‘We’re aiming to build a city of sailors’: grass-roots take priority as Volvo Village highlights Hong Kong’s enthusiasm for the high seas

Sailing fever grips the city with Volvo Ocean Race competitors moored

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 8:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 5:31pm

The sun was streaming through the Volvo Village with not a cloud in the sky. Local yachtie Marty Kaye was pumped from a visit to the Scallywag display at the village, opposite the Grinding Challenge.

“We’ve got to stop people thinking sailing is an elitist sport,” said Kaye emphatically, just as a freewheeling freebie frisbee released from the wayward grip of a child knocked him in the head.

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It was as if this, and a virtual reality sailing experience, had been the fillip for him to view sailing in a new reality. 

“We’ve got to get more people out on the water and we’ve got to get tonnes more school kids behind it.”

If you go with the Andy Warhol theory that you only need a handful of people to be thinking the same thought at the same time to create a new trend, Kaye isn’t the only one on this track. 

The legacy of the Volvo Ocean Race coming to the city is already being planted, with the Hong Kong Sailing Federation and team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag announcing a development programme that will build a “city of sailors”.

“If fully funded, it will provide 9,000 days of free education and sailing to less advantaged children from Hong Kong,” says federation vice-president Charlie Mazoni.

“That includes teaching them to swim if they if they have not had the luxury of learning before.

“It is designed to be a long-term and sustainable programme that will ultimately build a city of sailors who are environmentally aware and who can take the life skills they have learned as part of the programme back into the broader community.

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“We need to fund that programme. Sun Hung Kai, Mr Lee [tycoon Lee Seng Huang] and the Scallywag programme have generously promised a dollar-for-dollar match for every dollar we can raise.”

A grass-roots initiative like this will get plenty of kids out on the wild blue yonder. Hong Kong may struggle to find enough space for rugby pitches, and there are those who would like to see one of Fanling’s three golf courses become housing, but there’s no shortage of waterways in our coastal metropolis – 733 kilometres of coastline to be precise.

Already, every year the Leisure and Service Cultural Services Department takes thousands of kids out on the water, with over 4,000 certificates awarded annually. 

There are courses run in five locations in Hong Kong for as low as HK$90 for five days, or HK$20 a day. That’s a drop in the ocean.

The perception of yacht clubs full of folks turned out in navy double-breasted blazers with cravats is erroneous. In reality, it’s often hard to differentiate the owners from the crew, with shorts and T-shirts de rigueur on any given racing day. 

A pair of docksiders and a spray jacket was all it took to get me out sailing a few decades ago. Despite the elitist tag, sailing is about as egalitarian as it gets and is a great equivocator. There’s no time for “I’m a celebrity/tycoon/captain of industry, get me out of here” moments on an ocean racing boat.

Hong Kong’s main three yacht clubs, Royal Hong Kong, Hebe Haven Yacht Club and Aberdeen Boat Club, offer sailing courses to non-members. Anyone can join in Hebe Haven’s Sailing Open Day on Saturday, April 28, and get out on the water for HK$535, and a half-day course is run for a parent and child every second Sunday at the club. A five-day course at Aberdeen Boat Club is HK$1,990. 

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Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club has the benefit of clubhouses in three locations and also runs private lessons and corporate courses, as well as courses of varying level in varying sailing craft.

Once the basics are learnt, all clubs will help sailors find crew positions and encourage them to stick around. These clubs all have displays at the Volvo Village and looking for new sailors is part of their MO. 

“The oldest person I’ve taken out sailing was 78 in a double-handed dinghy,” says Rob Allen, sail training centre manager at Hebe Haven Yacht Club who is regarded as a Pied Piper for getting people out on the water. “Age is no barrier and if the students are keen, so am I.”

Throughout the Volvo stopover, 11,000 Hong Kong schoolchildren are booked to go through the gates of the village on special tours with free buses. 

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and maybe it takes a Volvo Village to plant the seed for a new sport and the chance to dream big for Hong Kong’s future generation of Volvo sailors.