QINGDAO, China (Reuters) - The rules of the sea are as unpredictable as the rules of the road in China, and more so when a yachting regatta involves dodging dimly-lit trawlers and fishing nets at night.
The hazardous journey north from the port city of Qingdao to deliver a yacht to Weihai, the starting point of the Mayor’s Cup regatta, was an unusual prologue to the international race staged as one effort by China, host of the 2008 Olympics, to boost its profile on the world sporting stage.
Without a moon, the only way forward was to steer by compass, guided by the stars and the faint grey light of the sky above the soot black ocean.
“Float at 2 o’clock,” a crew member belted out. “It looks like a giant buoy, maybe it’s a rock. No, it’s a fishing boat.”
China’s yachting industry is still in its infancy but local government officials and enthusiasts are betting that interest in sailing as a sport and yacht ownership will expand along with the country’s growing consumption and rising incomes.
“At the moment our aim is to groom sailors for the Olympics but also to develop the sport for the general public,” said Yao Xinpei, Secretary General of the Chinese Yachting Association.
Just as car ownership has taken off along with rapid economic growth in China, he said there was huge potential to expand the boating industry.
Since the Olympics, China has poured investment into infrastructure, such as high-speed train links, as well as tourism and hosting major sporting events. Sailing has been one beneficiary.
The coastal province of Shandong, which has a 3,000-km long coastline, has an investment plan of $38.6 billion to develop an ocean economic zone. Other provinces, including Guangdong, may follow suit.
Zhu Yuetao, vice director general of the Qingdao Development Office of Conference & Exhibition Industry, said that while sailing has existed in China for 600 years, there is no real culture of sailing for recreation.
“It has been the job of government to help promote this,” he said, noting it may take 30 years to get to the point where North America and Europe are today.
While China plans to host more international regattas and seeks to establish Qingdao as a sailing hub, growing legions of Chinese millionaires are also eyeing the chance to own luxury yachts as a mark of success.
China’s newly affluent are driving a new wave of lifestyle spending from luxury goods to sports cars and overseas holidays — and yachting is no exception.
“More people want to own yachts as a sign of success and to take their friends and family out on weekends,” said Loik Morgant, in charge of marketing yachts for Beneteau in Qingdao and who also teaches sailing at the local sailing school.
“But trying to convince yacht owners to get their children into the sport is another thing. Chinese generally do not like being in the sun,” he said.
Sales remain small. The country accounted for about 1 to 2 percent of global yacht sales of $3.4 billion last year, industry estimates show — but with the worldwide yachting industry in a slump, China is a welcome bright spot.
Two representatives from Helly Hansen, purveyor of yachting wear, were on hand at a local sailor’s pub in Qingdao and there were no lack of manufacturers’ logos dotting the hulls and sails during the race.
“China’s sailing continues to grow fast and is now providing a good source of income for some,” said Rick Pointon, captain of Team Beijing Sailing Center. The team won the Mayor’s Cup, adding the trophy to the Lushang Cup, an earlier event in the 3rd Qingdao Sailing Week that lasted from Aug 20 to Sept 4.
Pointon said that beyond encouraging the wealthy to buy yachts, China needed to groom good sailors to crew them and put in place international qualifications.
“There needs to be more grassroots sailing so that kids grow up with a passion for the sea that develops into yachting, and there needs to be more done to protect the maritime environment,” he added.
The U.S.-China Sailing Association, which sent two teams to take part in the regatta, has raised some funds to promote sailing for Chinese youth. It has also invited sailors from China to participate in a U.S. regatta next year.
Fifteen teams participated in the Mayor’s Cup, including men and women from Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore, South Korea, Beijing, Sanya, Xiamen, Qingdao and Weihai.
But in a sign that some hiccups remain, scheduling was often haphazard, especially for crews delivering yachts to the starting point in Weihai. The initial departure was delayed by hours, yachts landed at each point along the course past midnight and also sailed in the dark.
“We leave at 1:30 p.m., maybe 3:00. There’s a naval exercise so (maybe) 5:30. I’m just a volunteer,” said a race executive assigned to the teams. Boats ultimately left at 9:00 p.m.
Over five exhausting days, the teams covered more than 400 nautical miles up and down the coast of Shandong province. A few ran into fishing nets and one team narrowly missed a trawler that had no lights.
Setting off in pitch darkness to deliver their yacht 350-km north for the start of the regatta, Team Harmonic Seas of the United States had had no chance to get used to handling the French-made Beneteau F40 before heading out into the green, murky and unfamiliar waters of the Yellow Sea.
With no moon in the sky, the crew relied on a combination of good night vision, a reliable satellite system, experienced seamanship and instinct, to avoid running into rocks, trawlers, tankers and traps.
Describing one exciting segment from Rushan to Qingdao, Pointon said: “We had a heart thumping moment running a channel of nets about a boat width apart.”
The other U.S. team, Team Manahatta, faced similar tension.
“We barely escaped getting scooped up into the net of trawlers - ‘tack, tack now!’” said team member David Bacon, though he added that dodging fishing boats was a highlight of his overall China adventure.
Editing by Elaine Lies