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Hong Kong youth

At your service: Young skipper and his golden circle are at the helm of Kingsman in China Sea Race

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 6:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 2:06pm

The nautical term “skipper” conjures images of a greying commander-in-chief boasting legendary tales from decades of experience at sea, but university student Gordon Liu Hei-shun is about to blow that right out of the water.

Liu, just turned 25, debuts as skipper for Kingsman, one of the 29 boats competing in the biennial Rolex China Sea Race starting at Victoria Harbour on Wednesday morning and ending in Subic Bay, the Philippines.

“I’m just thankful my crew trusts me,” he said. “There are many more experienced members on board – some are my mentors, some just believe in me – but everyone has their firsts.

“My role is the same [as any other skipper]: to take care of the boat and everyone in it. A lot of things can happen on board and the only people who can help is yourself and your crewmates … I have the added responsibility of maintaining the ‘ethics’ and avoiding the chaos within the boat.”

Watch: 2018 China Sea Race preview

Liu took up the sport 18 years ago and currently sails with the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club (RHKYC).

His parents began sailing in retirement and have competed in three China Sea Races. This year, however, they have passed the baton to their son, who is shaping up to be the face of the new generation of Hong Kong sailors.

Majoring in sports development and coaching at Northumbria University in the UK, Liu has delved deep into the local sailing scene and feels an even greater sense of responsibility to promote the sport among his peers.

“I see my studies as an advantage. I’ve written [university essays] on the development in sailing and we really do need support and complicity, particularly at university level. Sailing can be a sport, recreational or representation of a lifestyle.”

Liu recruited some university students a few years ago to join the team, and last August they bought their boat with some more experienced members with the intention to compete.

“These people are putting their own things aside and trying something new – it’s very special,” said Liu, who is confident he can command his team despite their varying levels of sailing experience.

Victor Kuk Ho-ming, co-owner of competing China Sea Race team, Phoenix, is encouraged by the potential breed of new local talent.

“If you look at most sailing clubs in Hong Kong, the ratio tends to be more expat-focused,” said 49-year-old Kuk, who with Hongkonger David Ho Wai-kin and Swiss Robert Wiest bought a boat in 2017, winning the round the island race the very same year.

“Our team is unique in the sense that it’s very local sailor-based. Our objective is to become a top sailing team in Hong Kong – both inshore and offshore – and be role models for the future local generation.”

Phoenix’s youngest crew member was born in 1997 and has been entrusted with the crucial role of tactician.

“There are a lot of young local sailors coming through and from time to time we ask newcomers to join us on board. It’s all about diversity and inclusion,” added Kuk.

“We’re a relatively young team, and I think most people think ‘these bunch of kids, do they really know what they’re doing?’ so it’s something people are starting to take notice of.

“Hong Kong’s geography presents huge opportunities for water sports. We should encourage it to be a much bigger sport than it currently is.”

Local sailing icon Tiger Mok – competing in Seawolf – had only praise for Liu’s step up in leadership.

“When I see Gordon take up an important role like the skipper I truly feel from my heart, ‘yes! We’ve got more people excited by the sport’,” said 37-year-old Mok.

“All the young and local Hong Kong and Chinese presence this year sends a message to the rest of the sailing community – offshore sailing is not only for very experienced sailors.

“When I think back to myself when I was Gordon’s age, I didn’t have as an important role. It really makes me think that we can step it up to even younger.”

The Race’s chairman, Simon Powell, also noted that this year sees the most Mainland China entries with three.

“Sailing has always been about diversity and it seems perfectly natural that we see that in a place like Hong Kong,” said Powell, who will also be racing in his own Sell Side Dream.

“We absolutely welcome this and I think it reflects what we’re seeing in the sport in general. It’s so refreshing to see young people like Gordon coming into the sport and challenging themselves.

“I would urge kids to get involved because it gives them a tremendous step in confidence – different to being behind a screen and gaming.”