Quest for China's Argonauts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am


For the next year or more, Thierry Barot will scour the length and breadth of China looking for prospective sailors who can join the mainland's odyssey for America's Cup glory in 2013.

Hong Kong-based Frenchman Barot is not a modern-day Jason, the legendary Greek hero, leading the Argonauts in a perilous sea quest for the Golden Fleece. Yet, the mission to win the Challenger Series by the China Team comprising mainly mainland sailors is a task of massive proportions, one which Barot, the chief executive of the team, acknowledges will be as tough as that mythical adventure.

'The aim by 2013 is to have seven members of the 11-man crew from China. Right now, we only have a couple and the goal is to unearth athletes in China who are willing to take on one of the biggest challenges in world sport,' says Barot, a 25-year America's Cup veteran.

His search will begin in earnest this week as the China Team - the crew only, and not the boat - take part in the fifth China Cup International Regatta in Shenzhen. Apart from keeping an eye on the racing, Barot will oversee a recruitment programme where he hopes to discover potential sailing talent that can man the yardarm.

The Chinese were sailing the seven seas well before Columbus even dreamed of going on his voyage of discovery. Barot hopes to draw on this proud history to find the sailors of today, failing which he will settle for a basketball player or rugby player.

'We are looking for former athletes, rowers, anyone with a sporting background,' says Barot. 'We want athletes because they have a competitive mentality. Before I became a sailor, I used to play rugby and I know how important the hunger to win is.'

With a 600-year history of sailing in China to uphold, Yves Carcelle, chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton, the sponsor of the America's Cup Challenger Series, believes the onus is on China Team to prove they can match this heritage.

'They will have to win the Louis Vuitton Cup and beat all the challengers before getting a chance to compete against the American defender, Oracle Racing. Just the kind of challenge the Chinese relish,' said Carcelle when it was announced the Chinese would be returning for a second bite of the cherry.

Four-time America's Cup competitor Barot was at the helm of the previous bid by the mainland, in 2007, when China Team finished last of the challengers. He is unfazed by that result, believing there is no way to go but up.

'We finished bottom last time in the Challenger Series and we have put that down to experience. The important thing is we are trying to put in place the foundation for professional sailing in China and the best way to do that is to create a hero at the top. What better way than to have a hero in the America's Cup, which is one of the top events in the sailing world,' says Barot.

He should know all about the America's Cup being the Holy Grail for sailors. The 53-year-old Frenchman has been involved in it since 1987. 'I have been involved as a sailor on four occasions, but this time I will be on land, or on a boat following the China Team,' said Barot, who represented France 'B' as a rugby player in the late 1970s.

A roving flanker who played club rugby for Montauban and Perpignan (the club that All Black flyhalf Dan Carter turned out for), Barot and French teammate and No 8 Bernard Gallay switched to sailing soon after hanging up their rugby boots. 'We were both grinders [people who winch the sails] on the French boat at the America's Cup in 1987. That was my first attempt at this wonderful event and we finished fourth in the Challenger Series. I sailed in two more America's Cups for France, in 1992 and 1995, before turning out for China Team four years ago,' Barot said.

In 2007, China Team made their America's Cup debut and Barot was the team manager. Due to a limited budget, he was press-ganged into duty on board the boat. This time he promises to stick to tshore, and with a bigger budget and outlay from team principal and mainland billionaire Wang Chaoyang, Barot's most-pressing task will be to identify the next generation of Chinese sailors.

America's Cup rules state that although the boat must be built in the country of origin, the crew can be drawn from anywhere. But as far as China Team is concerned, it is not just about winning, but putting in place a permanent legacy for sailing on the mainland, and that is why the hunt is on for local talent. 'The last time we had six Chinese sailors on board. Two of them are in contention this time, too, but we are looking for fresh talent. And our recruitment will begin in Shenzhen this weekend during the China Cup regatta,' Barot said.

It will go into over-drive in January 2012, when China Team will launch a tour of 12 cities in 16 months during which selected young athletes will train with international champions to compete for the seven positions reserved for Chinese sailors on the AC72 boat - the 72-footers that will be used in the America's Cup in 2013.

Among the crew now are Hong Kong-born Cheng Ying-kit, 30, a former world championship sailor, and Ma Jian, the former LA Clippers guard. Whether they will make the final cut for 2013 remains to be seen.

'Initially we are looking at having a core team of around 50 sailors from China and then we will trim it down to 20 or 25. It will be from this lot that we will pick our final seven Chinese sailors. The remaining four will be from overseas,' Barot said.

To strengthen the team and bring in new skills, China Team this month recruited New Zealanders Phil Robertson and Garth Ellingham, both experienced match-racing exponents. The pair will be part of the crew taking part in the China Cup Regatta in Shenzhen. With a wealth of experience in multi-hulls, they will also take part in the next leg of the America's Cup World Series in San Diego in November, and support the development of Chinese sailors as part of the training plan to ensure readiness by 2013.

At present, after two legs, China Team languish at the bottom of the overall standings - in ninth place - in the America's Cup World Series - an event that has been designed to enhance the sport's profile using one-design catamarans, AC45s, and sailed in different venues around the world.

'Yes, it has been a slow start, but our first priority is to build a team of Chinese sailors. It is important not only to have the flag of China on our boat, but also to have a Chinese presence on board,' Barot said.

Hong Kong is in the running to host a leg in the 2012 America's Cup World Series. That would be a huge boost for the team, as this would be akin to sailing on home waters. If the bid is a success, it would be a homecoming for Barot.

'I came to Hong Kong for the first time in May 1997, just before the handover. I had applied for a job at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club as a sailing co-ordinator, but they told me I was over-qualified for the position. So I looked around and soon joined Simpson Marine, the city's biggest yacht brokers,' said Barot.

Hong Kong became a second home for Barot, who became involved with the Valley rugby team, while continuing to take part in major sailing events including the Volvo Ocean Race and The Race (a round-the-world odyssey). In 2004, he was taken on board China Team as they dipped their toes into the America's Cup for the first time. With one campaign with the mainland team under his belt, Barot hopes the next one, 2013, will be a success.

'Our target is to finish in the top four in the Louis Vuitton Cup - the elimination series which will find out the challenger to take on America's Cup defender Oracle in 2013. And we want to do this with Chinese sailors on board. We want to create a brand, create a hero and establish the future of sailing in China,' Barot said.