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Making waves: Sailor shows Spirit of Hong Kong in bid to reach Rio Paralympics

Wheelchair user and sailor Foo Yue-wai's can-do spirit has seen him nominated for the Overcoming Personal Challenge Award of this year’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards.

Foo Yue-wai at the Hebe Haven Yacht Club, near Sai Kung. Photo: Jonathan Wong
For years, insurance salesman Foo Yue-wai could only dream of learning how to sail. A wheelchair user for more than a decade because of polio stemming from childhood, he decided to pursue that dream by teaming up with Sailability, a charity that provides boats and training for people with disabilities to get out on the water.

Foo, 43, showed such initial talent that within the first year of sailing he was representing Hong Kong internationally. He’s now hoping to qualify for the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro next year. It’s for this can-do spirit that he’s been nominated for the Overcoming Personal Challenge Award of this year’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards, organised by the .

“It’s a sense of freedom,” Foo says. “It’s just so relaxing and enjoyable. You’re out there close to nature; it’s such a good feeling with the waves and the wind, the sun on my face.”

Already an accomplished pistol shooter, who had represented Hong Kong internationally, Foo’s competitive nature, combined with the discipline to keep calm under pressure, helped him to become a high-calibre sailor in a relatively short time.

You can have had a bad day, yet once you feel the wind and the waves, it makes you feel so positive
Foo Yue-wai

“I want to encourage more people [with disabilities] to do this because you can really release the pressure,” says Foo, whose 13-year-old son also volunteers at Hebe Haven Yacht Club, near Sai Kung. “You can have had a bad day, yet once you feel the wind and the waves, it makes you feel so positive.”

Foo admits that he found sailing difficult, physically and mentally, when he first started. “Because I have no power in my legs, everything I do has to be with my arms and hands, how to control the speed and the steering.”

Kay Rawbone, who set up Sailability with husband Michael, was impressed with how fast Foo grasped the essentials.

“They all treat it as an extreme sport,” she says of Foo and his fellow athletes. “He never moans, he always has a smile and he’s really competitive. And he’s just so enthusiastic.”

Rawbone goes on to explain how in March, Foo had a three-day sailing event on Lamma, but got up at 4.30am to take part in the wheelchair race at the Hong Kong Marathon before heading back over to Lamma for a day of competition on the water. “I don’t know many able-bodied people who’d do that,” she says.

Foo understands the tides, wind direction and mechanisms of sailing, she says, and trainers could see early on that he was a natural. With only 10 months of training he won a bronze model at the Asian Para Games in Incheon, South Korea last year.

Foo, who lives with his family in Ho Man Tin, trains and sails three days a week at Hebe Haven. That’s where the Rawbones began with two sailing boats to start a “fleet” which has now expanded to 20 through donations from organisations, corporations and charity campaigns such as Operation Santa Claus, co-organised by the and RTHK.

Each costing HK$150,000, the one-man racing boats are modified by an Australian company for use by the disabled. In Foo’s case the boat has to be designed so that it’s fully controlled by his hands. The boats are also designed so they don’t tip over easily, and they’re accompanied by safety vessels in case of accidents.

“Sometimes we’ve rolled over,” Foo laughs. “So then the safety boat just comes along to help me.”

After realising his sailing dream, he wants to share it with others.

“I want to encourage more people [with disabilities] to experience this,” he says. “If you’re feeling sad, getting out on the water makes you feel so …” he finishes the sentence with an air punch and grins.