Facing down his fears

Skipper Leon Chan has no qualms returning to deepwater competition in the San Fernando Race despite the sinking of his boat's predecessor in the South China Sea

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 5:20am

Leon Chan Nim-leung has a new concubine and is looking forward to a "pleasurable trip" aboard her when the biennial San Fernando Race gets under way on Wednesday.

Before his wife and two daughters get upset, let's hasten to make it clear that the object of his desire is nothing more than the latest boat the Tipsy Syndicate has acquired for the 480 nautical mile dash from Hong Kong to the Philippines.

The Beneteau First 50 has been named Tipsy Easy in gratitude to the freighter Easy Success, which plucked Chan and 10 others out of danger from a menacing South China Sea last June after the third boat owned by the syndicate, Tipsy Frenz, sunk during the China Sea Race.

"We have always named our boats Tipsy, which in Cantonese pronunciation means 'concubine'," smiles Chan. "This is our fourth 'concubine' we will be sailing to San Fernando, starting with Tipsy Too, our first boat we bought in 1988, then Tipsy Free followed by Tipsy Frenz."

Once bitten has not led to a case of shying away from the challenges of another deep bluewater crossing, however, and Chan and company are back for another tilt with nature as they get ready for the first deepwater race on Tipsy Easy. Four other members of the crew who were on the ill-fated crossing last June are also back - Dr Yong Kong-fan, who will be skippering the boat, Dr Lau Sai-kit, Tang Wai-chung and Fiona Cheung Ning, a registered nurse and regular sailor.

"We are back again with our new boat and will be, as usual, sailing with no fear," Chan said.

With the passage of time, Chan, who was skipper last year, feels more comfortable talking in depth about the incident which he describes as a "close shave" with death. But he said he had no time for fear when the drama took place on Tipsy Frenz, a 14-metre Wauquiez Centurion 45S, which met its ill-fated end on June 3, 2012, when, just over one-and-a-half days into the Taiwan straits crossing from Hong Kong to Kaohsiung, it started to take on water in the cabin.

Chan recounts the last minutes of the boat. "The water level in the cabin had reached knee-height within a few minutes after I was informed of the danger. I quickly came to the decision that it was beyond our means to save the boat - previously we had two other incidents of water intake during offshore races and we managed to bail water out fast enough - and that the lives of the crew were paramount.

"I ordered those in the cabin to grab the flares, any food and our satellite phones, then I told those crew outside to lower our sails and to get the [two] life rafts ready. A lot of people have since asked me if I was afraid and my answer all along has been that I was too busy trying to bail water out, trying to keep the crew calm and seeing that the rafts were deployed, to have time to be afraid."

The incident report, which has now been made public, reveals that it took just seconds for the situation to turn dangerous. The call was made by Chan to abandon the boat and May Day calls were sent out to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, organisers of the race. While the crew was descending into the life rafts, Chan ordered a flare to be fired into the night sky (it was 2.30 am). The two rafts held five and six crew each and, after boarding them, Chan ordered a second flare into the sky.

"At this time, the rafts were still tied to the boat but I was worried that if Tipsy Frenz sank, it would take us down with her, so I ordered that the ropes be cut," the 57-year-old Chan, a solicitor by profession, said.

Minutes after the ropes were cut, Tipsy Frenz disappeared in the three-metre-high waves. The two life rafts, tied to each other, drifted in the sea for an hour but rescue was at hand when the lights of a ship were spotted. A third flare was launched into the sky and this was seen by the vessel Easy Success.

"We used our VHF radio to communicate with the ship to ask them to liaise with Hong Kong authorities for our rescue," said Chan. "We were told that the Hong Kong rescue helicopters would not be able to arrive for some time as they would need to refuel en-route. Dawn broke soon after and a helicopter [from Kaohsiung] did turn up. But we were advised to get on board Easy Success as any helicopter from Hong Kong would not have sufficient fuel for its return leg."

As Easy Success approached the life rafts, the link between them broke as it was unable to withstand the impact of the waves. But fortunately all crew were safely rescued and they learned subsequently that the ship was heading to Manila.

"The only moment I had some fear about my life was after I had assisted everyone in my life raft to board our saviour," related Chan. "I felt so tired, the adrenaline had run dry, and I doubted I could climb the 10-metre high ladder up the hull of the ship. It was then that it all sunk in."

There was a sequel to the happy ending with the insurance coverage on Tipsy Frenz being paid and the discovery that a new boat was on the market.

"We had no issues at all in our syndicate deciding to keep going and buy a boat to continue our passion in ocean sailing," Chan said.

"The deal to buy a new boat was completed within 18 weeks of the time our old boat sank and we are now ready to go again.

"All of us have experienced many challenges in 20 years of offshore racing - water intake, fire, grounding, hitting the mast, the boom and sails breaking - but that was our closest shave."

Tipsy Easy will be among the 25-strong armada setting of for San Fernando on Wednesday. It will be her first ocean passage and while the aim will be to gain line honours and break the course record of 49 hours, 55 minutes and 12 seconds set by FfreeFire in 2001, crossing the finish line would be greeted as a victory by Chan and company.

"We want to have a fast and pleasurable trip on the deep blue sea and to say 'Good Morning South China Sea' on our new boat," said Chan.