Splashing in

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am


The sailors are a bit of an oddity, even as the stars of the show. Their tanned, weather-beaten faces contrast with those of the pale, wealthy women strolling the docks, parasols in hand. Their shouted conversations are in French, Spanish, Italian and English, standing out from the Putonghua spoken all around them. They stride across the docks with purpose, hoisting sails to their shoulders and fetching tools. The onlookers stroll, shopping bags in hand, and watch the flurry of activity.

Last month's Volvo Ocean Race stopover in Sanya, on Hainan Island, has been billed as the greatest sailing show the mainland has ever seen - with a promise of more to come. The sailors, and the brands that bought their skills, certainly hope the predictions are right. The mainland promises to not only save an expensive and exclusive sport from the ravages of the global financial crisis, but also to be a rare case in which people embrace the obscure sport for its spectacle alone.

While the sailors are most concerned with wind shifts, sail selection and sea state, they are not blind to the fact the mainland offers huge promise to their sport.

'With the number of people and the amount of money in China, and with everyone wanting to showcase to China, it's an ideal place to come,' says Chris Nicholson, skipper of Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand (it's a bit of a mouthful, but that's the official name of his team - and an example of the importance of sponsors to the sport; Camper and Emirates are brand names). Nicholson is also a two-time Olympian.

The Volvo Ocean Race is an around-the-world competition between the fastest 70-foot mono-hull yachts in the world. The current edition is stopping in 10 host cities on five continents and covering more than 39,000 nautical miles across four oceans over eight months. Each boat is crewed by 10 world-class sailors, making the event the very pinnacle of professional sailing.

The race has traditionally taken a southerly route around the world, stopping in yachting heartlands such as South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil. Although its 38-year history may be hallowed and studded with memorable moments for sailing aficionados, it has remained in obscurity in global sporting terms. However, the boats are becoming more expensive - averaging about Euro4.5 million (HK$45.6 million) each this race - and the sponsors are no longer satisfied with having their name emblazoned on a yacht that is pounding its way through the Southern Ocean, unseen by many. Add to that the economic decline of Europe, which has long been the engine of yachting, and the stage has been set for a major overhaul.

'The main drive for these teams is still coming from Europe. The money may come from somewhere else but the guys that drive it through in their home turf, they start in Europe,' says Norwegian Knut Frostad, chief executive of the Volvo Ocean Race, explaining why the financial crisis has hit the sport as hard as it has in recent years.

In 2008-2009, the race, held every three years, came to Asia for the first time, with the fleet stopping in Cochin, India; Singapore; and Qingdao, Shandong province. It was a significant change; the sailors faced seas they had never sailed before and millions of Asians got their first look at a sport as complicated and arcane as they come.

The sponsors, though, were ecstatic. The 2008-09 race generated 1.3 billon media views through print and television coverage, and Volvo's research found that people who had been exposed to the race were 10 per cent more likely to buy a Volvo product than those who had not been aware of the competition in any way.

The 2011-2012 race, currently sailing through the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties (southern latitudes) of the Pacific Ocean, from Auckland to Itajai, Brazil, has included stops in Abu Dhabi and Sanya, targeting emerging markets.

'China is probably the biggest common denominator,' Frostad says. 'It is probably our only port where every single sponsor in the race was using it [for special events].'

The Volvo and other races have run into serious trouble due to the financial crisis - the 2012 season of the Audi MedCup sailing competition, one of the world's premier racing circuits, has been cancelled while there are whispers the two-handed circumnavigation Barcelona World Race faces funding difficulties - making it more important than ever to keep the sponsors happy.

Frostad says the race village in Sanya - a dockside cluster of sponsor pavilions, cafes and games that simulate life aboard, set up alongside the boats - attracted 10,000 visitors a day during the week and 20,000 a day on weekends. It was in situ for just over two weeks.

'[On the final weekend of the stopover] we had close to 6,500 corporate guests. That is twice as big a hospitality weekend [as any we've had] in the history of the race,' says Frostad.

