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Interview: Paul Robinson on dragon boating in Singapore

By: Jade McLean

Paul Robinson doesn’t let a day go to waste. And who can blame him? After all, he’s spent half his life in and out of surgery correcting congenital absent fibula syndrome (in layman’s terms: he was born with a dodgy leg). When he’s not in Indonesia, Thailand or Sri Lanka for his job in the luxury villa industry, he’s spending every minute of his free time with a “beer in one hand and a paddle in one other”; a dragon-boat paddle, that is. Meet the captain of the British Dragon Boat Team, eight years and counting.


Paul had multiple surgeries for a leg problem


How did you end up on this side of the world?
I’m originally from Haslemere in Surrey, in the UK. My parents moved to Borneo in 1992 when I was 17. My sister and I went to college in the UK and we used to commute out there during the holidays, twice maybe three times a year, or we would all meet somewhere else in the world.

Why Borneo?
My dad moved there to run the shipping from BP’s only coal mine. It was opencast mining, and the coal went right up to the edge of the jungle. They were quite amazing times as we were just living on a compound with a bit of grass and then nature beyond. We had to deal with plenty of orangutans, wild boars and snakes.

Surrey to Indo – that’s quite a change…
For us as a family, it was the best thing that ever happened – I take my hat off to my parents for doing it; I even remember them standing in the kitchen looking at a map, trying to find the place! Everyone knows Singapore but Kalimantan is quite exotic. To take that step, when I was 17 and my sister was 12, was quite a wrench as we’re a close family. It was also very hard to get there, as there were no direct flights at the time.

What was it like living in a jungle?
Unreal – and lots of fun. And what my mum could create out of nothing was incredible; we got a shipment once a month from Singapore and she would cook with the kind of vegetables that Cold Storage would throw away. Yet we had some of the best parties because everyone was just up for it. We also got to explore a lot of Indonesia. My sister and I would fly out to places such as Bali, Sulawesi and Sumatra. It gives you that bug to want to travel and an appreciation of cultures, and it makes you more humble and appreciative of where you come from. It made me fall in love with Asia.


Paul rousing up his teammates


What pays the bills for you here in Singapore?
I do business development for a company called Elite Havens. We’ve gone from being a tiny little company to the biggest villa management and marketing company in Indonesia; our head office is in Bali. We also have a few villas in Sri Lanka and Thailand but we’re looking at expanding in those two places.

We source the villas, which are usually people’s second homes or even their primary homes. We have a management division that deals with staffing: maids, chef, security and upkeep.

And we have a marketing division that creates a brand and a website for every one of our villas. If you buy a home in Bali and approach us to market it, we come up with a name, branding and a website, and we feature it at elitehavens.com as well as our other websites, The Villa Guide and Private Homes & Villas.

I like to think we’re quite well respected by house owners and guests alike as we’re very consistent and provide a great service. You can eat what you want, when you want and it’s not expensive – especially if you’re sharing with friends.

Do you travel a lot for work?
At the moment I commute between here and Phuket. The team has grown so there’s no need for me to go to Bali as much, which is a shame, as I love Bali – it’s my favourite destination. I’ve only been twice this year, but Phuket is currently every other week. Next year I’ll be travelling to Sri Lanka a lot more.

Tell us about your condition?
I’ve had a lot of surgery. It started in the UK when I was 15, but it didn’t really work. Then I had surgery in Singapore to help me walk and help my back pain. It was a new type of German technology called Fitbone; I was the first to have it in Singapore so I ended up on the news and in The Straits Times. They did it at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, and it was a big thing for them – I went on to do a medical tourism video for the hospital. 

What did it entail?
They placed a rod down the middle of my leg through the marrow, banged it, which broke my leg in half, then they screwed it in and anchored it. They placed a receiver under my skin and I had a machine that I had to press against it, which would send nine pulses into my leg to stretch the break apart in order to lengthen it. Twenty-seven pulses in 24 hours give you a millimetre. That’s the optimal amount for it to be stretched as the leg then tries to fix itself – the two halves reach out to try to fuse together.

The beauty of Fitbone is that it’s internal so you reduce the possibility of infection. The other option is Ilizarov, which is basically the old-fashioned rack and pins; thats what I had when I was 15.


The euphoric British Dragon Boat team


How did you get involved in dragon boating?
Sport kind of passed me by until I came to Asia. Then I made a friend at a Mandarin class and he and his friends suggested I come along to a dragon boat meet. Unfortunately, I was just about to start surgery, but they told me they would carry me onto the boat. I thought, “What a great bunch of people.” So I did my surgery and then came back to the team. It was 2004 and I was on crutches so all I could do was sell kit. But I liked dragon boating because it’s an Asian sport and it involves sitting down – although you do have to use your legs more than you’d think.

Eventually I got into the boat once I could walk again. I’ve had to learn to walk three times in my life. After the surgery, everything felt different as my leg was longer and had been broken in three places and my ankle had been broken and moved up. It took around a year to recover and I really do appreciate life now and feel very positive.

What’s so great about it?
The sport is amazing. It’s all encompassing. I love that there are 20 people in a boat together, and that it’s one of very few sports where men and women get to compete in the same team. We have almost 60 people in our team now and we take in anyone who wants to join, whether they’re fat, thin, tall, short, male or female. Our slogan is: “One team, 16 nationalities, two goals: Party hard! Paddle harder!”

We’re also very proud that we are the British Chamber of Commerce’s official dragon boat team, yet we have so many nationalities: the captain of the men’s team is Australian; our ladies’ team captain is Dutch; we have Russian, Kiwi and French representatives on the committee; our paddlers include Brits, Finns, Singaporeans and Malaysians.

That’s the crux of it – it’s like Singapore in a nutshell, and everyone has different abilities – some are hopeless but become amazing. And it’s not just about fitness; there’s a psychology to it, and it takes extreme focus to do it well.

Where do you get all your energy?
I guess what I’ve been through is a huge part of what’s shaped me, and it explains why I haven’t settled down – I’m a “let’s do everything” type of person. Several of my ex-girlfriends would testify to the fact that I’m married to my dragon boat team.


This story first appeared  in EX magazine’s February/March 2015 issue.