All shipshape at yacht club as commodore leaves helm

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am

On Wednesday, Warwick Downes will step down from the helm as commodore of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, and will be replaced by Ambrose Lo Hoi-ying.

As he sails into the metaphorical sunset, Downes can rest contented that he has helped put the building blocks in place for the sport's development.

The biggest of them all is the Louis Vuitton Trophy Hong Kong. This extravaganza arrives with all its bells and whistles in January next year when Victoria Harbour will be transformed into a spectacular setting for its first major international yacht race.

Four America's Cup-class boats, with about 10 international teams featuring many of the biggest names in the sport, will take on each other in match racing of the highest calibre.

No wonder Downes looked at ease with the world as he talked about Hong Kong's first-ever fling at hosting a big-time regatta. It is one that will put the city in the global spotlight and why the government has jumped on board, providing millions of dollars to help stage the event.

'It will be an amazing event. It will raise Hong Kong's visibility and get Hong Kong's name out,' Downes said. 'The world will see our beautiful harbour and the tall buildings. It will be a great advertisement for Hong Kong.'

However, it is not all about raising the city's profile and image for Downes. What gives him most satisfaction is it offers the sport the opportunity to piggyback on the fame of the boats and sailors and hopefully spark the development of a future flotilla of sailing talent.

With this in mind, Downes and the organising committee - even though he will no longer be commodore, he will still head the committee - have planned a youth regatta, with the winner getting the chance to be on one of the America's Cup boats in the final on January 23.

'We hope the Louis Vuitton Trophy will spark interest in the sport,' Downes said. 'Just look at what happened to windsurfing. After Lee Lai-shan won an Olympic gold medal, there was a lot of interest in the sport. [Windsurfing coach] Rene Appel has kept it going and the sport is in a healthy state.'

He hopes the attraction of a major regatta will similarly fire the imagination of youngsters to take up the sport.

'We have a junior programme, but it is not quite sustainable and we are trying to make it better. But with a big event like this here, it will give the kids the opportunity to meet the rock stars of sailing.

'Our plan is to hold a mini-sailing regatta for kids at the same time and the winner gets to sail in the final. There are always 17 crew and a spare passenger. During the round robins, this spare place will go to VIPs, sponsors or people from the government, but for the final the winner of the youth regatta will be the 18th person.

'We want the kids to meet the top sailors,' Downes said. 'The sailors will be here for three weeks and it will be a wonderful opportunity. There will be a lot of interaction. As a club, we want to benefit Hong Kong and this is our attempt to grow the sport.'

Plans are afoot to bring in 20 or 30 Bic O'Pen boats for the children. While the Louis Vuitton Trophy will be held in Kowloon Bay - the best place to watch from shore will be the Tsim Sha Tsui East-Hung Hom waterfront, Tai Koo Shing, Quarry Bay and North Point areas - the organisers hope they can get permission from the Marine Department and other government agencies to hold the mini-regatta in front of the race village, which will be in Central at Pier 9 and Pier 10.

'They had a youth regatta when the race was held in Auckland this year. But the Auckland basin is protected water, which we don't have here. We will have to work out how we can come up with something similar, perhaps get barges and put them around the race course,' Downes said.

He is hopeful the government will give the approval. It has learnt its biggest support came from the Tourism Commission's Mega Events Fund. Yachting was only one of two sports - the other being tennis - which received funding from the first round of applications last year.

'We went to the Mega Events Fund last March. If this fund wasn't there, we would still have gone to the government for support,' Downes said. 'This event, while good for sailing, does not really benefit our [yacht club] members. This is more for the benefit of Hong Kong as a whole.

'That is why we went to the government. We are helping facilitate the event and to make it happen. The government recognises this and that is why it is supporting us.'

Everything is on schedule. The race village, which hopefully will exhibit the China boat that took part at the last America's Cup, will have big screens and hospitality areas for VIPs. The public will also be free to wander around. Entrance will be free.

The biggest worry for Downes will be the weather in January. 'My concern is the weather early in the year is a variable,' he said. 'While we had fantastic winds in January last year, this year wasn't very good. We had good days and bad days.

'What we want is two weeks of very good winds. These are sailing boats and the more wind the better, for it will be spectacular.

'The racing will be close if there are light winds, but as far as being a spectator sport, you want winds of around 20 knots, then you will see more mistakes and that will make it more interesting. But the weather is out of our hands.'

Downes and the organisers have brought a major attraction to town. It is now up to nature to provide the perfect conditions, creating a memorable event that will capture the imagination of the younger generation.