Frostad says expectations the race will return to the mainland are attracting new sponsors, many of which are luxury brands eager for their share of the nation's wealth. However, he says, it will take more than just commercial drive to make the sport a success in the mainland. It also will take participation. The mainland has a team in the running -Team Sanya- although it lags far behind the rest of the fleet. Abu Dhabi's team is also in the latter half of the fleet.

Frostad is keen to help create a sailing culture in the mainland - one with Chinese sailors. Team Sanya has just one Chinese sailor, Teng Jianghe, nicknamed 'Tiger' (the team is defined as Chinese because it is financed by Chinese backers). Teng was a rising star in the Chinese business world with a multimillion-dollar construction company before setting off on a pro-sailing career two years ago. Abu Dhabi has one token home sailor, too: Adil Khalid, a UAE Olympian.

Frostad points to the success of the National Basketball League and professional tennis in the mainland on the back of athletes such as Yao Ming and Li Na.

'For the next race I'm hoping to have three, four, five sailors that are good enough,' Frostad says. 'The difference between seeing that one of them can do it and just having the race visit is night and day.'

One way of encouraging the participation of teams from the sport's emerging markets - and thereby the individuals who might join those teams - would be to lower the cost of competition, which is about Euro20 million per team now, the bulk of which is spent on crew salaries, transporting the race village around the world, marketing and the funding of huge shore teams. Organisers have introduced a raft of rules to limit the amount that teams can spend on equipment and training.

'We need to capture the cost of winning the race to somewhere around Euro15 million with a new boat. That's our target for the next race,' Frostad says.

In sporting terms, the shift towards Asia has made the race 20 per cent longer, with many of those extra miles requiring tough upwind sailing instead of the downwind drag-racing the event is traditionally known for.

'We still get a fair bit of downwind sailing, but now there's more light air and upwind work and the boat must be more of an all-around boat,' says Stuart Bannatyne, a driver and trimmer aboard Camper, who is taking part in his sixth Volvo Ocean Race. 'The races have become a lot more physical and more intense each time I do them.'

The current race threaded the needle of the Malacca Strait, where crews encountered more fishing nets and marine traffic than wind. The sailors say this added an unwelcome dose of chance to the competition. The threat of unlit fishing traffic remained a danger throughout the Asian leg, a frightening prospect for a fragile carbon-fibre yacht travelling at 25 knots in the dark.

Changing the course also added the threat from Somali pirates to the mix. After leaving Cape Town in early December, the boats raced north into the Indian Ocean and then met at an undisclosed 'safe haven' -now known to have been in Male, in the Maldives- to be lifted from the sea, put onto ships and hauled to a location just outside Abu Dhabi. Back in the water, they raced in and out of Abu Dhabi, then were again ferried through the danger zone before resuming the race.

While the leg from Sanya to New Zealand was the first downwind, and therefore faster, portion of the race, Nicholson says it is the competition that makes the Volvo Ocean Race special, not the routing. 'This just makes it different. The level of competition is the highest I've seen in 10 years,' he says. 'As long as it is still the best and hardest ocean race in the world, I'll keep coming back.'

Difficult winter-sea conditions would make sailing the boats north from Sanya problematic. The leg to Qingdao in the previous race cost the teams heavily, the wild seas of the Luzon Strait taking their toll on boats and crews.

'I would love to have a fantastic marina in Shanghai and finish the race all the way up in the river and race out,' Frostad says. 'But it would be difficult to do in-port racing in there [because Shanghai is up-river] and it's the middle of the winter, eight degrees Celsius.'

Although the mainland is at the top of the sponsors' wish list, the race is looking at other emerging markets for potential stopovers. The effusive welcome the yachts received in India in 2008-09 is still talked about by shore crew and sailors. A total of 175 ports have expressed interest in hosting a stopover in the 2014-15 competition, although that number is likely to drop sharply when it comes time to enter official bids. The current race attracted some 80 serious bids.

'Among emerging markets around the world, Africa is a place we're looking at,' Frostad says. 'It's always just been Cape Town that was available, but now there's starting to be other options. We are also in dialogue with Malaysia, Japan and Korea,' which, in the case of the latter two, might be cold, but do have sailing cultures and facilities.

Hong Kong has made half-hearted attempts to attract the race to its shores but isn't likely to get a look in until it has a big backer with serious ambitions.

