Mainland sailor dreaming on an ocean wave

Vicky Song attempts to become the first Chinese woman to sail around the world in the good yacht Qingdao

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 March, 2014, 10:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 March, 2014, 10:17pm

Vicky Song Kun couldn't wait to get back to Qingdao - waiting in the marina would be her mum, who is battling cancer, and it has been seven months since she last saw her.

Song, a crew member of the boat Qingdao, one of 12 yachts in the 2013-14 Clipper Round the World Race is attempting to become the first Chinese woman to circumnavigate the globe.

She is halfway there and it has been a battle on two fronts - emotional as well as physical, trying to meet nature's many challenges out on the deep blue.

On the ocean you get a better perspective, especially when you know you can lose your life anytime.
Vicky Song Kun

"There are so many things in life you take for granted, but out on the ocean you get a better perspective, especially when you know you can lose your life anytime," said Song in Hong Kong last weekend when the Clipper fleet made an unscheduled stopover.

It was a "quick pit-stop" after three boats in the 12-strong fleet experienced rigging problems during the Singapore to Qingdao leg. All the boats were diverted to Hong Kong as a safety precaution where the rigging was changed.

Song, 32, was impatient to get going as the longer spent in Hong Kong meant less shore time in her hometown Qingdao, leaving her with just a few precious days with her mum.

"I have been keeping in touch with her as much as I can over the past seven months. Whenever we are in port I call her every day and when we are out I try to call her on the satellite phone, when it works, once a week at least. It is tough, I miss her. She has to time her hospital treatment so she can come and greet me at the marina," Song said.

Just before Song departed for London for the start of the 11-month odyssey in September, her mother was diagnosed with liver cancer. She had wanted to put on hold her sailing dream so she could take care of her mum. She was scolded.

"My mum told me I should go and compete, instead of staying at home and taking care of her. So we made a promise to each other - never to give up. We are both fighting different battles. I hope my battle out in the ocean gives her courage to be strong-minded so she can fight her cancer," Song said.

"When I felt things were too hard and wanted to cry, I would remember the promise that my mother and I made. And this is reinforced every time I hear her voice when I call her. She cheers me up and I try to cheer her up. It's not easy. It feels so good to hear her voice, though I cry sometimes," Song said.

The Clipper Race is the longest distance race in the world, covering 40,000 miles, 14 ports of call on six continents, and taking nearly a year to complete. Song will stop over in Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Singapore, China, United States, Jamaica, the Netherlands and other countries during her voyage, which ends in London in July.

Apart from spending as much time as possible with her mum whilst in Qingdao - the city was home to the sailing events during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games - Song will have another key responsibility on her shoulders: victualling the boat. And top of her grocery list is noodles and soy sauce.

"I have been struggling to eat western food for the past six months and I will be shopping for a lot of Chinese-flavoured stuff," Song smiled. "It will be good to have something different to eat."

During the Lunar New Year - "it is so hard to keep track of time on board" - Song and another Chinese crew member decided to celebrate by making traditional dumplings.

"What I learned was that it is very difficult to make dumplings while on a boat out in the middle of the ocean. But it made me so happy because it brought back memories of home. We somehow managed and everyone got five dumplings each."

The Qingdao-born Song began life as a sailor racing dinghies inshore. A manager of a small sailing club, she had never sailed in an offshore race, although it had always intrigued her.

"When the opportunity arose and they were looking for sailors to take part in the Clipper Race, I put my name forward and was lucky to be picked. Sailing is a relatively new sport in China and I'm fortunate to be in this position," Song said.

"If I'm able to complete this race and become the first Chinese woman to sail around the world, I'm sure it will raise the profile of the sport at home and that is my aim."

The race solely for amateurs and held every two years is the brainchild of Englishman Robin Knox-Johnston who 45 years ago became the first man to sail solo non-stop round-the-world. Now 74, he watches proudly as Song attempts to become the first Chinese woman to trace his voyage.

"She is a great and lovely lady and I'm very proud of her and what she is trying to do. This race is for Corinthians [amateur] and she embodies that spirit," said Knox-Johnston whose vision was to offer ordinary people from all walks of life the opportunity to experience the challenge of ocean racing.

"More than 6,000 people have climbed Mount Everest, but only around 2,500 have sailed around the world. This is the ultimate test in sailing and I'm delighted that a Chinese woman is trying to do accomplish it too," said Knox-Johnston.

When the sea is calm and on a clear moonlit night, Song is at peace with the world.

"When you see the waters glowing with jelly fish, or dolphins chasing the boats, it feels so wonderful. I have seen so many remarkable things like flying fish. But at the same time there is also the bad weather. When we made the southern crossing, we had winds of 40 knots with gusts of up to 60 knots. When I was sailing dinghies in Qingdao and we had winds of 10 knots we thought it was severe conditions."

Her biggest challenge is coming up - the longest leg of the race across the Pacific from Qingdao to San Francisco which is expected to last more than 40 days.

"I know this is the most difficult leg and that it will be very cold. One year when the fleet left Qingdao it was snowing. We have heard how tough the conditions will be out there, but I think I'm ready for it.

"This race has changed my life. Having to confront situations where you know you could lose your life is an eye-opening experience. This has changed my personality - I'm tougher and a more confident person," Song said.

In 2005-06, Guo Chuan became the first Chinese sailor to compete in the Clipper Race. Last year Guo went one better when he completed an ambitious solo non-stop circumnavigation in 137 days. He is also from Qingdao.

"We have already had a Chinese man go round the world. I'm now trying to become the first Chinese woman. In 2012, I did one leg, But this time I want to complete the whole race and I will not give up because of the promise I made with my mum," Song said.