Young hands do HK proud with victory

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 November, 2009, 12:00am

Sixteen-year-old Australian Jessica Watson, currently attempting to single-handedly circumnavigate the world, earned more than her share of the spotlight - for all the wrong reasons - in September when she collided with a 63,000-tonne cargo vessel.

And in a case discussed in the Dutch parliament, and which polarised people internationally, 13-year-old Laura Dekker was made a ward of the state, dashing her solo circumnavigation ambitions.

Reversing that trend, a group of Hong Kong youngsters is making headway and headlines for all the right reasons after victory at this month's China Cup International Regatta in Daya Bay, Shenzhen.

The keen bunch of Hebe Haven sailors are skippered by 14-year-old French-New Zealander Cosmas Grelon. It's an on-board league of nations with Hong Kong-born, British-Filipino-Chinese Gerald Williams, 13, British-Chinese James William Johnston, 12, and Nathan Bradley, 12.

Jim Vincent, 11, joined them on board once in Daya Bay.

Normally inshore solo sailors on board small craft, they banded together for the first time as a crew on a vessel usually reserved for older sailors, a 47-foot Jeanneau Sun Odyssey, Tuatahi.

They were the surprising winners in the regatta's first race, a 25-nautical-mile passage from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, and then finished second overall in the series, which was established three years ago.

Coach Marek Nostitz-Jackowski, of the Hebe Haven Yacht Club, is keen to see his charges develop skills for larger, keel boat sailing, as well continuing to skipper in small craft such as Optimists. 'The 'Opies' are likened to a floating bathtub for their stubby bow,' Nostitz-Jackowski, who coached the Polish Laser squad before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, said.

'They're the most popular international competitive class for children. Because they are usually solo dinghy sailors, I'm never in the boat with them. In the [regatta], it was interesting to see how they worked as a crew on a large vessel. The owner and I were on board to keep an eye on safety.

'They discussed tactics, trimmed the sails, helmed and made their own decisions. What they achieved blew everyone away, and they were treated like rock stars on arrival and all through their visit. The Chinese media went all out.

'Winning a race is never easy even in the easiest of conditions, let alone when you are sailing on a boat normally sailed by adults and you are used to dinghies. It was no mean feat. Most of these sailors have competed this year in the Optimist World Championships in Rio de Janeiro.

'It was the first time Hong Kong sent a team. They've sailed in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and China. In order to be really competitive, they need to pit their skills internationally.'

The boys are hoping to make another mark, in the Asian Optimist Championships in Langkawi next month.

'The next big thing on the horizon is the Asian Optimist Championships,' Nostitz-Jackowski said. 'We are expecting that Hong Kong will be in the top 15 of the fleet of around 100 boats. We have a fair chance of that, which will be great for Hong Kong as this has never happened before.

'Cosmas Grelon was our Hong Kong Optimist champion this year and has a chance to make his mark before moving on to the Lasers and 420s at 15 next year. All of the children have Olympic ambitions and want to represent Hong Kong. This is really their home.

'Through sailing, these kids are learning about life in a small scale: how to be responsible, how to be helpful, how to communicate with each other, how to take care of each other. I think they're more mature than most their age. After university, they'll go to work knowing how to win, how to lose and how to fix the problem. Sailors learn lessons for life.'

The boys competed mostly in the Hong Kong Performance Number handicap.

It took about 4 1/2 hours for the monohull to make the passage to Daya Bay, competing against crews from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Britain and Turkey, as well as Hong Kong.

Grelon said: 'We had the leading edge because we sail three times a week.

'There's a lot of luck in sailing. You can suddenly have 45-degree wind shifts.

'We made the right tactical decisions to stay close to the coast where the winds were in our favour, overtaking offshore boats. We had good boat speed, balanced the boat and were conscious of our weight.'

Veteran skipper Frank Pong was impressed by the boys' performance.

'A nor'east monsoon that passed through the south China coast brought 30 knots and a 10 degree Celsius drop in temperature overnight,' he said. 'Yet the young crew held their nerve on board a substantially sized boat. What they achieved was quite remarkable, and it's important to realise they were sailing against some seasoned veterans who are highly competitive.'

Reflecting on the current zeitgeist of youth sailing, Pong said: 'I agree with the various sailing agencies who have removed any mention of the youngest person to sail around the world from their websites. The claim to be the youngest person to undertake this should not be given any further publicity.

'It's gone too far. Some of these sailors are just two years older than a person is when they can enter an elevator without an adult! The lads racing in the Shenzhen passage sailed close to the shore, with adults on board, in broad daylight and in a convoy with a fleet of similar-sized boats. That's a different thing entirely.'




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