Cover Competing sailboats hoist their spinnakers to race against one another at the island race on the first day of the Beneteau Cup (Photo: Panda Man/Simpson Marine)

Asia’s first Beneteau Cup brought 21 luxury yachts to the southernmost tip of Hong Kong for a two-day, over-the-top sailing contest

On a clear Saturday morning in May, the city’s sleekest and most enviable sailboats are docked, as they normally are, at the pontoon of the Aberdeen Marina Club, which today is emptier than normal. It’s only 9am, but Mike Simpson, the founder of yacht sales and charter company Simpson Marine, and his team are already sweating onboard his Beneteau Oceanis 46.1, a large performance cruiser. They are carrying out final checks, readying the sails and polishing the hull in the sweltering heat, which is already a blistering 33C. Freedom, Simpson’s boat, is their “chariot” for the day. A team of seven sailors steers the gleaming vessel from the quiet Sham Wan shelter, past the defunct floating seafood restaurant Jumbo Kingdom that once hosted Queen Elizabeth II and into the rough waters of the East Lamma Channel, where they meet 20 other sailboats gathered to compete in what will be Asia’s first Beneteau Cup.

The Beneteau Cup, a sailing race organised among Beneteau owners, was founded in France in the Nineties and has since expanded around the world, including one of the largest and most prestigious races in the UK, where boats sail from other parts of the UK and Europe to Cowes in the Isle of Wight.

The two-day Hong Kong edition follows the format of the UK Cup, with an island race on the first day and a pursuit race on the second. But it adheres to the rules of a local rating, called Hong Kong Performance Number, a handicap scheme under the Hong Kong Sailing Federation that rewards the best-performing yachts relative to their prior performances. In the island race, boats, separated into divisions, start at the same time and race around a set route to the finish. Jennifer Li, Aberdeen Boat Club’s assistant marine and sailing manager, explains how it works: “The criteria for winning the cup will be based on the boat’s corrected time calculated from its handicap. So, while they may finish first on the water, they might not win the race. They need to do their homework with regards to the racing area, the wind and tide on the day, and make last-minute strategic decisions.”

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It’s 11am. In the outer Repulse Bay area, against the backdrop of the rides of Ocean Park, the 21 boats scramble for the best position at the start. Nerves are already jangling. “You have to give way! We have the right of way,” Richard Allen, an ex-marine from Essex and the general manager of Simpson Marine aboard the Freedom, shouts at a sailboat on the port side. Meanwhile, Simpson and Erwin Her, the Asia Pacific sales manager of the Beneteau Brand, also an experienced sailor, struggle to tune in to the right radio channel on a safety device provided by the race organisers. “I’ve never used this new gadget. Is it working?” Simpson keeps checking as an alarm sounds every few moments to indicate the presence of a nearby boat. Suddenly, race officer Alex Johnston’s voice cuts in via the radio, “The course today is number 18. IRC for both A and B.”

IRC, the International Rating Certificate, is a rating rule managed by the UK’s Royal Ocean Racing, which handicaps different designs of boats, allowing them to race together.

Johnston, Aberdeen Boat Club’s marine services manager, who has judged more than 120 yacht races in the last five years, has selected IRC’s longer route, which leads sailors southeastward to Tai Tam Bay and Beaufort Island, then towards Fury Rocks and around Sung Kong before going through the narrow gap of Lo Chau Mun, past Castle Rock and then all the way back. The course is a test of skills in sailing against the headwind through a treacherous channel without getting trapped in the shallow waters along the cliffs. “That’s also where the explosives dumping ground is,” remarks Guy Nowell, a Hong Kong-based photographer specialising in yachting, referring to a spot where many munitions were dumped at sea after the Second World War. “Now you don’t want to drop an anchor here.”

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At 11:05, the blast of a horn breaks the silence of the sea. Then comes the sound of agitated instructions flying from the bows to the sterns, and first-time sailing dogs onboard bark with excitement. Our boat has taken the prime starting spot, but another one with a shiny blue hull edges past and overtakes us. To our left is a boat that seems to be struggling just to move. “There’s no wind on the left,” Allen spots this and immediately shouts to the front. “Just go for speed; don’t spin.” Loik Morgant, a seasoned sailor on Freedom, and his shipmate Her keep sprinting back and forth to adjust the ropes and sails, nimbly edging past us.

As is custom, Allen had assigned each crewmember a special role. Her is stationed at the bow (Her protests that it’s “the worst job that gets me blamed” if things go wrong). Allen himself is in the middle to raise the spinnaker. Nowell is the navigator. “Guy will make sure we don’t hit any rocks, so I’ve deflected all of the pressure on Guy,” Allen says. Nick Stratton and Axel Cordemans trim the headsail. Morgant trims the mainsail. “Mike is going to make sure that we’re in front of everybody else. So we cannot distract him, OK? If he starts gazing and looking at air or lights, keep him focused and keep feeding him water!” Allen commands. Allen saves me for last, and announces that I shall be the “ballast”. I take up the grand-sounding role with pride, until I realise “ballast” essentially involves sitting and tilting the boat with my weight. Without the engine, our boat seems to be gliding through glue. “We’re bucking the tide,” says Morgant, as he swings on a rope like a swashbuckling pirate. “Keep it tight. The course is on the left. Try not to lose the wind.”

