In the 2014 Rolex China Sea Race, two yachtsmen seemingly in the twilight of their sailing careers stole the headlines and plaudits at a memorable edition of the event.
Syd Fischer, 87 years young, a veteran of 45 Rolex Sydney Hobarts, winner of the Rolex Fastnet in 1971 and five-time challenger of the America’s Cup, skippered Ragamuffin 90, the race’s largest and fastest boat to line honours. 74-year old Neil Pryde, a racing sailor for 60 years, guided his 52-ft Hi Fi to outright victory for the second time in four years, and with a victory back in 1988 became the first skipper to win the race on handicap three times.
The 27th Rolex China Sea Race welcomed 34 boats, the highest number since the turn of this century. 'We’re back to the numbers where the race was in yesteryear,' explained Joachim Isler, Commodore of organizers the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, 'the growth is due to the popularity of yachting, the support we get from Rolex and the fact that Rolex gives the race more interest to overseas competitors. This is the oldest and most meaningful offshore race in the region.'
Overseas entries totalled seven. Bryon Ehrhart’s TP52 Lucky from the United States was one of the participants expected to make an impact, Lucky having proved her offshore prowess by winning the 606-nm Rolex Middle Sea Race in 2010. In preparation for a stern offshore challenge, Ehrhart reinforced his crew with the inclusion of navigator Adrienne Cahalan, the most experienced female sailor in Rolex Sydney Hobart history, 22 appearances, and multiple line honours victories onboard the all-conquering 100-ft Maxi Wild Oats XI.
Cahalan was charting new waters. 'This is my first time doing the race and indeed sailing in Hong Kong, The Philippines or the South China Sea,' she revealed. 'I’ve sailed with the team before and there is a nice fleet of TP52s, so we’re looking forward to good close, racing.' The TP52 fleet also included Hong Kong entry Freefire and Standard Insurance Centennial, the latter skippered by Ernesto Echauz (overall winner in 1998 and 2008), the only entry from the arrival destination of The Philippines.
Completing the international entry list were boats representing Australia, Singapore and the United Kingdom as well as the first ever crew entirely composed of sailors from mainland China, those onboard Seawolf.
Fischer’s Ragamuffin 90 led the race from start to finish, departing from Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong in decent but not dramatic breeze, on route to a 565-nm journey through the South China Sea to Subic Bay, The Philippines. Her lead on the water was never threatened nor though was the race record set by Karl Kwok on the Volvo 60 Beau Geste in 2000.
Ragamuffin played it relatively safe, staying close to the rhumb line. 'Tactically it wasn’t difficult. The race got a little bit frustrating especially at the end. It was very light, we only saw 18 knots in the last two hours on the approach to the harbour. Until then we never saw breeze over 10 knots,' explained David Witt, boat captain. Witt paid tribute to the crew’s extraordinary skipper. 'He’s amazing isn’t he? 87 years old and he’s sat on the rail all day. There are 22 year olds who could get a bit of inspiration from him.'
On arrival, a relaxed Fischer joked that ‘it was just another yacht race’. 'The modifications we’ve done on this boat helped a lot. Our boat speed was well above the wind speed and that’s good,' he explained after 57 hours and 31 minutes at sea. Fischer is not resting on his laurels, instead focusing on a mouth-watering 2015 campaign which will take in the Rolex Fastnet, the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup and the Rolex Middle Sea Race, all onboard his new Ragamuffin 100. Nobody would bet against him adding to his burgeoning list of triumphs.
Hong Kong resident Neil Pryde first competed in the Rolex China Sea Race in 1968, had won line honours twice and was the overall winner in 1988 and 2010. Like Fischer, his love for the sport has never diminished.
Along with the three TP52s and Geoff Hill’s 72-ft Antipodes, Hi Fi was tipped to challenge for the title. While Ragamuffin cruised to a straightforward line honours success, the battle for overall victory proved to be dramatic. Hi Fi, Lucky and Freefire barely left each other’s side throughout the race. 'Three 52-footers all going the same speed, all alongside each other all the way down. You don’t get yacht racing better than that,' enthused Pryde. 'It was one of the all time classics. I have done this race a lot but I don’t remember one as exciting or as close in the final result. It was exhausting, you could not relax one moment.'
It proved to be the perfect race for a medium size boat. 'We had a period of about three or four hours outside the finish in Subic Bay when it went very light,' continued Pryde, 'but one of the great things about these 52-footers is that when the wind is down to three or four knots these boats still move and that is the difference really. All of the fleet had their park up but these 52s are amazing - they keep sailing at more than the wind speed.'
Charging into the mountainous, sun-kissed approach to The Philippines, Hi Fi and Lucky were practically match racing with spinnakers hoisted. It was a captivating sight. Every move, sail change, tactical decision was crucial. Lucky eventually finished two minutes ahead of Hi Fi but it was not enough; Pryde’s crew enjoyed a 17-minute margin on handicap. And with the chasing fleet becalmed, outright victory was soon confirmed.
'It ranks as one of the more memorable victories we’ve had and we’ve won a lot of races,' confirmed Pryde. 'It means a lot to me, over the past few years I’ve not done a lot of sailing because I’ve had some health issues so to go out and prove we can still do it is a big thing for me personally.'
Elsewhere, other crews revelled in simply finishing the race, none more than Seawolf who arrived in The Philippines to a rapturous reception from their sizeable Chinese following. 'You are out there, other yachts disappear and as you approach The Philippines it is always getting warmer,' explained Peter Forsythe owner of 55-ft Xena, 'there are times when it’s like magic.' A sentiment shared by those who completed the journey in 2014.
For more detailed information about the 2014 Rolex China Sea Race please visit the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club website