Published on September 25, 2007
For a Northeastern lad who knew next to nothing about boats, Chief Warrant Officer Sutep Jumnongprakhog has come a long way. He's been a vital part of the Royal Barge Procession for over a decade now.
"There were hardly any rivers or boats where I grew up," says Sutep, who will take up his station before His Majesty the King's throne in the Royal Barge Suphannahongse for the procession celebrating His Majesty's 80th birthday.
The only relation the Buri Ram native had with water as a child was the dam in his neighbourhood where he spent afternoons swimming with his friends.
Attending the naval training school for non-commissioned officers in Sattahip in 1992, Sutep had several chances to get better acquainted with water and boats. In 1996, he found himself at the oar for the Royal Barge Procession. And he was lucky enough to be a crewmember of the Royal Barge Narai Song Suban, built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the King's accession to the throne.
To Sutep, the role was more than merely symbolic service to such a rare tradition. "Rowing the royal barge along the Chao Phya, I was serving the King directly. How many people in the country have the chance to do my job?"
Sutep took up his oar again in 1999 for the Royal Barge Suphannahongse at the Royal Kathin Ceremony at Wat Arun and then for Apec meeting in 2003. Last year, during celebrations for the 60th anniversary of His Majesty's accession to the throne, he was the helmsman for Asura Vayubhak. However, this year's procession will be the first since 1999 that the King has taken part in.
The last two occasions were more like a show, says the four-time oarsman, but with the presence of His Majesty everything has to be flawless. Some time in November - the dates have yet to be confirmed - the Chao Phya River will become a giant theatre with 52 barges gliding along the 4.2-kilometre route.
Becoming an oarsman is no easy task, says Sutep - several months of training are involved. "On top of that, you need effort, patience and determination."
The first stage in the training for this procession took place in March and April, when newcomers learned the basic four-step "flying bird" paddling technique. Then for the next two month the crews got acquainted with their barges at the quayside, before learning how to work with the natural flow of Chao Phya in July, practising on the river for five days a week. The 52 barges came together as a procession for the first time only two weeks ago.
Sutep, who's taken up a role as a coach this year, says the non-stop drilling has been exhausting and repetitive - enough to give most of his charges the idea of quitting. But his occasional reminders that this is a once-in-a-lifetime service to the King have worked so far.
"It will sound boring to many, but we need to practise so much because you never know what will happen out there." Sutep speaks from experience: He encountered the unexpected during the Royal Kathin Ceremony in 1996.
The day dawned bright on November 7, as forecast by the Meteorology Department. On into the afternoon, the weather looked set fair. But not long after the procession embarked from Wasukri Pier, things changed dramatically.
All of a sudden, rain began pouring hard, so hard that Sutep struggled to see beyond two or three metres ahead of him. Sitting just behind the thrones of the King and royal party, the oarsman could only make out a handful of his colleagues.
He knew it would be a catastrophe if the storm-beset barge were to crash into the riverbank or the bridge supports, so he gave the order for everyone to try to keep the barge in the middle of the Chao Phya. At one point, a command to dock the barge for the King to disembark seemed to have been given.
"I heard the His Majesty state that he would stay with us till we reached Wat Arun, where his Royal retinue were waiting.
"My colleague was crying ... I was crying - for fear that something would go wrong."
Then, out of the gloom inflatable black dinghies appeared, flanking the barge to shield it from any collision. A short while later the nightmare ended as quickly as it had started, with the clouds drawing back to reveal a pristine blue sky.
The procession had been scattered, leaving Suphannahongse under the Pinklao Bridge and Narai Song Suban close to Siriraj Pier. "I don't know how we reached the pier, but I was glad everything was under control again," says Sutep, recalling hearing the sound of people singing the royal anthem on the quayside as the storm abated.
There were whispers that the storm was caused by the changing of the King's barge from the Suphannahongse - which had borne the throne since the reign of King Rama VI - to the Narai Song Suban. However, the latter has been used in every procession since, without any further incident.
From his close call, retold over and over during the rehearsals, Sutep has learned that only practice makes perfect in the face of the forces of nature. "Like a boxer, if you're going to fight 10 rounds, you have to practise for 100 rounds to prepare."
Minor rehearsals will take place on the Chao Phya River on the afternoons of October 5, 12 and 19. Full dress rehearsals will take place on the afternoons of October 26 and 29, and November 2.