Uncharted waters for new kid on the block

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am

Sailing the Mediterranean for the Louis Vuitton Cup can hardly be called a dream come true for Zhang Wenpei. He had never heard of the prestigious cup before he was selected to join a group of professional French sailors and sent to Spain to open a new frontier for China.

The 23-year-old had sailed 470s, a two-man racing dingy, at international level for six years, but the move to being a grinder on a 24-metre racing yacht with a 17-man crew was never in his plans.

'Before 2005, I had never heard of the America's Cup. My coach in Fujian province signed me up for the selecting list. He told me it was a big deal,' Zhang said.

Now Zhang is a professional big-boat racer, having bulked up from 92kg to 99kg in order to manhandle the sails and winches. Grinders turn the winches, nicknamed coffee grinders, which raise and trim sails. They're easy to spot, with their muscular shoulders and bulging biceps.

'I'd been on the 470 a long time, and had very good skills, so when I came on to the America's Cup boat and was made a grinder I found it frustrating,' he said. 'I thought all they needed me for was power to grind winches. Now that I've learned more about big boats, I can see that it's not just grinding. If I don't understand what's happening I work less efficiently, so I have to think as well.'

Since arriving in Spain early this year, Zhang and his crewmates have fallen into a regular schedule of training and boat maintenance. Weight machines litter the base, testament to the physical demands of being an America's Cup sailor.

In the days before the cup began, China Team spent about six hours a day on the water, if the wind was favourable and no gear was broken. Everyone lives in apartments around Valencia, and they commute back and forth to the port on bicycles.

'I know how to get to the apartment, and I ride my bike back and forth every day, but I can't say the address yet,' Zhang sheepishly admits.

Although Zhang says the French and Chinese crew are socialising more as they learn each other's languages, he lives with two of his countrymen, and days off are spent resting more than carousing. The team get one day of rest per week, which is chosen depending on racing and weather patterns.

Days off are spent visiting Valencia's museums or calling his family in his home town of Quanzhou, in Fujian.

'They don't understand anything about sailing or the America's Cup. But they understand this is sailing at a very high standard, and they're proud I'm part of it.'