III (left) and Darren Lim’s Lagoon 400 S2 (right)
“We discovered so many amazing islands in Indonesia. They’re so beautiful and the islanders were very welcoming towards us, so after these trips, I revisited these places to explore them at my own time and pace. I sailed everywhere around Southeast Asia.”
In 2014, Wong started a charter business, Ximula Sail, skippering and taking care of the yacht as his daughter Minqi ran the business and worked as crew during trips. When possible, the family still used the boat for personal trips including taking two months off in 2016 to sail to Koh Samui together with Darren Lim and his family, who were then living aboard Gracefully, Ximula’s sister boat.
Wong’s daughter Minqi on the Leopard 50
As Wong wanted more time to explore the region, he stopped skippering Ximula and Lim joined forces with Ximula Sail, which now has two catamarans and 10 staff, and is among Singapore’s most respected charter companies.
LEAPING TO LEOPARD
With Ximula occupied by charter business, Wong briefly owned a Beneteau monohull in 2017, frequently sailing to Phuket with his staff and participating in regattas. However, it was only a stop-gap measure as he resumed his search for a catamaran, a design he liked because of the comfort and space but also because the saloon and galley are much higher above the water than on a monohull.
“My wife gets seasick easily, so this allows us to have a view of the horizon even while we’re indoors, relaxing or preparing meals. I only sail for leisure from island to island, and don’t intend to cross long distances across oceans, so I prefer a catamaran for comfort compared to a monohull for performance.”
Wong’s search ended when he met Kit Chotithamaporn, Leopard’s Yacht Sales Manager – Asia, at the Singapore Yacht Show in 2017. Wong originally showed interest in the Leopard 48 on display, but when he visited Kit again on the last day, he found out it had been sold just hours earlier. Kit then informed Wong about the new Leopard 50 and Wong ordered a unit that arrived the following year, which he named Ximula III.
Wong and Lim cruised together to Indonesia’s Anambas Islands
“I really like the layout and design of the Leopard 50. Firstly, I love the door at the front which enables me to easily access the foredeck from the saloon and allows smooth airflow through the interior. The forward cockpit is a nice area to chill at while we’re at anchor, as it faces the breeze and is sheltered from the sun,” Wong says.
“Secondly, the galley and furniture are forward-facing, which is especially important for me when I sail alone for long distances, as I can keep a lookout while preparing my meals. The panoramic view also helps reduce my wife’s seasickness.
“Thirdly, I like the helm at the side so I can have visibility of both the flybridge and the aft cockpit and saloon. It also makes berthing much easier for me, as I can have a clear view of the berth without running between port and starboard.”
Wong’s family and friends on his Leopard 50, his second sailing cat
Wong sailed his Leopard 50 up and down both the west and east coast of Peninsular Malaysia during multiple trips to both Phuket in the Andaman Sea and Krabi in the Gulf of Thailand, spending between one and three months there each time and exploring the area.
He also revisited his favourite cruising grounds in Indonesia while becoming increasingly attracted to exploring remote areas and engaging with people not typically used to visitors.
“My favourite part about sailing is the opportunity to visit remote islands not normally accessible by plane or other forms of transport. I’ve learnt a lot about life through the eyes of islanders, who always show us amazing hospitality. Some even brought us on a tour around their islands or invited us to their homes and treated us to delicacies like freshly caught lobsters,” he says.
Wong has become an experienced all-weather sailor
“I used to think about what I can give back as a gift of appreciation for their warm welcome but learnt that material items were not meaningful to them since they lived very simply. Eventually, I decided to bring along an instant printer on board so I could take and print photos of them so they could keep them as memories. I felt this was more meaningful.”
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
Having visited much of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia’s Riau Archipelago, Wong started to expand his horizons. “I realised I still had so many more destinations I wished to explore so started to set my sights on the South Pacific, which I’d heard so much about.”
Wong painstakingly planned and mapped out a three-year journey that would take in Tahiti and other islands in French Polynesia, researching online and consulting friends who had sailed in the area. Finally, on February 2, 2020, he 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 can live for months alone at sea
“I had the opportunity to spend time at many remote islands that were over 100nm away from the mainland, islands with no electricity or Wi-Fi, islands I don’t even know the names of. As always, I met many amazing islanders who never hesitated to show me around.”
Wong was heading towards Papua New Guinea, where he planned to stock up on fuel and food, but his Raymarine auto-pilot broke while still in Indonesian waters. Seeking a harbour, he was sent away as lockdown had just begun.
As he neared PNG, his family informed him that it had also closed its borders. 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.
In Tuvalu, Wong was able to buy food from local authorities
As if things weren’t tough enough for Wong, 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 where I was trying to seek shelter,” he says. “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.”
FINDING FRIENDS IN FIJI
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.
Wong, who has been in Fiji since the end of April 2020, wants to continue exploring the Asia-Pacific
“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, considering the good relationship both countries have and the desperate condition I was in,” Wong says.
“We’re also immensely grateful to the Fiji Rescue Coordination Center for taking over the whole situation. They monitored my location, communicated with my family and provided them with updates, and eventually towed me out of the strong winds and currents to safe harbour. They were super professional and helpful.”
Due to the media coverage, Wong was contacted by and met many international sailors and fellow Singaporeans based in Fiji, where he has made himself at home, living on Ximula III.
“On my journey, I’ve met and been inspired by many Singaporean couples or families who live on the water and many international 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.”
Wong will continue his South Pacific journey on Ximula III once borders open
Wong has also had ongoing support from Leopard, which continues to advise on repairs and offer help on his travels, having also assisted with parts and spares before he set off.
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 and stopping at islands he visited on his outward leg. As of now, Wong doesn’t harbour any dreams of crossing the Pacific or travelling around the world.
“I have not even covered the Philippines, which has over 7,000 islands, so I believe Southeast Asia and the South Pacific are enough to keep me excited for at least 10 more years.”
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