As our sail catches a gust of wind and leaves the trapped boat behind, the crew relaxes. A few black kites, Hong Kong’s distinctive birds of prey, fly above, casting shadows on the shimmering waters. Old forts, barracks and colonial villas appear as marshmallow-coloured dots embedded within the mountains of the lush green Stanley peninsula. To our right is the vast South China Sea with a few faraway islands at the horizon, barely visible in the midday haze. Ahead of us on Foxzhead is Tonny Chung, a skipper who has competed for 20 years and says Hong Kong is one of the greatest places to sail. “In summer, we have the southerly breeze; in winter, we’ve got the strong monsoon from the north.” Lisa Conway, onboard Spirou a few ships away, says Hong Kong’s clement weather makes for a sailor’s paradise. “It’s very cold in the UK where I’m from. That’s the biggest difference. You only get to sail about two, maybe four months of the year at most. You’re in wetsuits, and you can even be in full waterproofs even in August. But it’s wonderful here because you can sail all year round and there’s a great community of sailors.”

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A few hours later, in the afternoon, in the waters outside Sung Kong, a barren island with seabirds circling like vultures, Freedom arrives at Lo Chau Mun, the narrow channel where the wind squeezes through between the Po Toi islands. Her dashes to the front. With all his might, he raises the spinnaker, the third sail designed for sailing downwind, so that Freedom will not be blown backwards. Simpson makes a sharp turn of the wheel to the right. It looks like we’re steering right into Beaufort Island. But just when we’re as close to the cliff as possible, Allen commands, “Ready! Three, two, one, tack!” The team casts off the port genoa sheet and tightens it on the winch on the new starboard side. The mainsail swings across to the starboard side while I climb against the tilted deck to balance the boat. After a few rounds of what this sailing rookie thought would be breakneck swivels, I’m getting a hang of what are, in reality, peaceful turns.

“It seems like we are doing nothing much. It’s pretty slow now,” Her says, eyeing the sailboats ahead. “In fact, we’re checking one another out all the time. We’re observing the strategies used by the other boats and whether there is a tail of water created by the engine to make sure they’re not cheating.” It has taken us 17 tacks before we escape the seemingly endless channel. By the time we get out, most of us are pink from the scorching sun. The honking at the finish line wakes us from our exhaustion. We finish second to last. Meanwhile Foxzhead, Shindig and Yeager are first, second and third respectively in division B. But this doesn’t bother Freedom’s crew at all. “Here’s to your first sail,” Her says and the crew offer us cold beers. We cheer away as Freedom, with its engine back on, sails back to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club on Middle Island.

The next morning, I join Alex Johnston and Jennifer Li on their committee boat to get a different perspective on the race. The duo are busy announcing and recording the start time of the 21 boats for a pursuit race. The route is similar to the one on the first day, but it will be shortened to the Tai Tam Club mark between Bluff Head and Hok Tsui. Johnston explains, “In the pursuit race, everyone sails the same course. Each boat has a different start time based on their boat’s handicap. You’re then trying to chase the boat in front of you. Your position is where you finish in line.”

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Right after Johnston finishes explaining the rules, Li spots a team is cheating. “Sparkles has started earlier than they should! It’s 10:59, but their start time is 11:08am,” she shouts. While Johnston hurries to warn Sparkles, further out near Fury Rocks, Generations and Ichiban are attempting to catch up with O’ Sea 2. “It’s windier today,” says Panda Man, a photographer who specialises in covering major tournaments. “Generations is sailing close to the cliff to avoid the rougher waves that flush them backwards, but there is less wind. Ichiban and O’ Sea 2, on the other hand, sail in the middle of the channel to catch the strong wind, which should be enough to break the waves. The designs of the boats may play a part, but ultimately it’s the experience of the skippers and sailors in making a strategic decision that matters.”

The Beneteau Cup ends with an award ceremony at Tai Tam Bay, where Foxzhead is named champion. Standing in front of an array of trophies, Chung says his strategy was to keep observing and following the wind. “But most important is how our team has very good cooperation. Everyone knows what they’re supposed to do without saying anything,” he says. By the end, it doesn’t seem to matter who has won or lost. As the teams sail back to the marina in the setting sun, David Robinson, a sailing editor, takes the wheel on Freedom. As he passes each boat he exclaims, “Freedom is finally catching up!” A little defeat won’t knock the wind from this seafarer’s sails.

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