Frostad, who has added Chinese staff to his team since the Qingdao visit, says the experience in tropical Sanya was the more pleasant of the two. Furthermore, Chinese media have learned about sailing, increasing the value of their coverage of the event.

As the race calls in at new ports, it's likely to leave a lucrative legacy. The sailing culture in the mainland is sure to be different to that in Europe, and can be glimpsed at Sanya's Serenity Marina, which was purpose-built for the race stopover, although it wasn't quite finished in time. The designers made sure the marina was a venue that would appeal to local consumers for years to come. Industry analysts estimate the Asian mega-yacht market will eventually see US$350 million to US$500 million in annual sales, and the mainland is expected to account for a large portion of that.

The 300-berth marina, located on the western side of the peninsula dividing Sanya Bay and the popular Dadonghai beach area, is deep enough for super yachts and plush enough to appeal to their owners. The marina boasts an 'avenue' of high-end luxury shops, several fine restaurants and a hotel and spa, all built around the yacht club. Nearby villas and residences offer stunning sea views, and there's a five-star hotel and 18-hole golf course waiting for you when you step off your yacht.

'This marina is designed for Chinese guests, and I'd expect 95 per cent of [all guests] will be Chinese,' says Xavier Maurey, deputy general manager of Serenity Marina.

Maurey has no illusions about the market he is targeting, though, recounting the story of a wealthy Chinese businessman who bought a 100-foot Azimut luxury yacht. Upon delivery, he was asked if he wanted to go out for a ride on her. The buyer quickly declined, explaining that he was prone to seasickness. The yacht had been bought to sit in a marina as a floating bar for entertaining family and friends.

'The difference between a millionaire and a billionaire is the yacht,' Maurey says, leaning back in a leather armchair in one of the club's cafes. 'You can prove your status, but even at the end of this you still don't know how to swim.'

The marina is the kind of architectural mash-up that only seems to work in venues designed for the mainland's nouveau riche - piazzas with fountains, angular glass structures with a modern flair, a series of pavilions incorporating bamboo and rope, colonnades and Mediterranean-inspired indoor-outdoor combinations. At the entrance to the marina stands a white and red lighthouse that looks like it was airlifted from the New England coast.

'One regret we have is not putting in enough berths for big boats. The two berths for [131-foot] yachts have already been taken,' Maurey says.

Hainan Rendez-Vous, the mainland's largest in-water boat show, will take place at the nearby Visun Royal Yacht Club from April 5 to 8, attracting the top brands in international yachting, which hope to fill China's new marinas with their vessels. Most of the yachts on show will be of the large, flashy variety that say more about the owner's financial status than his sporting spirit, and some may sail the short distance to Serenity Marina to be berthed.

Nonetheless, Maurey is quick to point out that Serenity is a 'real' marina with plans for a full-service maintenance yard and sailing school and no integrated residential property. The majority of mainland marinas use yachts as a backdrop to expensive villas.

'Chinese people are rich but they are not really sailors yet. So for something like the Volvo Ocean Race, it will have a mid- to long-term impact more than a short-term impact,' Maurey says.

That hasn't dampened big ambitions, though. Wu Yanjun, deputy mayor of the resort town, announced at the opening ceremony of the marina that he wanted to bring the America's Cup -the world's largest and oldest sailing competition- to Sanya.

Much was made of Sanya's weather during the race stopover -sunny and hot with steady breezes- and the fact that this small tropical pocket exists while the rest of China, and even Hainan, is engulfed in dreary winter conditions. That is seen as a major advantage in Sanya's bid to be the country's premier sailing destination. For a rich tycoon facing an overcast Lunar New Year in Beijing or Shanghai, the option of jetting to Sanya to sit on his yacht -or even take it out onto the ocean- in the sunshine could easily be seen as a welcoming one.

The yachts filling the marina may not spend as much time on the high seas as they would if they were in the Mediterranean, but the mainland's embrace of sailing and the yachting lifestyle reflects the nation's economic rise and desire to enjoy a French Riviera lifestyle.

'Sometimes I feel that the Chinese like our race because it is something they aspire to, rather than [them wanting to] make the race Chinese,' Frostad says.