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PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
 

Plymouth Sound brims with seafaring history and this week the hallowed waters witnessed another historical plot - China's audacious assault on the oldest sporting trophy in the world, the America's Cup.

Team China have been squaring up to the world's sailing powerhouses including Spain, France, the United States and New Zealand in the second leg of the America's Cup World Series, which concludes today.

But it has not all been plain sailing. The Team China crew escaped serious injury when they pitch-poled and capsized their state-of-the-art catamaran - a yacht designed with such action in mind so as to attract a new global audience with thrills and spills.

On board the week-long Chinese challenge were novice sailors Cheng Ying-kit, a Hong Kong businessman, and mainland veteran basketball player Ma Jian.

Like the rest of the five-man crew, they were unhurt in the capsize - though the boat needed urgent and costly repairs to continue.

Cheng and Ma represent the Chinese compliment among the international professional race sailors assembled by mainland billionaire businessman Wang Chaoyong.

Wang is bankrolling the multimillion-dollar venture in what is China's second showing in the 162-year-old competition.

With an air of confidence as strong as the westerly blowing up the English Channel, he believes the Chinese flag is destined to flutter over the coveted gold cup.

'While sailing is still a relatively new sport in China, we are ready to compete against the best sailing teams in the world for the most prestigious sailing sports trophy,' says Wang, who has amassed a fortune through his financial company, China Equity Investment.

When it comes to slaking its thirst to be a world beater, swashbuckling China does not so much toe-dip to test the waters but jumps in at the deep end.

Wang's expensive expedition to reach the 34th America's Cup finals in San Francisco in 2013 has the seal of approval from the country's leaders in Beijing.

'We have the full support of the Chinese government,' Wang says proudly.

Always keen to fire a soft power shot across the bows of the international community, Beijing has told Wang to start press-ganging in earnest.

A fast-track programme has been launched at mainland academies and universities to train enough sailors, yacht designers and sail makers to make the dragon-festooned yacht 100 per cent Chinese crewed within a decade.

'Team China is a true Chinese challenger and will be powered by mainly Chinese sailors on what will be a China-built boat. We are actively recruiting the Chinese sailors through a series of training camps all over China,' says Wang, who has headquartered the team in Hong Kong.

Meantime, he has put in place a team of foreign experts to show the Chinese the ropes, including 25-year America's Cup veteran Thierry Barot, the Team China CEO.

The inclusion of household sports personality Ma is a ploy to raise interest on the mainland. And the former LA Clippers player admits landlubbers like him have a steep learning curve to navigate.

'I am a basketball player, not a sailor. I may have the athletic strength and the mental discipline required but I am a novice to sailing and therefore need to learn everything. And I mean everything,' he says.

But he's in no doubt China should be sitting at sailing's top table. 'China has proven itself over and over again that we have what it takes to be among the top in many sporting events, so the America's Cup is no different. Our athletes belong here, just like we belong in gymnastics and basketball,' says Ma.

Cheng is a keen amateur sailor and joined the team in Portugal last month during the first regatta of the World Challenge Series. 'I love sailing but I have never sailed at a competitive level such as this. I am starting to get the idea of the level of discipline, commitment and focus needed. It's going to be a challenge,' he said.

Tasked with knocking the Chinese recruits into shape is coach Derek Clark, who has helped train Olympic sailing champions Team Great Britain.

'The Chinese guys are being shown the processes they need to learn to handle a racing boat like this but they don't have any special preference,' he says.

Boat captain Charlie Ogletree, a former US Olympian and sail designer, says he is impressed with his Chinese prodigies.

'I think the team is gelling well and it just gets better with time spent together. It's a steep learning curve for the Chinese and there is a gap in skills ability. But I think the gap can be closed. It's not going to happen overnight - nothing does. It comes from hard work,' he says.

He adds: 'But with the proper amount of time and training, the Chinese can be as good as anybody.'

The America's Cup rules were overhauled a year ago. Traditional single-hull yachts have been ditched in favour of super-fast multihull, wing-sail catamarans.

More competition has also been added to build excitement.

The America's Cup now consists of three main stages - the America's Cup World Series followed by the Louis Vuitton Cup, and then the Cup-decider - the America's Cup finals.

Two new boat designs, the AC45 and the AC72, have been introduced.

