Missing from the world map

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 February, 2012, 12:00am


The berths are spacious and deep. There are acres of dockside space for exhibitions. The clubhouse and waterside restaurants are new and offer views of clear blue water and gleaming yachts under warm tropical sunshine.

It's no wonder the Volvo Ocean Race chose to stop in Sanya, on Hainan island, instead of in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour.

Hong Kong has made two half-hearted attempts at winning the right to host a stopover on the world's toughest, most prestigious yacht race, and it has lost out both times. Unless it changes its strategy, it will continue to lose to other Chinese cities that offer new marinas, government support and an enthusiasm for the carnival atmosphere that follows the racing yachts into port.

'I would love to stop in Hong Kong for many reasons,' says Knut Frostad, the chief executive director of the Volvo Ocean Race, repeating an assessment that sailing fans in Hong Kong have heard countless times. 'First of all, it's a nice place to sail to and from, and there's obviously more of a sailing presence there than here [Sanya]. We did look at Hong Kong carefully before this race and we were in a good dialogue with them.

'We didn't push very hard from our side because when you have Chinese cities that are begging to have the event and will do anything you want, and then in Hong Kong we sort of feel that...' and Frostad shrugs his shoulders, displaying the level of commitment he felt from the Hong Kong government.

Hong Kong has mooted the idea of hosting the World Match Racing Tour (WMRT), the Volvo Ocean Race and an event on the Louis Vuitton Trophy circuit. Only the latter, which was destined for Pier 10 in Central, has come close to reality, and it was cancelled due to factors out of the city's control.The HK$45 million regatta, set for January 2011 after securing up to HK$10 million of government funds, was scuppered when American, New Zealand and other top racing teams decided to skip the event to compete in America's Cup-related races. Hosting an international yacht race costs money and requires the right infrastructure. While other cities offer to build what is needed - the Serenity Marina in Sanya was designed specifically for the race - Hong Kong has offered the VOR berths alongside construction sites or on far-flung islands miles away from the spectators that sponsors require to make the economics of the race workable.

'Currently there is no single venue within Victoria Harbour capable of providing the location for a race village and logistics area required to host the stopover,' said Joachim Isler, vice-commodore of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club.

Isler said that while the government was committed to bringing high-profile events to Hong Kong, its approach needed fine-tuning.

'The current Mega Event funding model offers some challenges for events such as this and it may be the case that a different model for event funding might produce a more positive outcome,' he said.

Frostad is even proposing a sail-by through Victoria Harbour, with the fleet stopping for only a few hours, instead of a full two-week stop that requires a race village and boat yard.

'It would be really fun. You could even stop for 12 hours, and make a really good show of that, and maybe that is something we'll look at again,' Frostad said.

Various members of Hong Kong's international sailing community have tried their hand at leading a VOR bid. Karl Kwok has been involved, as has Kiwi skipper Gavin Brady. Neither has succeeded, and Frostad suggests it's time for a change of guard.

'What we need to find in Hong Kong is someone who is willing to put their hat down and drive it,' Frostad said. 'I think we need someone new, fresh, to take it on, who works hard on it and gets businesses involved.'

The race will continue to come to China, so Hong Kong will get another chance. Race sponsors are keen for the boats to stop in African and Asian emerging markets. But the competition will continue to be tough. The current edition of the race had more than 80 bidders, while Frostad says 175 cities have expressed interest in hosting the 2014-2015 race.

Hong Kong waters, and the route that the race would take in and out of Hong Kong, certainly create a challenge for the Volvo Open 70 class boats. Nearly too much of a challenge.

The Strait of Luzon (between Taiwan and the Philippines) earned a reputation for breaking boats in the 2008-09 race when the northeast monsoon battered the fleet on its way north to Qingdao. In the 2011-12 edition, currently making its way from Sanya to Auckland, the entire fleet was held in port as organisers waited for nasty conditions to calm on the South China Sea.

Even after the delay, the yachts ran into five-metre seas and heavy winds as they fought their way across the strait and over the top of Luzon. Wind against current only steepened the waves, and the 5,220-nautical mile leg was billed as the most challenging part of the 39,000-nautical mile around-the-world race.

'The sea state plays a very big role when you're racing these boats because the hull is flat, so it slams on every wave [instead of cutting through the wave]. You have to try to slow the boat down in heavy conditions,' says Will Oxley, navigator aboard Camper, with Emirates Team New Zealand and a well-known racer on the Hong Kong circuit.

The rough weather means the predicted 18-day crossing may take several days longer, forcing crews to begin rationing their freeze-dried food supplies. Asian waters are also notorious for small, unlit fishing vessels and their nets, dangerous obstacles to a sailing yacht screaming through the dark seas at well over 20 knots. 'It will be a bit of a tightrope walk for the first 650 miles,' said Chris Nicholson, the Australian skipper of the Camper team. 'Imagine trying to get a net off the keel in four- to five-metre seas.'

Hong Kong sailing fans will watch and cheer them on from afar, hopeful that someday Nicholson and his crewmates will drop anchor in Victoria Harbour.


Number of cities that have expressed an interest in hosting the 2014-2015 race

Global challenge

The boats

Length: 21.5m

Draft: 4.5m

Mast: 31.5m

Price: HK$45 million

Top speed: In excess of 30 knots. Record is 596.6 nautical miles in 24 hours

The crew

Number of crew: 10 (+1 onboard media person)

Physical toll: Sailors lose up to 8kg in each leg of the race.

Fuel: Sailors burn 6,500-9,000 calories/day

Workday: 4 sailors on deck at a time for 4 hours at a time, 24 hours a day

The race

History: This is the 11th race in the past 38 years

Distance: 39,000 nautical miles (72,000km)

Number of ports: 10

Number of teams: 6