Why so few young Hongkongers get a chance to learn sailing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 August, 2015, 12:07am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 August, 2015, 12:07am

As a native Hongkonger who did not grow up with boats, I find it difficult to understand the sport of sailing despite having lived and sailed on a boat with my family for nearly five years.

It is a complicated sport, with lots of classes, names, terms and rules. Children need to learn all of that and the skills to sail a boat, and to be very exact with measurements, take advantage of the elements, be wary of their relative positions with other racers and bluff at the right moment. I have lots of respect for sailing children. The dedicated ones spend all their Saturdays and Sundays training, and often a few afternoons after school each week.

Sadly, however, most Hongkongers see sailing as a sport only for the rich. While anyone in the city can learn to sail cheaply at government centres, it does require a lot of money if you want to race at a high level because of all the coaching, equipment and overseas trips required.

Hong Kong is not big on sport. The Chinese treasure academic success over sports or arts. I think most Chinese think being brainy is more important. But when Lee Lai-shan won gold for us at the 1996 Olympics, the whole of Hong Kong celebrated. Funding started pouring in for windsurfing. No one remembered that, before she found fame, she and her coach had to camp out in the cold and eat bread three times a day while training in Europe because of a lack of funding.

Last month, up-and-coming sailors Tse Sui-lun and Chik Ho-yin spoke about the need to leave the sport if they don't make the Olympics. This is how our government supports our promising youths: they do not invest in advance. They bank on Hongkongers' "can do" spirit.

I can't help comparing Hong Kong with Singapore when I look at the website of the Singapore Sailing Federation. It created an Olympic Pathway Taskforce in 2010 to prepare for the 2016 Olympics and beyond, and did a six-month review analysing statistics and data to develop a long-term strategy for high-performance sailing. Some key points I picked up from the website are that they stress character development, look at performance rather than results, avoid picking talent too early and build a fleet rather than individuals. I was hoping to find a similar commitment from our own equivalent, the HK Sailing Federation, but there isn't even a vision statement. Parents and coaches are the main, if not sole, source of financial, training and emotional support.

Another reason why it's mostly international or Hong Kong Sea School students who can afford to get involved in sailing is because most local schools lack the mindset to help their students excel in sports.

When my older girl started racing, her coach asked her to join in some after-school training. She needed to get off school 30 minutes early for practice for four days. We discussed the matter with the school but, after waiting for a month, we were told the time slots clashed with school tests and experiments. So she missed the training.

If the government genuinely cares about grooming a new generation of healthy young people, it should offer help much earlier, have a vision and strategy, and reach out to provide this information. This would give young people something to look forward to and more locals would be encouraged to join the sport of sailing, which, if done properly, could even grow to become a profession that contributes to a diverse economy in Hong Kong.

Cam Cheung is a former journalist and a mother of two