Jason Deliksy (L) and Meg Ciavarella, members of Team Harmonic Seas from the US, take part in the Mayor`s Cup regatta, part of the 3rd Qingdao International Sailing Week, near Qingdao, along the coastline of Shandong province, Sept 3, 2011. [Photo/Agencies]
QINGDAO, China - The rules of the sea are unpredictable in China, especially when a yachting regatta involves dodging rocks and some dimly-lit trawlers in pitch darkness.
The 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.
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.
Over five exhausting days, the teams covered more than 400 nautical miles up and down the coast of Shandong province.
Setting off in pitch darkness to deliver their yacht 350km 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 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 and tankers.
"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.
Meg Ciavarella, a member of Team Harmonic Seas from the US, pulls a rope on a yacht near Qingdao, along the coastline of Shandong province, Sept 3, 2011. [Photo/Agencies]
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, tourism and hosting major sporting events. Sailing has been one beneficiary.
The coastal province of Shandong, which has a 3,000-kilometer-long coastline, has an investment plan of $38.6 billion to develop an ocean economic zone. Other provinces, including the southern 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.
A mark of success
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 US-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 US regatta next year.