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Friday, February 01, 2019, 17:21
Fair winds blow for sailing as newcomers take to water
By Karl Wilson
Friday, February 01, 2019, 17:21 By Karl Wilson

This undated photo shows Vicky Song, who become's the first Chinese woman to circumnavigate the globe after taking part in the 2013-14 Clipper Round the World Race. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

From dinghies and skiffs to oceangoing racing yachts, Chinese are embracing the sport of sailing in a big way.

What they lack in experience they make up for with enthusiasm, determination and the drive to be among the world's best.

The sort of people who sign up for the race, whether it is for one leg or the whole race, tend to be achievers. They seek the adventure and the challenge of the sea

William Ward, 

Co-ounder with Robin Knox-Johnston of Clipper Ventures

Although still considered a niche sport in the country, sailing has captured the imagination of a growing number of men and women.

The sport already has its own local heroes, including Vicky Song and Guo Chuan, who blazed trails for ocean racing.

Song, the first Chinese woman to circumnavigate the globe when she took part in the 2013-14 Clipper Round the World Race, has become a role model for what can be achieved in sailing, especially for women.

"The clipper race has changed me totally," Song said in an inter-view on the Clipper Round the World website as teams prepared for the 2017-18 race.

"That year on the boat I learned so much. I think the most important thing is that it made me so much stronger mentally and it gave me so much more understanding of others.

"It really gave me a different perspective on life. It just makes you think you are capable of doing things-that if I try, give the time and the effort, I will be able to do it. So that is the best gift of the race."

Another star was Guo, who was lost at sea in October 2016 when he attempted to break the record for a solo crossing of the Pacific Ocean. Three years earlier, he became the first Chinese sailor to complete a nonstop solo circumnavigation of the globe.

Along China's coastline, marinas and yacht clubs are being built or expanded to cater for the growth in sailing.

Some sailing clubs, including the Qingdao International Yacht Club in Shandong province, are gaining international reputations for producing highly skilled sailors.

The club is home to Team China, which competed in the 2007 challenge for the coveted America's Cup-the pinnacle of yachting.

First contested in 1851, the America's Cup is the oldest trophy in international sport, predating the modern Olympic Games by 45 years.

Originally named the 100 Pounds Cup, it was part of The Great Exhibition in London, the first in a series of world expos.

At the time, the United Kingdom had invited countries around the world to display their latest technological advances. Six members of the New York Yacht Club built a racing yacht named America and entered it in the Royal Yacht Squadron's race around the Isle of Wight off the coast of southern England.

America won decisively in an age when Britannia ruled the waves. The trophy was deeded in trust for international competition and became known as the America's Cup. The New York Yacht Club held on to the trophy for 132 years before Australia won it in 1983. The competition is staged every four years.

Formed in 2005, Team China made its international debut two years later when it competed in the Louis Vuitton Cup-the challenger selection trials for the America's Cup.

Although Team China put up a spirited fight in the series, it was unsuccessful. It has not challenged for the prestigious cup since, but there is a great deal of speculation in the yachting world that it may make another bid in 2021.

Craig Monk, two-time America's Cup winner and New Zealand Olympic medalist, is working with local governments in China that want to develop their cities' waterfronts, offer sailing programs and be represented by competitive sailing teams on the world stage.

READ MORE: HK-Sanya sailing competition to kick off in October

Speaking to the website Sail World in late 2017, he said: "It's unbelievable how fast sailing is growing here (in China). It's all about growth of business and waterfront development. They're using the model Auckland (in New Zealand) used 25 years ago, to develop cities around sailing.

"I have the contacts in the Western world to get China introduced to the best in the sport. My goal is to create an awareness in China and a path and vision for the country's sailors, young and old. They can have a serious sailing program and take New Zealand's lead to develop the sport and make it professional."

William Ward, cofounder with Robin Knox-Johnston of Clipper Ventures, the UK organizer of the Clipper Round the World Race, said interest in the sport is huge in China. Ward is also CEO of Clipper Ventures.

Knox-Johnston entered the record books in 1969 when he became the first person to sail solo around the world nonstop.

The 2017-18 Clipper Round the World Race started in the English port city of Liverpool on Aug 20, 2017, with 12 70-foot ocean racing yachts, and finished in the same city on July 28 last year. Of the fleet, 11 completed the race and one had to withdraw not long after the start.

Yachts compete in the 2017-18 Clipper Race in the waters off Sanya in South China’s Hainan province. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY ASIA WEEKLY)

"There is tremendous interest in sailing-particularly in ocean racing," Knox-Johnston said from the port city of Dalian, Liaoning province, where he was looking at sites for possible training schools.

