The future of dinghy sailing in China

A group of young Chinese Optimist sailors after their training day.
Lynn Fitzpatrick

While the Olympic Sailing Center in Qingdao, China was being swept clean of Olympic memorabilia and converted to a more user friendly venue for the Paralympics, I stole away to Rhizaou and discovered what’s really happening with the development of sailing in China.

My ride in a bread van dropped me at what had been described as a remote marina where an Optimist regatta was being sailed over the weekend. The marina did not have many sailboats or motor yachts in it and the half finished buildings surrounding it were borrowed from the skylines of Valencia, Abu Dabi and other recently developed international sailing venues. The 25 or so Optis finishing up a day of sailing triangular courses in the basin brought a smile to my face, but there were two other sights that astounded me.

The first was the Chinese National Sailing Center. The high bay roll up doors on one end of the building revealed racks of windsurfer sails, boards and equipment. The other end of the two-story building doubled as administrative offices and residences. The building fronted the marina. On its waterside were a dinghy parking area and a monstrous ramp.

The Opti fleet sailed to the ramp and instructors and parents assisted the junior sailors in hauling their boats to the top of the ramp. All of the miniature dollies were accounted for which meant that there were dozens more boats still out sailing in the delightful sea breeze late that weekend afternoon. As the sun started to sink over the sailing center, the first of the flotilla sailed through the breakwater.

It was a band of RS:Xes. The clear sails reflected the setting sun like mirrors as they paraded toward the ramp. Next was a fleet of Finns. Lasers followed. Bringing up the rear was a fleet of three to four dozen 470’s under spinnaker. Only at major Olympic classes regattas in North America and Europe had I ever seen Olympic class fleets matching the size of the ones that descended on the ramp in the middle of a coastal community south of Qingdao.

As I watched the army efficiently haul their boats, I started to recognize faces that I had seen at the Qingdao Olympic Sailing Center during the previous month. The faces were none other than those of the Chinese Olympic sailing representatives and some of the Olympic media boat drivers. Why were all of them in Rhizaou?

Launching at Rizhaou
Lynn Fitzpatrick

The Chinese Nationals were over a week away and the stakes were high for every member of every provincial team. Their livelihoods were on the line. Although the Olympics were four years off, China would field teams for other international competitions within the quadrennium. Each and every one of the young sailors aspired to be on the roster.

The conclusion of the Opti regatta the following morning awakened me more to the realities of sailing in China. While the fleet of privately funded and sponsored Optis from various coastal communities sailed their final race, a handful of Optis, without colorful sponsors’ logos on their sails, maneuvered around a separate course and a different coach boat. That was the Chinese National Optimist Team.

Winner of the new Optimist and her mother at Rizhaou
Lynn Fitzpatrick
I was told that the team members had been handpicked from the Chinese public schools because of their physical builds. They were selected at an early age, in a similar fashion to the tall and slender teenagers and twenty somethings that would descend on the sailing center early in the afternoon to make a 13:00 start outside the mouth of the marina.

An Opti dad and big supporter of sailing in his community told me that in China, there is little room for fun and mediocrity. If kids don’t study hard and do well in school, there is little opportunity for them. The rapidly growing middle class has great aspirations for their children, yet some of them recognize that extracurricular activities are healthy. In the case of the young sailors on the provincial teams, I was told, they weren’t very good students.

They were recruited to sail; not to study. If they didn’t excel in sailing, their futures were limited because their reading, writing and arithmetic would have taken a distant back seat to training.

My busman’s holiday to cover an Opti regatta brought me as close as I’ll ever come to seeing an athletic production machine at work. It also reassured me that there will be recreational sailing in China. There are parents there who do want to see their children smile, have fun, travel and share a passion with new friends.

Everyone left the private Opti regatta with smiles on their faces, brightly colored certificates, baseball caps, shirts, trophies, good memories and the invitation to bring a friend to next year’s second annual regatta. The most improved first year student left with even more incentive. She won a brand new Optimist.

The little girl was stunned. Her mother jumped for joy, called all of her family and friends with her cell phone and said afterward that she was pleased that her child won the sailboat, but studies would come first.