For a perfect weekend, just add some water

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 November, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 November, 2006, 12:00am

Next week's Laser Championships will showcase how recreational sailing has become accessible to more than a small, privileged elite in Hong Kong

Someone once said yacht racing is a bit like standing under a cold shower tearing up US$100 bills.

But the 40-strong fleet expected at the Hong Kong Laser Class Championships next weekend off Middle Island may disagree, at least on the cost. With a second-hand Laser for as little as HK$10,000, rising to HK$50,000 for a new model, the deceptively simple boat is within the budget of many.

'Lasers are one of the cheapest, simplest dinghies in the world, yet they offer the most competitive and closest racing of any class in the world,' said David Early, who has just returned from winning his division in the state championships in Australia and will be the one to watch next weekend. 'Whether there's a fleet of four or 40 Lasers out on the water, you're always in for a great race or a great ride,' he said.

Pitting skills out on the water next weekend will also be Jamie Dalton, a 16-year-old South Island School student who is the Hong Kong Laser youth champion.

This summer, he represented Hong Kong in the International Sailing Federation Youth World Championships in Weymouth, England. This event is regarded as the youth 'mini Olympics' for sailing. It attracts over 200 sailors from 63 nations and is a top training ground for up-and-coming sailors.

'We have some competitive Laser sailors in Hong Kong, like David Early, who won the Laser International Masters in Turkey two years ago. He's taught me a lot about racing,' Jamie said.

'One-design sailing means you have a relatively level playing field and it's about you and the elements. Lasers are a physical boat. The great thing about single-handed racing is that I only have myself to blame or thank if I do well or badly,' he said.

The solo aspect of the class also appeals to Australian lawyer Jamie Stranger.

'Skippers of other classes have to rely on crew. With the hectic schedule of Hongkongers this poses challenges. If my work or family commitments mean I can't race, I'm not letting anyone down. The Laser fleet races every two weeks, so I have time for other things,' he said.

While these sailors have been on the water virtually all their lives, not everyone who owns a Laser knew their port from their starboard or their bow from their stern before they knew their Alpha Bravo Charlies.

Mark Collins, sail training manager at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, said: 'We take over 500 adults and 600 children out on the water every year in our training courses. You don't have to be a member to participate in our courses. At the beginner level more than half are non-members. We've had people over 50 years of age taking the beginner courses.

'Times have changed since the Laser's introduction to Hong Kong and this style of boat is well accepted and understood. I love the fact that Laser is so low in the water you feel like you're going really fast. Surfing down a wave on a Laser is bliss.'

The Lasers have also undergone a renaissance, fuelled by the Olympics.

Sailing is often perceived as an elitist sport, full of club cliques, which many say is an erroneous perception. There are three main private sailing clubs in Hong Kong: the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, Aberdeen Boat Club and Hebe Haven Yacht Club.

The Hebe Haven club runs a 'wet feet programme' for children from the age of six years and above. Lisa Keatley, the club's general manager, said: 'Our aim is to introduce sailing to the community at large and one way of doing this is through our sailing-for-schools programme. Our instructors head off with a dinghy to our select schools where they introduce the fundamentals of sailing to children and teachers.

'Sailing and boating offers something for all the family. We even have a member who comes from Shenzhen every weekend to get out on the water.'

Kevin Lewis, dinghy co-ordinator at the Aberdeen Boat Club, said: 'Sailing is not just a sport for the rich and elite, it's very accessible.'

Boats without a motor don't require a helmsperson to hold a licence but all other crafts must carry at least one person on board who holds both a Masters and Engineers Certificate from the Hong Kong Marine Department.

While some believe there is a power-boat revolution happening in Hong Kong, exhibitors at next weekend's Hong Kong International Boat Show at Club Marina Cove in Sai Kung feel the growth in boating sales is reflective of the boom in property prices.

Simpson Marine's Robin Wyatt said: 'If you bought your home for HK$5 million and it's now worth HK$7 million or more, you feel good about slinging HK$1-2 million into a boat. It's about perceived wealth. During Sars many people discovered hiking in the hills. Many also got into boating.'

On display at the boat show will be everything from a HK$3,300 Feelfree New Zealand-designed kayak to possibly the show's most expensive boat, a 25.3-metre Italian Ferretti luxury cruiser at a cool HK$44.7 million.

Wyatt believes the trend is also towards local ownership. 'We find that we are selling 50 per cent of our sailing yachts to Hong Kong Chinese customers. This is an especially radical departure from pre-handover days. People from all walks of life in Hong Kong are realising that boating is a great way to spend your leisure time and get away from the crowds, noise and pollution. At the Hong Kong International Boat Show, we won't so much be selling boats as selling a lifestyle and selling the marine industry per se.'

While power boaters and sailors don't always see eye to eye, they all agree on the beauty of Hong Kong's waterways.

'Few people know that less than an hour from your office in Central you can be on a boat in a remote cove or moored off a white sandy swimming beach. Boating is Hong Kong's best kept secret,' said Mark Houghton, vice-commodore at Hebe Haven.