Established in 1996, the Clipper race is a test of skill and endurance in some of the world's roughest waters. What makes it different from other races is that about 40 percent of Clipper race crews have no previous sailing experience before signing up.

Normally the domain of seasoned professionals, this supreme challenge is taken on by "ordinary, everyday people". Following a rigorous training course, participants are equipped with the latest extreme protection gear to begin the race of their lives.

The Clipper race is said to be an endurance test like no other, covering 40,000 nautical miles, or 74,080 kilometers, around the world in 70-foot ocean racing yachts.

Divided into eight legs, participants can choose to complete the full circumnavigation or select individual legs. It is the world's only race where the organizers supply a fleet of 12 identical racing yachts, each with a fully qualified skipper to guide the crew.

Clipper Ventures' Ward said, "We first went to China with the 2005-06 race and have been there ever since," adding that the Clipper race has captured the imagination of many Chinese.

China is now neck and neck with Australia in terms of the number of sailors taking part in the race. With more than 40 nationalities taking part, the biggest number of participants still come from the United Kingdom, followed by the United States, then China and Australia.

"The sort of people who sign up for the race, whether it is for one leg or the whole race, tend to be achievers," Ward said. "They seek the adventure and the challenge of the sea."

In November, Clipper Ventures announced its biggest expansion to date with the opening of a new division in China to meet demand. Named Clipper China, it aims to become the industry leader in the development of offshore training and sailing events across the country.

In addition to running its own academies, Clipper China is building one-design keelboats and offshore racing yacht fleets for use in the new training academies and to compete in regattas.

Ward said Clipper Ventures is the world's biggest single provider of offshore sail training.

"We have trained over 5,000 sailors to participate in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race over the past two decades. However, the potential for sailing in China means it could take us just a couple of years to train the same number here," he said.

"Interest in sailing in China has never been higher. China has featured on the Clipper race route for the past 14 years and we have signed two additional teams here in the past two years."

Ward added that the future for sailing in China looks exciting.

Clipper China will work closely with the China Yachting Association-the national governing body for sailing.

Zhang Xiaodong, president of the association, said in an interview with Sail World in November: "The Clipper race is the best-known offshore sailing brand in China-with the UK respected for its long-standing sailing heritage. We are in a strong position to help attract and develop our next generation of sailors."

The Sanya Serenity Coast team was the overall winner of the 2017-18 Clipper Round the World Race, marking the first time a Chinese-sponsored team won the event. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY ASIA WEEKLY)

According to the association, sailing has become more popular in recent years and the Chinese are now taking part in and supporting more water sports activities than ever.

In comparison to just a few regattas held a decade ago, more than 100 are now staged in the country each year.

The association expects to see 400-plus yacht clubs with more than 150,000 sailing participants by 2021, an increase of 150 percent on the current level, Zhang said in a statement.

Clipper Ventures' Ward said, "We want to do something meaningful for sailing in China."

He said that while sailing standards in the country are low, enthusiasm is high. "The Clipper race actually makes a bigger noise in China than in Britain," he said.

Ward added that sailing in China also has the potential to help cityscapes, adding, "There is a connection between sailing and the regeneration of waterfronts."

Zhuhai, Guangdong province, is the third Chinese host port and team partner in the Clipper Round the World Race, joining Qingdao and Sanya, Hainan province.

John Qu, manager of Noahs II, a 21-meter Volvo Ocean class yacht, said, "Yachting is a growing sport in China." Noahs II was the only boat from the Chinese mainland to compete in the 74th Sydney to Hobart yacht race in Australia in December.

The boat and crew come from Noahs Yacht Club on the Huangpu River in Shanghai. They achieved the best performance by any boat from the mainland in the annual blue water classic, and 2018 was the fourth year a boat from the mainland had competed in the race.

The race started on Dec 26, and the crew finished 12th overall in the 628 nautical mile event and eighth in its division. Noahs II completed the race just after midnight on Dec 29, having taken two days, 11 hours, seven minutes and 22 seconds to finish the course.

A fleet of 85 yachts (ranging from the super maxis measuring more than 30 meters in length to those of just 9 meters) and more than 1,000 sailors took part in this year's event, which began under a blue sky and light winds in Sydney Harbor.

ALSO READ: Wind in its sails

Li Hongquan, skipper of Noahs II, said the fact that most of the crew had never competed in such a big race was heartening for him.

"This was a great opportunity for the crew to familiarize themselves with big-boat ocean racing, and will go a long way to promoting the sport in China," he said.

Qu, the boat's manager, said the government is encouraging the growth of "sport on the sea".

"For ocean races like the Sydney to Hobart you really have to train outside of China, as we still lack the skill sets for ocean racing, although that is starting to change," Qu added.

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