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China Cup Regatta overall - Spectacular racing
Fleet in action - 2015 China Cup International Regatta© China Cup / Studio Borlenghi

China Cup Regatta

China Cup International Regatta – With 111 entries ranging in size from FarEast28R one-design keelboats up to Jelik III, Frank Pong’s Reichel-Pugh 75-foot racing sled, the ninth edition delivered some spectacular racing conditions.

Principal race officer Simon James and his team like to give the crews a variety of sailing in the four day event, which always starts with the 30-mile Passage Race from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. With a light easterly breeze in beautiful sunshine, it was a day for sunscreen and a careful eye on what the wind was doing.

Steve McConaghy had put together a strong team of professional sailors on board the Beneteau 40.7, Wanhang Longcheer. With 25 boats entered and a strong international line-up, the 40.7 one-designs are always the toughest class at the China Cup. Getting a first-row start is a pre-requisite for success in this fleet, and that’s what Adam Minoprio executed at the helm of Longcheer.

“We got the start we wanted and went left, and were leading for a while,” said Minoprio, a former World Match Racing World Champion and Volvo Ocean Race helmsman. “Emirates [Team New Zealand] were over the start line, had to go round the boat end and had to tack off to the right. We thought we were OK going left, thought it was suicide for them to the right, but it came good for them when the wind shifted.”

It was a good start to the regatta for helmsman Chris Steele and Emirates Team New Zealand as they won the opening race, relegating their rivals on Longcheer to second in the Passage Race. “The aim is to win and the expectation is to do that,” says Steele, proud to be wearing the black jersey of ETNZ. “If you’re not enjoying it, you’re probably not up to it. But we’re loving what comes with the brand, it’s an opportunity for sure. We’re very fortunate to be doing it this week for ETNZ.”

As usual, Frank Pong’s 75ft Reichel/Pugh racing sled, Jelik III, won line honours on the Passage Race, although a new set of carbon sails and other recent optimisations to performance couldn’t secure victory on corrected time in IRC handicap. Instead that honour went to Tiffany Koo’s Hero Racing Team racing a seven-year-old, recently purchased Mills 40.

This year 36 regions and nations were represented at the China Cup, with sailors flying in from every corner of the globe to compete in Shenzhen. The event is geared up to make it easy for overseas participants to come to China with the minimum of hassle, and to be able to charter good boats at competitive prices.

“I had such a great time here last year,” says Mike Evans, skipper of Sail Canada competing in the Beneteau 40.7 fleet. “I just knew if I could get more people coming here from Canada, to sail in this fleet, they’d enjoy it and make it even bigger and better than it already is. This event’s phenomenal. I race all over the world, but we came across the world for this, and I wouldn’t miss it next year.

China Cup Regatta overall - Spectacular racing

Fleet in action – 2015 China Cup International Regatta© China Cup / Studio Borlenghi

“There’s a lot of things that bring us back, the superb race organisation, the local support from the people working on the event. The racing’s phenomenal, these boats are amazing. I don’t know anywhere in the world where you can just pick up a 40.7 like this, in this good condition, and get this kind of competition. You’re here racing against Emirates Team New Zealand, the Ragamuffin guys, that’s great stuff. There aren’t many places in the world where you can do that.”

Following the Passage Race there are three days of inshore racing in and around Daya Bay, with principal race officer Simon James and his team looking to keep the course format varied so that none of the specialists get too much of a good thing. “It’s important for everyone to believe they have a fair chance of winning,” says James, who is involved in the race management of many of the big regattas in Asia.

In the years that James has been running the racing, he’s noticed a marked improvement in the quality of sailing at an event that has been pivotal in putting sailing on the map in China. “Definitely the local talent is increasing all the time,” he says. “It used to be they just joined in with the fleet and followed them around, but they’re much more competitive now. And we’ve got larger boats competing, more in the 50ft range which is good to see.”

Recent years have seen the China Cup attract Olympic stars like Australia’s Malcolm Page and New Zealand’s Pete Burling, and offshore legends such as Michel Desjoyeaux and Nick Moloney. This year’s big names included match racing talents like Adam Minoprio and Phil Robertson, the latter of whom was steering the Beneteau 40.7 Cheung Kong Sailing Club.

America’s Cup veteran Ed Smyth was skippering the boat with four other professional sailors, although the main aim of their regatta was educational. “Most of the crew is made up of some very successful businessmen and women and entrepreneurs who have little experience of sailing,” says the Kiwi professional. “We have been rotating different people in the middle of the boat each day, and they are good learners, but this is a tough environment to learn new skills.” Software entrepreneur John Wang was enjoying the process immensely. “To learn how to race with such good professionals is really enlightening,” he says. “The skills we learn have useful parallels with what we do in business too, problem solving, team work, and so on. But it’s also great fun to be on the water!”

That’s the beauty of the China Cup, it’s a festival of sailing that aims to offer something to everyone, from the absolute beginner to the seasoned professional. On shore, local children learn to tie knots for the first time, learn the ropes of an Optimist, even go sailing for the first time in a fleet of Oppie dinghies. Or if they really don’t want to go on the water there are plenty of onshore alternatives, including the Red Bull climbing wall for the more daring.

Some want to take photos of visiting celebrities like famous Chinese actor Victor Huang, or to meet with the round-the-world-racing heroes from the recent Volvo Ocean Race, the crew members of Dongfeng Race Team. A little more than a year ago, sailors like Horace and Wolf had barely sailed offshore, but now they are among the most experienced ocean racers in the world. More importantly perhaps, they have become the role models for the next generation of young people looking to get out on the water, either for fun or to make a career of it.

The success of Dongfeng Race Team has really helped establish sailing in the minds of the Chinese public. Perhaps less known in China but arguably the most famous sailing brand in the racing world, Emirates Team New Zealand, came to China Cup for the first time this year. The team in the Beneteau 40.7 was a mix of youth and experience, from the three-time Volvo Ocean Race veteran Kelvin Harrap to the up-and-coming match racer Chris Steele, now ranked seventh in the world. But after a navigational mix-up while they were leading the round-the-island race on day three, the Kiwis had to settle for second overall.

Team skipper Guy Pilkington admitted to a mix of emotions at finishing runner-up to Wanhang Longcheer. “A little bit disappointed and pleased,” said the Kiwi. “We had the chance to win, but it’s a young team, the first time we’ve sailed together and I think we’ve done an exceptional job overall.”

The previous day, ETNZ had taken the lead on the long round-the-island race but sailed extra distance compared with the rest of the fleet, believing they had sailed the correct course and that the majority were in error. A protest hearing went against them, and the Kiwis had to settle for 12th in that race. That was probably the moment when the Kiwi challenge to Longcheer faded. “I think it came down to that,” said Pilkington. “We believed we were right, as per the sailing instructions. There’s a bit of an interpretation issue and I think they will tidy up the details for next year to make it a bit fairer. But ETNZ is keen to come back to China Cup if we get the opportunity. It’s a good way to build the brand of ETNZ and also to promote youth sailing in the country.”

The winning skipper, Steve McConaghy, was delighted with the win. “I’m over the moon,” smiled McConaghy. “It has been a great week of sailing, some really good wind and lots of good competition. The charter boats are being prepared to a really high standard now, and they’re making the event really attractive for good sailors. The China Cup just seems to be getting better and better.”

The 10th edition of the China Cup International Regatta will take place in October 2016.

by Andy Rice

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