Can China rule the waves again?
Seven mainlanders and one Hongkonger are fighting for right to take part in famed Volvo Ocean Race
Rock climbing wasn't much of a dare for William Wu Liang so he decided to try his hand at sailing. China's America's Cup sailor is now hoping to get picked for his biggest challenge yet - taking part in the Volvo Ocean Race round the world.
Wu is one of eight Chinese sailors who have made the cut and is part of the Dongfeng Race Team presently training and commissioning two training boats in Hong Kong.
All hope to be picked to take part in the eight-month long odyssey - which begins in Alicante, Spain, in October - to traverse the globe stopping at nine cities, before finishing in Gothenburg, Sweden.
"It has been my dream always to take part in an ocean race. I raced in the America's Cup for China Team [in 2011], but that was match-racing. This is totally different, another entirely new experience," says Wu as he takes a break from working on the training boats, which are high and dry on land at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club.
He is one of seven mainlanders who made the cut from an original list of 20. The eighth sailor is Hong Kong-born Cheng Ying-kit, the team leader, handpicked from a bunch with résumés including the Olympics, America's Cup, Extreme 40 series and the Clipper Race.
"On the last occasion, there was a boat from China, Team Sanya, but it had only one or two local sailors. Our aim is to have a crew of which at least half will be Chinese with the aim, one day down the line, to have a full Chinese crew. This is the first step," says Englishman John Thorn, Dongfeng Race Team performance director.
A leading vehicle manufacturer in China, Dongfeng wants to find a new generation of Chinese sailors.
"China has a proud sailing heritage. Six hundred years ago China had an admiral Zheng He who ruled the seas and with such a proud heritage and long history, I think sailing is in our blood," Wu said. "But in recent times, sailing has taken many steps back and not many people knew about or were interested in the sport. But that is all changing.
"Ever since we started winning medals at the Olympics in sailing, the profile has risen and more people are taking notice. This is another step towards the goal of making the sport popular across China."
From Shanghai, the 43-year-old Wu admits his wife and daughter "were surprised about the decision [to go for the team] at first. They are now worried about safety and health. I understand how tough the race will be, and I expect a lot if I can take part in it."
The eight sailors from the first trials will now go forward in the training programme before a second round of trials next month. Once the two training boats are commissioned, Wu and company will sail them back to their training base in Sanya (Hainan) where they will practice under Thorn.
In the meantime, the racing boat, a Volvo 65, is set to arrive in Hong Kong in a fortnight. This too will be commissioned here before it is taken to Sanya.
"Previous editions of this race were a race design competition, so entrants could field their own designs. But now it has been standardised and every team will have a Volvo 65, which means everyone will be on the same keel, so to speak," Thorn said.
Begun in 1973, the event remains sailing's pre-eminent round-the-world yacht race and one of the most coveted prizes in the sport.
Yau Tong resident Cheng's love for sailing started when he used to work in the marine industry as a shipyard engineer in Hong Kong. Now 33, Cheng has "retired" and is a full-time sailor.
"I was also part of the China Team at the last America's Cup and it has not been difficult integrating with the other sailors from the mainland," Cheng said.
"We know each other well, and thankfully my Mandarin is quite good. I have always dreamed of taking part in an ocean race and that is why I'm here."
Cheng represented Hong Kong in the dinghy class at Asian and world level in the late '90s. He is confident Dongfeng can hold their own against the best.
Another successful candidate is Liu Ming, who has been sailing for over 10 years: "I'm confident and full of passion to accept this challenge. It may be the most important voyage of my life," said Liu. Olympic dinghy Laser sailor Shen Sheng, who represented his country at the Beijing Olympics, also made the cut.
Thorn said: "There is a lot of experience among this lot and all are good sailors. But we will still have some crew from overseas and probably the skipper too will be foreign. We haven't yet decided who that will be as yet."
Team director Bruno Dubois was delighted by the candidates' interest. "The fact that we had an Olympic athlete taking part in the first trials gives you an idea of the calibre of the applicants. However, this is where the hard work really begins for these eight sailors to try and earn a place onboard the boat for the race.
"These men have a tough time ahead, sailing around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race is a huge achievement in itself, but for these sailors it means carrying the hopes of their country on their shoulders and becoming part of a sailing legacy in China."