On Monday, the last day of training before today’s start of the three-day Water Festival, a boat racer from a Pursat province team disappeared and is presumed to have drowned, officials and team members said.
Sin Saing, 38, fell off his squad’s longboat at about 10 am during a training run on the Tonle Sap, according to teammate Soy Keo, 31.
The incident occurred 300 meters south of the Japanese Friendship Bridge, 50 meters from shore, Soy Keo said. Sin Saing was in the rear position, steering the team’s boat, so his teammates did not at first notice that he had fallen.
When they did notice, Soy Keo said, dangerous currents prevented them from jumping in the river to search for him. None was wearing lifejackets.
According to another teammate, Chea Symot, Sin Saing came from Kompong Cham’s Koh Sotin district but went to Pursat every year to join their longboat team.
At a riverside boat-race assistance center on the Chroy Changva peninsula along Tonle Sap Road, officials from Phnom Penh and Pursat met to coordinate rescue efforts.
Pursat deputy provincial police chief Sy Kiri said municipal police were searching for Sin Saing with seven speedboats, “even though it is now late.”
Mork Ra, deputy governor of Pursat province, said his men were working with safety officers from the Permanent Committee for Organizing National and International Ceremonies to find Sin Saing.
“I think he might be dead,” he added.
According to boat monitor Pheng Leang, at least four boat monitors from the festival committee are stationed at each of 11 riverside boat-race assistance centers, where racers can seek help with sanitation, electricity, water and illness, and also receive guidance on health and race regulations.
The centers do not, however, provide lifejackets.
“The boat teams should provide it themselves,” Pheng Leang said.
Ly Thuch, second vice-president of the National Committee for Disaster Management, said Monday that he hadn’t heard about the missing boater, but said that his department had advised the festival committee on safety measures.
“We can assure you that there has been serious discussion of the safety of the racers this year, and all safety precautions have been taken into consideration,” Ly Thuch said.
But there has been no organized effort to ensure that boat racers come equipped with lifejackets. On Monday, as teams sped up and down the Tonle Sap for a final day of training, lifejackets could not be spotted in a single boat.
How Chhun Lang, team leader of a boat squad from Kompong Cham province, said that his team had received support for transportation and food. He called for help from any organization willing to donate lifejackets.
“If we get them then the team doesn’t need to worry,” he said.
Kong Tok, 61, who manages a short boat team from Kompong Thom, said he wished his team had lifejackets, but said they could not afford them.
“We are always happy in the water festival, but there is always danger,” Kong Tok said. “Every year, someone passes away.”
“We need lifejackets to be safe, because if a man falls into the river, the boat cannot go back to pick him up,” said Eik Chhean, 58, a team leader from Kandal province. “They have to complete the race.”
Last year, 10 teams from various Asean countries joined 422 Cambodian boats in the Water Festival races. Five racers from Singapore drowned when their boat capsized returning to the staging ground.
This year, 424 boats are registered to compete, according to Sok Kong, administration chief of the Permanent Organizing Committee for National and International Ceremonies, and no foreign teams are registered, although one team includes several foreign members.