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April 1, 2016

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Tide rises on recreational boating

IT’S Sunday afternoon, but instead of enjoying brunch downtown or a lazy day at home, Tony Xu is scrambling to keep his craft in the water — and ahead of his competitors.

Xu is on Dianshan Lake, located some 60 kilometers west of Shanghai’s city center in Qingpu District. He’s participating in a regatta, a series of sailing races, with his fellow members at the Shanghai Boat and Yacht Club. On this particular day, there are seven vessels plying the lake’s waters for the fastest time around the course circuit.

Xu isn’t the only one keeping busy on his team’s 22-foot vessel. The four-man crew pulls and ties the many ropes on deck in quick succession, adjusting the sails in accordance with the wind. Teamwork is paramount — each sailor has a specific job to do to keep the craft moving at top speed.

As they come around a buoy, the wind picks up and lifts the boat on its side, exposing almost the entire hull. The crew clings to the side, their own bodies just barely above the water. The gust subsides and the weight of the crew helps the boat right itself with a tremendous splash.

For Xu, moments like these are why he fell in love with sailing.

He explains: “Being out on the water gives me a feeling of freedom. I feel like I’m enjoying life when I sail.” Xu started sailing in 2012 and goes to the club almost every weekend to participate in friendly races.

He is part of a growing number of locals who are taking up the sport of sailing.

When the SBYC started in 2001, it was the only sailing club on Dianshan Lake and the membership consisted exclusively of expatriates.

Today, about half of the SBYC’s 200-odd members are locals. The club is also now one of five sailing organizations in the vicinity of Dianshan Lake.

Apart from the SBYC, Dianshan Lake is also home to the Shanghai Sailing Club, iSailing, Fisherman’s Sailing Club and the Rhine Dream Marina.

The clubs occasionally hold competitions against each other during weekends.

According to the SBYC, the club has also shown around 3,000 students the ropes of sailing, with many of them being local Chinese.

The founder of the SBYC, Alistair Skinner, who has been sailing for 48 years, said of this increasing trend: “The middle class in China is booming. People now have the time and money to enjoy themselves.”

According to a report published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in December 2015, 51 percent of the population of Shanghai meets its definition of middle class.

Data from the National Bureau of Statistics found that Shanghai residents earned an average of 47,710 yuan (US$7,380) in disposable income in 2014, topping the list of cities in China that year.

Sailing as a hobby has become increasingly affordable and accessible along with gains in personal incomes. An individual membership at the SBYC, for instance, costs 5,500 yuan per year. The club also provides boats for its members to sail.

Boating lifestyle

Xu believes that changing attitudes toward sailing as a recreational activity have also contributed to its increasing popularity in China.

“In the past, people used to associate sailing with work like fishing, but now there is a change in the mindset (and) sailing is now considered a type of lifestyle,” he said.

For many, spending the weekend at the lake also provides an escape from the hectic bustle of city life.

“It gives us a chance to relax and be close to nature, which is something you rarely find in Shanghai’s city center,” says Helena Wong, who has been sailing since 2012.

According to Wong, sailing also offers an engaging experience that can’t be found in many other activities.

She says: “Unlike most sports, one needs to have a deep knowledge of sailing because you have to understand the mechanisms of the boat as well in order to sail fast.

“It is easy to learn how to sail but difficult to be good at it.”

Aboard her vessel, Wong serves as bowman. She gives directions to the helmsman, who steers the boat around obstacles she spots, as well as adjusts the sails in accordance with the wind.

She cites the fear of capsizing and understanding the relationship between the wind and the boat as the biggest difficulties in sailing.

But to her, the best moments in sailing are when “the sail catches the wind perfectly and the boat speeds across the water.”

Beginners usually start off learning sailing on a dinghy — a small sailboat with a basic set-up — before moving on to more complex and bigger boats.

Sailing has also made waves on the professional stage in China in recent years. The country was one of the ports of call to the annual Volvo Ocean Race for three editions of the competition.

At the most recent edition of the tournament in 2015, the Dongfeng Race Team, which was comprised of both foreign and Chinese sailors, finished third overall. It was the first time that Chinese sailors had participated in the prestigious event.

Promising future

In Shanghai, there are also plans to take sailing to the next stage on a youth level. The Shanghai Yacht Club & Resort, where the SBYC is located, is looking to host the 2020 Youth Sailing World Championships at Dianshan Lake. It’s hoped that bringing such an event to the club’s own backyard will further raise the profile of sailing in the country.

According to Skinner, starting people off at a young age is key to ensuring that sailing becomes a mainstay in China’s sporting culture.

“If we get people interested in sailing when they’re young, they’ll stay longer in the sailing scene,” he said.

“Sailing can be a sport for a lifetime. People from the age of five can sail until they’re 85.”

On the sport’s future in the country, he said: “China is already blessed with plenty of lakes and a vast coastline — all the requirements needed to sail.

“Shanghai itself has a huge population of over 24 million people — even if 0.1 percent of the population takes up the sport, it would already be a huge number. The potential of sailing in China is immense.”

Some sailing clubs around
Dianshan Lake

• Shanghai Boat & Yacht Club

Address: 588 Jinshang Rd, Qingpu

District, Shanghai

• Shanghai Sailing Club

Address: Bldg 66, 301 Luhu Rd, Qingpu District, Shanghai

• Rhine Dream Marina (Meng Layin)

Address: Dianshanhu Town,
Kunshan, Jiangsu Province

Tel: 159-0179-0565


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