Preparing for the off
More than a few boats took to Victoria Harbour today to practice in advance of Thursday’s start of the 25th Rolex China Sea Race. Winds permitting, the 30-boat fleet will start at 1210 off the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, with the cityfront providing a dramatic backdrop and tactically challenging conditions, with the seagoing traffic providing obstacles to avoid.
At tonight’s Skipper’s Briefing, RHKYC Race Manager Alex Johnston gave last minute instructions to the crews on race course, safety and weather. Daniel Yeung from the Hong Kong Observatory reviewed the forecast for the race area over the next several days. The general forecast for tomorrow’s race start calls for southeasterly winds of 7–10 knots. The monsoon that is currently dominating the South China Sea is going to moderate, which will create a ridge of high pressure, though it is possible that there will be significant breeze well east of the rhumbline.
The fleet is divided into five divisions including IRC A, B, C, IRC Premier Cruising, and IRC Cruising. Last year’s overall winner, Ernesto Echauz’ Subic Centennial (PHI) and Line Honours winner Neil Pryde on Hi Fi (HKG) are both back to defend their titles. Hi Fi, with Will Oxley on as navigator, is sporting a new bulb, mast and modified cabin top.
There are quite a few boats with an eye on the prize this year including three TP52s, Ray Roberts’ Evolution Racing (AUS), Sam Chan’s Ffreefire 52 (HKG) and Geoff Hill’s Strewth (AUS), as well as two of the highly-regarded French-built Archambault sport boats, Avant Garde (HKG), an A40RC, and American Anthony Root’s Red Kite II (HKG), an A35.
Strewth is back after a dramatic retirement in the 2008 race, when both keel bolts sheered off and the keel and bulb dropped away, 150 miles from the start. Displaying impressive sailing skills, the skipper and crew kept the boat upright, turned around, and motored safely back to Hong Kong, escorted by Olivier Decamps on Cloud.
Hill recalled: “We were really, really lucky. We had a good helmsman on the boat, who naturally steered the boat up into the breeze, basically depowering the boat. We put a guy over the side and did all the safety stuff. We learned a few things out of that, as a few weeks before I had done my Sea Safety and Survival course and so we did all the proper sea safety stuff and it was relatively automatic. That, I think, contributed to the fact we didn’t have any loss of life, and the boat didn’t sink. We filled the water tanks and centre lined everything (to help stabilize the boat)…I figure I’ve lost eight of my nine sailing lives.”
Since then, Strewth has had a few modifications including an escape hatch in the stern, and installation of a new, similar keel though with 12 bolts (instead of two). Hill said it took 12 months to get the boat back in shape, and since then they have competed in several races on the Asian circuit. Hill says it’s been a learning curve getting the boat back up to speed, though he has hardly been idle, also competing on his MKL49 in this past Rolex Sydney Hobart Race. For this race he’s brought on Australian Lindsay May as tactician (winning skipper of 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart Race on Love & War), as well as a strong group of Australian sailors.
While Strewth is the scratch boat in the fleet, the biggest boat is Ffreefire, the 71ft sled (ex-Pyewacket), skippered by sailing legend Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.
Knox-Johnston’s reason for coming to Hong Kong to compete in the Rolex China Sea was pretty simple: “A friend chartered the boat and asked if I’d like to join him, and I thought, ‘I could do with a break’. It’s irresistible, it’s a nice race to do. There is a lot of luck (in the race) and the previous two times I’ve done it we’ve had quite good boats, but not won, because you just go into holes. The skill is trying to avoid the holes.” As a former around-the-world solo sailor it’s interesting to hear him say, “I’m doing it because I enjoy good company, I enjoy a good race, and this gives me both. I like sprints, I like these short races.”
Knox-Johnston has a keen interest in youth sailing and he reflected on the growth of the sport in China: “What we’re seeing in Asia are small pockets of enthusiastic sailors. What needs to happen for sailing to grow, as it has in the West, is from the bottom up. You almost have to put sailing in the school curriculum and let the youngsters get the pleasure that we get. Once that starts to happen you’ll build up a cadre of good young sailors and those ones will start to lead the others into it.”
Ffreefire 70 has only two results from the China Sea Race, a line honours win in 1998 and 1st in IRC in 2004. The boat has a better record in the San Fernando Race, winning line honours, overall handicap, and set a course record in 1997, and then went on to repeat this treble in 2001, breaking her own record; in the 2005 SFR, Ffreefire 70 claimed line honours and overall handicap, once again.
Knox-Johnston said, “She is not a young lady any longer and there are newer, larger and faster boats in the fleet, and others who have a better handicap. But the boat has raced across the China Sea eight times and won four of those races!”