How a Hong Kong tycoon’s ‘expensive curiosity’ led to a sea rescue and a record in the Sydney to Hobart race

Sun Hung Kai & Co’s Lee Seng Huang buys a boat on impulse and then abandons creature comforts to join a ‘rock star’ skipper and his crew of ‘Scallywags’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 January, 2017, 3:24pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 January, 2017, 8:49pm

When a tycoon says that “I’d like to have a serious conversation” you listen.

And experienced yachtsman, David Witt was all ears after a chance meeting last year with Hong Kong-based tycoon Lee Seng Huang.

The winds had blown them together in Hong Kong after a corporate sailing event, setting in motion the purchase of the 100 foot supermaxi now named Scallywag, which finished a record-breaking third in line honours in last month’s Sydney to Hobart race.

As group executive chairman of Sun Hung Kai & Co, Lee was quick to see an opportunity when it hit him in the face like a wet spinnaker.

“The moment we came off the boat ‘Antipodes’ on a corporate sail and were still standing in the rain, I said to skipper David Witt, ‘I’d like to have a serious conversation’,” said 42-year-old Lee.

“It was totally unplanned. Witty told me that Syd Fisher, at nearly 90, was ready to hang up his sailing shoes. And that if no buyer could be found for his biggest yacht, the supermaxi Ragamuffin 100, the crew would be forced to disband.”

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Having grown up overlooking the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia – host club for the Sydney to Hobart

race – Lee describes watching the yachts milling below as “an expensive curiosity”.

He was familiar with the pedigree of Fisher’s crew and sleek 100ft supermaxi, including the fact they had finished second in the 2015 Sydney to Hobart race and third in 2014.

Watch: Scallywag win the 2016 Hong Kong to Hainan race

“The hardware is easy to replace, it’s the software that’s impossible to replicate. The legacy of Syd’s crew and boat presented something unique,” he says.

The deal was done in July last year, the boat was renamed Scallywag at the suggestion of Lee’s then five-year-old daughter.

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Following Mark Twain’s adage “The secret of getting ahead is getting started”, Witt moved from Sydney to Hong Kong, and the boat had an overhaul. Scallywag went on to break records in the Round Noumea race in September and the Hong Kong to Hainan race in November.

The new owner’s first off-shore race – the Sydney to Gold Coast race – proved to be a test of character and boat.

“The hydraulics of our canting keel exploded,” Lee said. “It sounded like a bomb going off down

below. This was a similar issue that Wild Oats XI had in the last Hobart race.”

Witt adds: “SH [Lee] was at the helm at night, and doing a good job of it too, but we had some gear

failure and I had to put him and a few crew members in a rescue boat offshore.”

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Having to be rescued at sea in the middle of the night may cure the less determined, as may a near collision on Sydney Harbour on the start line of the Solas race in the lead-up to the Hobart dash.

“It reaffirmed my confidence in Witty,” Lee said. “It was a tight squeeze. We had two inches between us and the spectator ferry. Not many helmsmen would be confident and capable enough to manage that.”

Apart from crew work, tactics, navigating, sails and preparation, yacht racing is also about luck, and in the Sydney to Hobart it’s never over until it’s over.

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Many a race is not won or lost in the precarious Bass Strait, which can see a blitzkrieg of waves across the bow and salt water strafing to the crew’s eyeballs.

The true test is in Hobart’s Derwent River where leaders can become becalmed. Others at the back of the fleet can find a new breeze first and massively change their outcomes.

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“I was disappointed that we didn’t win line honours as this race is the Holy Grail. We made a call on the weather and it didn’t play out, simple as that,” Lee said. “The winds came later than we anticipated and that allowed us to cover a lot of lost ground, but it was too little, too late. I think we had to cover 20 per cent more miles than the leaders.”

Wing On chairman Karl Kwok campaigned his boat Beau Geste in the Hobart race in 1997, hitting the jackpot with a handicap win in his first entry. He has since raced his current Beau Geste twice, and has not won line honours.

“It’s difficult to tune a Supermaxi, it takes years,” Kwok said. “Scallywag did Hong Kong proud in a race that’s hard to win. You should be sailing north to warmer weather, but you head south into cooler weather and often horrendous conditions.

“It’s the wrong direction and yet people can’t get enough of it, every inch of the foreshore is lined with spectators. Every pleasure boat and ferry is out on the harbour to watch the start. There’s a reason many Australians call Christmas Day ‘the day before the Hobart race’.”

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In 2007, when Lee became executive chairman of Sun Hung Kai & Co, the youngest son of three children began to show the stuff he was really made of as he took the reins from his father.

Although educated at prestigious Scots College in Sydney, he dropped out of a law and commerce degree at the University of Sydney and moved to Hong Kong in January 2007.

He does not mind avoiding six-star luxury and pitting himself against the elements, hot-bedding in a spartan bunk, sharing a small space and a toilet with canvas walls with 19 other men, living on meals many would reject in economy class.

Like the waves in Bass Strait in bad weather years, he seems to understand that if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.