Enter the Dragon: China eyes America’s Cup entry

China is a fledgling sailing nation that could soon stretch its wings. Suzanne McFadden reports.

In an animated flyover of the proposed 2021 America’s Cup village in Auckland, the flag of China is unfurled on the roof a sailing team base.

While it’s only a drawing of what might be, China could well be on the verge of entering the America’s Cup. And if they do, New Zealand will have played a major role in getting the nation there.

Sailing in China is booming right now, and Kiwis are having a hand in its growth.

Six weeks ago, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron took their most prized trophy to Shenzhen – the home of the ever-growing China Cup regatta. The America’s Cup was trundled off to visit villagers and local school children, where the Chinese marvelled at the age of the silverware, but were a little mystified about the event in which it is competed for.

Nevertheless, Hayden Porter, the general manager of the Squadron who travelled with the Auld Mug, believes they will eventually comprehend. “As trustees of the Cup, it’s our obligation to grow the sport. Ideally, in the future we would love to see an America’s Cup challenge from China,” he says.

Porter says he receives at least one letter a week from fledgling yacht clubs in China wanting Kiwi help to teach the Chinese how to sail.

Two-time America’s Cup winner and Olympic medallist Craig Monk is also receiving requests. He’s working with Chinese local governments, whose cities want to develop their waterfronts, want to offer sailing programmes, and want to be represented by sailing teams that can win on the world stage.

“I’ve been coming to China for four years,” Monk says, in a call from Ningbo, one of the country’s largest ports, where he’s been scoping out a site to build a new yacht club.

“It’s unbelievable how fast sailing is growing here. It’s all about growth of business and waterfront development. They’re using the model Auckland used 25 years ago, to develop cities around sailing.”

Auckland has also been fostering relations between the city’s sailing and China, which has reaped rewards for Emirates Team New Zealand.

So, is the next logical step an America’s Cup team flying the five-star red flag?

Over to you, Craig Monk

Monk’s relationship with China can be traced back to a job he had as a young sailing instructor in New York. His boss there ended up in Shanghai, working in the finance industry.

“Five years ago, he came to New Zealand and looked me up. He told me that sailing was growing in China, and cities and local governments had money to invest in building new yacht clubs and marinas,” Monk says.

Monk saw the opportunity to use the knowledge he’d garnered from five America’s Cups, two Olympic campaigns and countless professional sailing teams, to help the Chinese while promoting the New Zealand sailing industry.

“I have the contacts in the Western world to get China introduced to the best in the sport. My goal is to create an awareness in China and a path and vision for China’s sailors, young and old. They can have a serious sailing programme and take New Zealand’s lead to develop the sport and make it professional.”

Monk has already established a champion professional sailing team that sails under the Chinese flag, but is crewed by Kiwis. The ChinaOne Ningbo team, skippered by Auckland sailor Phil Robertson, has dominated the elite world match-racing tour for the last two years. They won four of the six regattas on the tour this year, are currently ranked world No. 1, and are also the reigning world M32 champions.

“They have the talent, but it’s just time. The America’s Cup is definitely on their horizon.”

Next year Monk plans to have two teams racing under the ChinaOne Ningbo banner – the second a Chinese crew who will learn from Robertson and his masters of match-racing.

Monk’s expertise has also been called on to find a site for a new yacht club in Ningbo, at the end of the Yangtze River, from which a sailing culture can flourish.

“Ningbo is a city of 10 million people, but the coastline isn’t yet fully developed. It has huge potential, like a clean sheet of paper,” he says.

“So we’re building a new city on an island, based around water-sports - sailing, rowing, swimming. The government has said they want to get kids and future generations introduced to the water, which is what we’ve been doing in New Zealand for more than a century.

“Mine is a 20-year plan. I’d like to do this in many cities. There are 20 marinas the size of Westhaven being built in China at any one time.”

China has professional sailors, but mostly in Olympic classes. “Golden Lily” Lijia Xu – who won gold at the London Olympics in the Laser Radial dinghy - is an ambassador for ChinaOne Ningbo.

