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Stealing the Trapeze

The work Stealing the Trapeze (2016) is inspired by the history of a very specific tool used for navigation. It is part of the history of catamarans, a type of boat seldom constructed in the temperate West before the nineteenth century, but in wide use as early as the 5th century AD in what is known today as South India. The word ‘catamaran’ is derived from the Tamil language (from kattu meaning ‘to tie’ and maram meaning wood or tree). One of the earliest mentions of the catamaran was made by the seventeenth-century adventurer William Dampier when he encountered this peculiar sailing vessel in the southeastern part of India during his first circumnavigation around the globe. The catamaran was prevalent from equatorial South to Southeast Asia and well into the Pacific as a design solution that allowed for greater stability and lower resistance when passing through water because of its narrow hull shape. Today, it is raced in the America’s Cup.

Another boat with a narrow hull shape, which was developed within the Riau Archipelago, is the Kolek. It is a class of boats specifically built for racing. Its sailors use a device called the Tembang to stabilise the narrow-shaped hulls. The Tembang is almost identical to the sailing trapeze, a wire that comes from a high point on the mast of a racing dinghy and hooks onto a crew member’s harness. The trapeze is widely used in competitive sailing today. Lim Yi Yong says that in his final year as a student at Cranleigh School, in 1992, he stole a book from its library, which he still owns. The book is titled Down the Wind: A Yachtman’s Anthology (1966). In it there is an autobiographical account by Peter Scott about the circumstances surrounding the invention of the trapeze. Scott claims that he and his fellow sailors invented the trapeze in 1938 along the Thames River in England. There is wide evidence, however, that the Tembang had been in use for generations before that.

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