Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 September, 2009, 12:00am

It will take a lot of resolve and determination from the government if the plan by the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club to bring America's Cup-style racing to town next year is to bear fruit.

The idea of hosting a leg of the Louis Vuitton World Series has plenty of value. Not only will it showcase the Hong Kong brand, bringing in widespread exposure globally on television, it is also certain to draw massive crowds and generate huge public interest due to the novelty factor.

But there is the catch. For it to be truly viable, it has to be staged in Victoria Harbour and not out in the aquatic boondocks of Lamma Channel. For this to stir the imagination, the public must be able to see the massive yachts battling it out in the harbour.

And for this to happen, the government must have the political will to close down Victoria Harbour traffic for most of the day for a week to accommodate a 10-to-12 team regatta using four America's Cup-class yachts.

Long-time sailing enthusiast Neil Pryde is also worried about the wind conditions in Victoria Harbour. All those big buildings on either side of the divide could be an impediment to wind flow and curtail good quality racing, he says.

'Victoria Harbour is deep enough and big enough to hold America's Cup-style racing, but will the government stop harbour traffic to accommodate racing and will the wind conditions be good enough?' asked Pryde.

The yacht club believes November in Hong Kong is the best time for sailing in the harbour. But the multimillion-dollar poser is whether the venue will be available.

Initial signs are positive. According to a report last week, a senior Home Affairs Bureau official was quoted as saying 'we are still studying the proposal, but a race like the America's Cup in Hong Kong has plenty of merit'.

It will be up to the bureau to run with the ball now. They will have to convince the various other government departments as well as private companies - everyone from the marine department and the police to the ferry companies, etc - that closing down one of the world's busiest harbours is worth the trouble.

The Louis Vuitton World Series had hoped to include Hong Kong as a leg this year but plans were shelved probably due to the financial downturn. However, things appear to be up and running again, and if the yacht club has its way, the city could be proudly hosting its first major sailing event next November.

The yacht club has already taken a giant step forward by applying for help from the government's newly established HK$100 million Mega Events Fund. It is believed it has asked for HK$10 million. This will only go part of the way towards paying the costs of bringing in 10 to 12 teams and the boats.

Luxury luggage manufacturer Louis Vuitton can be expected to chip in substantially. It is believed to have backed this year's World Series to the tune of Euro10 million (HK$110 million) and it can be expected to bear a lot of the costs next year, too.

It will be money well spent for Louis Vuitton, which is big in Hong Kong with its chain of stores well frequented by the tai tais. The exposure it will get out of staging a spectacular regatta on the harbour will be invaluable and it makes commercial sense.

But what is most attractive is that it will be a serious sporting event and not a mere exhibition. The World Series has emerged as a new layer of competition that sits between the World Match Racing Tour and the America's Cup. With the latter embroiled in court action between holders Alinghi and challengers Oracle, the World Series offers teams an avenue to test their skills against each other on affordable budgets.

In February, Louis Vuitton held the first competition in the Hauraki Gulf where Team New Zealand walked away with the plum prize. The cost of competing was about US$250,000 per team, which is reasonable.

If Hong Kong goes ahead, the teams will be given the yachts, most probably from sailing superpowers New Zealand and the US who have already indicated their keenness to take part. It will then boil down to a simple test of skill as the boats will be as similar as possible. It is understood teams from Australia, South Africa, Italy, France and Britain would also take part.

The World Series also offers teams, whose ultimate aim is to contest the America's Cup, the opportunity of testing the water, so to speak, without having to incur massive design and boat programmes which run into the tens of millions of dollars.

This event will not only lower the cost of entry into the America's Cup, but it will allow teams to look at gathering sponsors and finding sailors, before thinking ahead to the bigger issue of building a boat capable of winning the holy grail of match racing.

Hong Kong, in turn, gets a world-class sporting event right in its front room. One of the prerequisites for applying for money from the Mega Events Fund is the event must draw a minimum attendance of 10,000. The yacht club is confident thousands of Hongkongers will turn out. It has proposed the regatta village be set up at Central's Pier 10, now under construction on reclaimed land in front of City Hall.

The application is expected to be assessed by the government this month.

It has huge merits. But what the government must decide first is if the venue is available.