Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Paddling My Canoe off Changi in the 1960’s – Brian Mitchell

As so often something in Chun See’s blog sets me thinking about my own time as a teenager in Singapore in the early 1960s – this time his report from the National Junior Canoeing Championships.

One of my favourite past-times was paddling my old dug-out canoe out from what was then the Royal Air Force Officers Club at Changi – I think this is now the Junior Sailing Club if my modern map of Singapore is correct.

Our canoes were stored upside down on a grass slope beside the club building ready for launching. Most young people had rather larger boats made out of planks but mine was smaller and a genuine dug out canoe. It came without a paddle so I accompanied my father to a boat yard in Changi Harbour where he explained what we needed – unfortunately what came back was a well made – but rather heavy – paddle which I used for the next couple of years building up arm muscle!

One continual problem was that in the hot sun the wood of the canoes shrank or cracked and needed re-tarring – and (courtesy of my old friend of the time, Ray Shaw) I have a photo of a group of us repairing one of the canoes (I am the handsome one with the towel around my neck).

Looking back, I am surprised just how far we got in the canoes. Often a few of us would paddle our canoes for short trips along the Changi coast but occasionally we would take a longer trip across towards Pulau Ubin and a small island or two in that direction – in retrospect and given the tiny size of my canoe - this now seems reckless but we were of course young, fit and excellent swimmers.

I do recall landing on a small island with an old house – looking rather like an English country cottage - and finding some bananas growing in the garden. We took a few to eat (a process known in the UK as ‘scrumping’, which is an innocent sounding term for stealing fruit off people’s plants and trees!).

I have hardly been in a canoe since those days but that tiny blue and white painted dug-out gave me a lot of fun.


Footnote: I hope those kayakers I blogged about earlier will read Brian’s story. They will appreciate, I am sure how blessed they are to have the modern kayaks of today. Compare picture below with Brian’s home-made version. – Lam Chun See



Victor said...

Nice post to supplement Chun See's earlier story on the same subject, Brian. As they say, something old, something new.

JollyGreenP said...

Well, here's an idea for us oldies to relive our youth. If we can all get together in Changi sometime with some canoes; we could paddle over to Pulau Ubin and maybe bivouac for a night and tell stories of the old days!

John Harper

Anonymous said...


that would be a great idea, pity I don't have a picture of my old canoe but I am sure a nice modern one with decent paddles could get across in no time! And I gather Pulau Ubin might bear some resemblance to how we remember the main island!

Lam Chun See said...

Brian, I don't suppose you had a life jacket on when you did that 'reckless' thing did you?

Lam Chun See said...

I find that Brian's story is short and simple, and yet it says so much.

We see how different life was in the 60's compared to now. How teenagers spend their time, the kind of initiative and 'hard work' they have to put in in order to have a good time. Also how 'liberal' parents those days seem to be when it comes to safety. No way, I am going to let me son kayak to P. Ubin on a home-made canoe, and without life jacket and safety boats some more.

OK, reluctantly, I have to miss out on the discussions for a couple of days. I have to rush off to Ipoh this everning to attend my mother-in-law's funeral. And have yet to submit my income tax returns. My wife is going to nag me for sure for leaving things to the last minute as usual.

Anonymous said...

Chun See

you are right to guess, no life jacket or any kind of supervision of our canoeing. There is a huge change in the extent to which young people are allowed independence today - certainly true in the UK. Before coming to Singapore I was allowed to roam the streets of South London as a ten year old in a way that would be unthinkable today.

Sorry to hear about the funeral, my commiserations.

Anonymous said...

Brian and his young friends were really adventurous during their youthful days. Making a canoe out of a tree trunk had a close resemblance of red indians making their canoes. However swimming in that particular stretch of sea off Changi could be hazardous even compared today's improved swimming environment. Only a couple of days ago, two young school boys were drowned off a short distance from the Pasir Ris shore. Their deaths caused their parents to be emotionally shattered. Being strong swimmers do make a big difference. When I was a kid, I saw a young lady (age about twenty years old), swimming towards a kelong and back, with ease and style, as though having a routine workout. Nowadays many Singaporean parents send their kids for swimming lessons. This is real investment for their children safety in swimming, not just for winning medals in schools.

Anonymous said...


now I don't want anyone running away with the idea that I carved out that canoe myself - it was bought off someone else ready made! But yes we both swam and canoed in what might be considered today as rather hazzardous waters - although most of our swimming was done in the pool at the club (and from Google Earth it seems that pool is still there or somewhat enlarged)

aiyah nonya said...

Even though my boys knows how to swim, I still do not allow them to swim in the sea or the pool without an adult around. When children plays, they do not notice the danger. They might push someone into the water, etc... Accidents have happen before from this type of incidents.

Call me kiasu/kiasi....but prevention is better than heartache later on.

Btw, my condolences to you and your family. May she rest in peace.

Anonymous said...

Brian - You can pat yourself for your youthful enthusiasm. I can remember as a kid I wanted to build a floating raft on our pond. It never materialised. I fully agree with Aiyah Nonya's life philosophy - It is better to be safe than sorry, ever remembering that we are typical Singaporeans. However such thinking has a relevance to a Chinese saying: 'Carefullness enable a person to sail a ship for ten thousand years'.