Interview with Kwailan La Borde, a Legendary Trinidadian-Chinese Sailor

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(Chinese Text: Zhuo Zhang, English Translation: Meghan Ghent)
In the 1960s, Kwailan La Borde and her husband Harold undertook the magnificent feat of successfully crossing the Northern Atlantic and sailing directly to England on a small sailboat he’d built himself, with no navigational system whatsoever. Soon afterwards they completed two circumnavigations of the globe–one in four years (1969-1973), the other in two (1984-1986). For their achievements, brilliant records in Trinidad and Tobago’s sailing history, the couple was awarded the nation’s highest honour: the Gold Trinity Cross Medal.
Their first son Pierre, at only five years old, accompanied his parents as they sailed around the world. Their younger son Andre, whom Kwailan gave birth to on the second circumnavigation, was a sailor at the age of 35 days. In 1987, Kwailan went to China as a volunteer English teacher at Sun Yat-sen Memorial School in the village of Cuixiang in Nanlang Town.

 

Kwailan was born in Trinidad, West Indies, in 1933, her father hailed from the village of Xiaoyin in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China, and her mother with a rich mixture of blood in her veins – African, Chinese, Spanish and Amerindian (Carib). Her husband, Harold La Board is also a local Trinidadian.

At the time the young Harold first mentioned his dream of building a boat and sailing to England, he and Kwailan were just sweethearts.

Harold began his sailing career by building dinghies, in which he taught himself the rudiments of seamanship, and reading any book about deep sea sailing that he could lay his hands on. Yet Kwailan, and understandably so, did not initially share his passion for the oceans blue, at least not to the extent of agreeing to accompany him on a most dangerous and daring journey across the Atlantic to England. Even worse, it was to be on a small cramped yacht, only 26 ft 9 inches in length, and more incredibly, home-built of marine plywood by Harold himself and his friend Kelvin Wong Chong “under a shelter of coconut fronds” here in Trinidad.

Back then Kwailan was a true ‘white-collar’ girl; a high achiever in school, her skills in French and Spanish led her to work as a secretary in the French Consulate in Trinidad. After graduation, she secured a high-paying, comfortable and stable job in a large company. This sailing dream of Harold’s, however, would be asking her to abandon that completely.

One can imagine how difficult it must have been for the young Kwailan to make this choice: on the one hand, the man she loved and an uncertain, drifting future; on the other, the comfort and stability of a middle-class life and career. In order to allow herself to decide with a cool head, she applied to her company to work in Venezuela for one year. But neither the cosy life in Caracas nor the distance of space and time could stop her love for Harold. According to Harold La Borde’s memoirs, his boat, the “Humming Bird 1”, had been built, and taking advantage of the opportunity, he asked Kwailan, for final time, whether she would sail to England together with him.

“We eventually clambered out of the cabin into the fresch clean air. Moonlight was beginning to penetrate the roof of Dried leaves, casting queer designs on the deck.
“Well, what do you think of her (Humming Bird)” I asked, with my heart in my mouth. “Do you think you’ll come now?”
She did not answer at once, but sat looking out towards the moonlit gulf and the ships’ lights twinkling in the distance. A party was in progress nearby, and we could hear the music and occasional shouts of ‘Merry Christmas’.
“Harold,” she said slowly, “for ten months I’ve been trying to find the answer – what I should do with my life. I’ve worked for quite a lot of money, and I’ve enjoyed my life in Caracas and Maracaibo. It has been so different to what we know here. I’ve been tempted to send your ring back to you. I could have lived there all my life, I felt found someone else and had a fine home, a car, television and every comfort. But…I’ll never spend a quiet night if I allow you to go off alone on that huge ocean. And now I’ve seen Humming Bird, I know it’s no use fighting and quarrelling any more. I’ll pray every night that you give it up…but if, in the end, you’re still determined to go, well…I’ll come with you, Harold.”
(An Ocean to Ourselves, Herold La Borde)

Two months later, Kwailan returned to Trinidad from Venezuela and married Harold. She resigned from her job, and with the savings from her years of work, she and her husband made their final preparations to set sail for England. On this trip they were accompanied by their friend, Kelvin Wong Chong, also a Trinidadian-Chinese.

