At 11 am Wednesday, 62 racers from this Pursat province longboat squad chanted in response to their team captain before setting off for the day’s first Water Festival race.
Less than two hours earlier, the team had discovered the body of their teammate, Sin Saing, floating in the Tonle Sap river.
Despite their grief, they said they were determined to keep racing to win.
“I feel afraid after the incident, but I have to race in my province’s name and for the prestige of the dead man,” said team member Sok Ny, 24.
At 11 am Monday, a day before the three-day Water Festival began, Sin Saing fell from the rear position of his team’s boat during a training run. Seven police speedboats scoured the river in search of the boater but found nothing.
At 9:15 am Wednesday, Sin Saing’s team, which hails from Pursat’s Raingtoel commune, went out on the Tonle Sap for another training run.
“I saw a blue shirt in the water, and then the man at the end of the boat shouted that it looked like a dead body floating,” team member Soch Leay, 50, said.
“We didn’t think that such a thing would happen because we are fishermen,” said team captain Rath Tha, 36. “We never felt afraid of the water until this happened. My colleague, who knew how to swim, could not save himself.”
Sin Saing, who was 38 years old at the time of his death, wasn’t from Pursat. His reputation as a skilled rower was such that the Pursat team lured him from his native Kompong Cham for the past five years to join them in the steering position, teammates said.
“He was a strong and gentle man,” Soch Leay said.
Sin Saing’s body, they said, was floating 250 meters south of the Japanese Friendship Bridge, not far from where he disappeared Monday.
“It seems strange and unbelievable that the body turned up near where he had fallen down,” Rath Tha said.
According to Mork Ra, deputy governor of Pursat province, the team is sponsored by Minister of Industry Suy Sem, who provided money for expenses and accommodations, two full sets of matching blue shorts and orange shirts and hats, as well as five lifejackets for the 81-member team.
One of those lifejackets, Mork Ra said, was assigned to Sin Saing, but he refused to wear it on the day he died.
“He said it was just a training run,” Mork Ra said.
Suy Sem said he gave $3,000 to Sin Saing’s family, Mork Ra added. They will also receive 100,000 riel from Pursat Governor Chhay Sareth, and 500,000 riel from the commune chief of Raingtoel, he said.
“I have called an ambulance to bring him back to his homeland,” Mork Ra added.
The team’s boat is named Raingtoel Sakor Sen Mean Chey, which literally means Raingtoel Water Great Success, and refers to Prime Minister Hun Sen. The boat has a successful history. Team members said they have earned placement in the top tier of winners for each of the past five years.
Phorn Pouy, 31, a racer from Kanchor commune, also in Pursat, said he and his teammates had nothing but respect for the Raingtoel commune team.
“Their boat is as fast as flying,” he said. “I want my boat to be as strong as theirs.”
Soon it was time for the Kanchor commune team to head to the staging ground to compete.
“We win! We win!” they shouted in response to their captain.
“Our competitors lose! They lose!”