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Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18

Crash death makes for subdued Scallywag celebrations on Hong Kong yachting’s landmark day

Muted atmosphere after fisherman’s death in fatal collision during fourth leg of Volvo Ocean Race, but winning skipper David Witt hopes victory against the world’s best can be platform for next generation of sailors

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 2018, 6:23pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 January, 2018, 9:08am

The magic for David Witt and the people involved in Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag lay not only in the fact that they had won the first-ever leg of the Volvo Ocean Race to sail into Hong Kong but what it might mean now for the future of yachting in the city in general.

“We’re a sailing team, we’re not rock stars, and we’ve taken on the best in the world and we’ve beaten them,” said Witt, minutes after his yacht had docked in the early hours of Saturday morning.

“I don’t think people realise how big this is for Hong Kong. The boss SH (Lee Seng Huang) has spent a lot of time, money and passion into the team and is putting a lot of money into youth sailing and this is the perfect platform. It’s really going to turn the tables in terms of where sailing is in Hong Kong and Asia.”

The Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag group are now expected to announce new initiatives for the sport in Hong Kong during festivities at the Race Village at Kai Tak Runway Park over the next few days.

Unbeknown to Witt and his crew when they crossed the line was that their nearest challenger at the time – the American-Danish team Vestas 11th Hour Racing – had been involved in a collision with a Chinese fishing boat in the waters off Waglan Island that resulted in the death of one fishermen and the rescue of nine others.

The tragedy meant a subdued atmosphere around the Kai Tak park dock on Saturday as investigations continued into the incident – which resulted in Vestas 11th Hour Racing pulling out of the leg due to a damaged hull. The VOR community issued a statement extending condolences to the loved ones of the deceased and stated that they were “cooperating with the authorities and are fully supporting the ongoing investigation”.

Man dies after Volvo Ocean Race yacht hits mainland Chinese fishing boat near Hong Kong

Witt and his crew were not given much hope of victory setting out on the fourth of 11 stages in this edition of the historic round-the-world race, having started it in fifth place and at one point in time having fallen some 90 nautical miles behind the field.

“Physically, emotionally I’m spent,” said Witt. “It’s the biggest win of my sports sailing career and fantastic for sailing in Hong Kong, period. If we wanted to win one race, this was it. The motto is you never give up,” said Witt. We didn’t accept that we were going to be at the back.”

In terms of pure skill, Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag put on a sailing master class across the 6,000 nautical mile leg from Melbourne to Victoria Harbour, despite being stricken by a number of incidents that could well have derailed their chances, including losing a sail overboard in the Southern Ocean and later a crewman who was thankfully quickly plucked from the water.

The main flourish was the decision during the doldrums section of light winds towards the Philippines to steer Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag on a western route earlier than the rest of the fleet, which had forged north in search of stronger winds. The time Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag picked up meant from there on in the leg was basically theirs to lose.

“I spent a little bit of time racing in that part of the world,” Witt revealed. “But to be honest it was more sort of grey hair and age than anything else. These days you have computer software and you’ve got routing systems and all that but they’re only as good as the information that goes in.

“We had a lot of things go wrong in this race but then we just thought, bugger this, we’re just going to throw all the technology out the window, put our heads outside the boat and look at the clouds and decide what we’re going to do, and basically stick to it.”

There has also been high praise throughout the international yachting community for the input from navigator Libby Greenhalgh, who only joined Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag in Melbourne.

“Libby was really good,” said Witt. “She’s going to stick with us for the rest of that race and she brings the modern technology part of things to us and we work really well together. I don’t think this will be the first time we surprise a few.”

With Vestas 11th Hour Racing forced out of the leg, Charles Caudrelier’s China-backed Dongfeng Race Team claimed second place, in front of the Dutch yacht Team AkzoNobel with Spain’s MAPFRE finishing fourth.

In the overall VOR standings now, MAPFRE leads from Dongfeng with Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag moving into fourth spot, behind Vestas 11th Hour Racing.

‘Deeply saddened’ Volvo Ocean Race organisers supporting investigation into fatal Hong Kong crash as fisherman dies

Activities including an Ocean Summit focusing on environmental issues on Monday and practice races will continue in and off the Kai Tak Runway Park until January 31 when the fleet will head out for the VOR’s leg five to Guangzhou, before swinging back to Hong Kong and off towards Auckland.