Back then, the La Bordes did not have any of the kind of navigational devices that exist today; out on the vast open sea, they depended only on very rudimentary nautical maps and near primitive instruments that tracked the position of stars in the night sky. The slightest mistake in calculation could have sent them veering off course and left them lost and adrift in the wide Atlantic Ocean, an outcome too dreadful to imagine.

Nevertheless, after a hard struggle, the dream came true, and they docked safely in England.

”We grew up together. Kwai has adventurous nature, she helped me throughout my whole life to fullfill my dreams. She also enjoyed the dream. If it were not for Kwailan, I would not have accomplished my dreams. I did what I wanted to do, especially my voyage to Cape Horn – my big dream. We are very proud to have taken our national flag all around the world, even to the end of the world. “—–Harold La Borde

After the voyage, the La Borde took jobs at an Outward Bound school in Nigeria in 1961. But the call of the sea was too strong for the young couple and they returned to Trinidad in 1963, when they started to build the 40′ ketch ‘Humming Bird II’. Their first-born son, Pierre, arrived while work was in progress.

The boat was completed in three years and, after chartering her out to Americans for a further three years in order to raise sufficient funds, the family set out on 2 February 1969 on the, now historic, voyage that took them around the world.

“But it was not all sailing. These journeys were frequently interrupted when they landed in various places like, for example, the Polynesian islands, enjoying many friendships on land while resting from the winds and the seas, and where Kwailan spent some time as breadwinner, teaching English to the students of various schools, all this between typing and editing her husband’s articles and books. Indeed, during this epic adventure she even gave birth to her second son, Andre, in Auckland, New Zealand. In short, she was wife, mate, secretary, cook, sailor and mother.” (“Kwailan–The first Lady of the sea”, by Courtenay Bartholomew)

Upon their return home, Harold and Kwailan were both awarded their nation’s highest award, the Trinity Cross for their seafaring adventure, and the 40-foot Humming Bird II was purchased by the Trinidad and Tobago Government in 1973, and can be seen in the museum near the lighthouse on South Quay.

Harold’s restless spirit not satisfied, the La Bordes went on to another voyage in 1984 in a 55 ft. ketch ‘Humming Bird III’. Returning in 1986, the captain and crew had circumnavigated the globe in the opposite direction via the infamous Cape Horn.

“I sacrificed a lot for sailing. I don’t have a lot of money. but I enjoyed sailing very much. Now I feel safer on the sea than on the ground, because there are too many crimes now in Trinidad than before, so I prefer on board.” —–Kwailan La Borde

Yet on neither of her sea voyages around the world did Kwailan La Borde pass through China, a fact which became a source of great regret for her as a Trinidadian of Chinese descent. With the help of the relevant department in China, she returned to the home of her ancestors and taught English as a volunteer teacher at Sun Yat-Sen Memorial School in the village of Cunxiang in Nanlang Town for half a year.

“When I first returned to my father’s village, I went to the house of my ancestors, and according to Chinese custom I paid respects to the ancestors’ spirit plaques. Soon after that I just started crying. I am not someone who cries often. But that time, in my ancestors’ home, I couldn’t control my emotions, and I couldn’t stop crying. I cried for a long time. I’m not even sure why. Maybe it was my ancestors’ way of communicating with me from some unseen place.” Kwailan said.

After retiring from their respective jobs in Trinidad, the La Bordes ran a small family marina in Trinidad’s busiest yachting bay. Nowadays, Harold’s “full-time job” is working on the Humming Bird III every day, while Kwailan wrote an autobiography and includes all of their sailing voyages to the present, entitled “Wind, Sea, and Faith”.

This is not simply a book about sailing. It is about a journey of life, of love, fidelity, courage, sacrifice and the determination to succeed against insurmountable odds. As the title of her book says, it is a book in which faith in a higher Being, in each other, and in the adherent capacity of the individual to face and conquer all difficulties is a constant and dominant theme.