The AC45's have been introduced to allow the teams to get to grips with the cutting-edge carbon-fibre wing-sail.

The bigger class AC72 will be used next year for the Louis Vuitton Cup and the America's Cup finals in 2013.

There was talk of the World Cup Series, which began last month in Portugal, heading to Hong Kong, where the wing-sail boats would operate well in the territory's light airs.

But instead Venice has been added to the tour and the series then travels to San Diego and Newport, Rhode Island.

'The design-swap means sailing can take place in light winds and ensure races start on time and hold the spectators' attention,' says Richard Worth, the chairman of the America's Cup Event Authority.

Plymouth is a natural amphitheatre for watersports events and the race course runs close inshore and within metres of the Hoe where Sir Francis Drake played his infamous game of bowls as he prepared to repel the Spanish Armada 400 years ago.

In the early battle for the America's Cup, corporate hospitality tents have been erected on the bowling green and up to 10,000 fans watched the frantic jibes and tacks in often challenging conditions.

Similar to the cannons once trained on the approaching Spanish fleet, the sight of the Chinese wu xing hong qi (Five Star Red Flag) flying over the illustrious waters is loaded with nuance and metaphor.

For the America's Cup organisers, it is a marketing boon.

The event has suffered from a poor profile and is seen by many as a complex and impregnable elite sport engaged in only by the very wealthy.

What's more, following the rule changes, two big guns of the marquee event, Britain and Australia, bowed out.

The arrival of the Chinese team therefore is seen as a vital for the competition's future.

'The entry of Team China is extremely valuable on multiple levels. They represent enormous commercial and growth markets for the sport of sailing,' says Worth.

He says under Wang, Team China have built 'a long term [10 years] success strategy'.

'A vital component is the connection that Team China brings for sponsors of other teams, and strong visibility into an attractive market. The biggest response we received from any press conference was from commercial enquiries following the announcement of Team China's entry,' says Worth.

South Korea is also flying the flag for Asia but as yet there are no Korean nationals among the Team Korea crew.

Whether the presence of Asian teams in the America's Cup can boost the sport of sailing in the region remains to be seen.

China's sailing sector is making sluggish progress and remains very much the preserve of the country's mega rich.

Despite throwing millions of dollars to build flash facilities and train a team for the 2008 Olympic regatta in Qingdao, Chinese competitive sailors rarely make a splash to entice spectators along the shoreline.

Anomalies such as retired professional basketball players hanging off of the rigging might not be enough to attract the masses.

But the America's Cup new catamarans do answer those critics who claim that race-sailing is too complex and boring to become a popular spectator sport.

I was offered a place on board the Team China boat ahead of the competition and was ordered to replace my floppy sun hat with a crash helmet - and, as Team China's spill proved, for good reason.

I am a qualified off-shore yacht master who has sailed all manner of vessels. But aside from a fairground ride, little prepares you for the stomach jolt as the boat powers up like Usain Bolt out of the starting blocks.

The carbon-fibre main sail is aerodynamically a perfect wing shape - and the boat flew along in a cloud of spray, the surge of power elevating the windward hull more than 10 feet out of the water.

Even in moderate winds, we were white-knuckled and hull up within seconds and racing along at over 20 knots.

In essence, the wing sail - identical in design to an airplane wing - creates its own wind and thus boosts speed to unprecedented levels, even in calm conditions.

The boats demand sailors to be at the top of their game as they are easy to capsize - a unique selling point to thrill-seeking spectators.

Team China's next boat, the AC72, will be built in China by Chinese designers to America's Cup specifications and will be launched next February.

'This will be an opportunity to showcase China's talents in the leading-edge, hi-tech areas of both hydrodynamics and aeronautics,' says Team China's Austrian designer Yann Dabbadie, who is helping train his Chinese peers.

Coach Clark has been around long enough to see several attempts to boost the profile of the sport - and has watched them founder.

But he believes the new designs mark a departure point. 'I think these boats and this competition will help raise the profile of sport sailing, not just in China but in the world.

'This is on a level with what happened in Formula One and the changes it underwent about 25 years ago - where somebody grabbed hold of it and said this is not good enough. You have to have a benevolent dictatorship to take the sport screaming into a new phase, and that's what is being done.'

The landlubbers in Beijing are no doubt saluting this new Chinese presence on the high-seas, photos of a capsized dragon aside.

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