The country has had an entry in the America’s Cup before – racing in the 2007 Louis Vuitton Cup in Valencia, where their solitary win was over Oracle Racing. Then Robertson, just 25 at the time, skippered Team China in the 2012 America’s Cup World Series. But the team didn’t survive through to the 2013 Cup in San Francisco.

Monk believes China could challenge for the Auld Mug again: “They could do it in a heartbeat. They certainly have the finances and resources to do it. But it’s just not as important to them as it is to us yet. It will still take a little while to get people to understand what the America’s Cup stands for.”

An entry in the following America’s Cup – especially if it was retained by Team NZ – would be far more realistic, Monk says. “They have the talent, but it’s just time. The America’s Cup is definitely on their horizon.”

The Business of Yachting

The RNZYS, home of the America’s Cup, has built a prosperous relationship with China over the last four years.

“For the past few decades the club has focused on training, and then we looked at how to grow the sport globally,” Hayden Porter says. “We saw China as an emerging market, with a huge potential for sailing.”

As more waterfront precincts are developed in China, new yacht clubs look for sailing tuition. “They want to be associated with the best, and in their minds, sailing and New Zealand go hand-in-hand,” Porter says.

Wealthy Chinese business magnates see the growing marine culture as part of the business culture, with ownership of a yacht perceived as a symbol of wealth – “one that distinguishes billionaires from millionaires”, according to a report in China

“I get a letter a week asking us to work with these new clubs,” Porter says. “When I suggest they come down and meet with us, that eliminates 60 percent.”

This year, the Squadron has coached sailors from the Shanghai Yacht Club, and are now investigating working with a club from Hainan Island.

“They don’t have pathway programmes. They can teach kids to sail in optimists, but we train the 18 to 25-year-olds and, to a lesser extent, adults with disposable incomes who buy a boat but don’t know how to sail it,” says Porter.

The Squadron will host a month-long international sailing camp on the Hauraki Gulf later this month. “We work with a government agency who recruit suitable sailors from schools and yacht clubs. We really enjoy working with the Chinese, and our cultures aren’t that dissimilar. They’re both based on hospitality, trust and friendship.”

The RNZYS also has strong ties to the China Cup regatta, the country’s largest big boat event which has developed a high international status. Four Kiwi teams competed in the latest regatta in Shenzhen last month, with the Team NZ crew (including AC50 cyclors Josh Junior, Andy Maloney and Guy Endean) winning the China Cup.

Team NZ have also formed a strong relationship with the event, including a partnership with its main sponsors, Yiihua Technology and Pocket Tech. At the announcement of the partnership earlier this year, Pocket Tech CEO, Deng Jin, said: “We have faith in Emirates Team New Zealand to win the 35th America's Cup, and bonus will be awarded to celebrate the team's final winning.”

Those investors want to recommit to help Team NZ defend the Cup, says Steve Armitage, General Manager Destination of ‎Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development (ATEED).

Auckland Council first forged the city’s sailing ties with China six years ago. Wanting to lift the value of Auckland’s visitor market, the city focused on their GEMS strategy - golf, equine, marine and screen. They set up the relationship between the RNZYS and the China Cup event, which has proved to be a beneficial platform for the Kiwi marine sector.

“What we’ve seen spin off the back of that are considerable investment opportunities, in terms of direct support for Team NZ, and more broadly into a number of marine businesses,” says Armitage.

“There’s also a skills transfer component, with Auckland hosting young Chinese sailors here, and Kiwi coaches going up there.”

Chinese school students have been spending Auckland summers sailing at the Royal Akarana Yacht Club. “Students are upskilling, experiencing Auckland, and have the opportunity to sail with the best in the business. Now it’s starting to spin off into migration applications. I’m really proud of the work the team has done to make this happen,” Armitage says.

As to the 36th America’s Cup, Team NZ say they haven’t yet heard from any potential Chinese challengers, but they hope to support a Chinese entry in the Youth America’s Cup, should it be part of the Cup schedule in 2021.

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