IT’S A RACE THAT combines all the best things about ocean yachting: fast downwind sailing, an exotic and friendly final port and a fleet of fast, well-crewed boats looking for a fight.
On October 17, the biennial Audi Hong Kong to Vietnam Race fleet set off on a 656-nautical-mile downwind sleigh ride to Nha Trang, on the south-eastern coast of Vietnam. All ocean races have their moments of downwind thrill, but in this race there’s little to none of the hard upwind work that batters crews and boats. This is a famously fast and wild ride, thanks to the consistent winds of over 20 knots generated by the north-east monsoon.
And that promise of a long downhill ride through warm tropical seas – what some sailors have called the “grin factor” – has drawn some big names to a relatively new race. This is only the sixth edition of Asia’s longest ISAF Category 1 Offshore race since it was first run in 1996, as poor weather and bureaucracy have axed several events.
The most notable entry is Ragamuffin 90, a 90-foot (27.5-metre) canting-keel maxi that’s just undergone a full refit, with new sails, hydraulics, electrics and the addition of daggerboards. Ragamuffin, which won the 2012 Rolex China Sea Race under her former name of Genuine Risk, is coming with an allstar crew, giving her a good crack at taking line honours, and if conditions are right, challenging the course record of 42 hours 45 minutes and 41 seconds, set by Grant Wharington’s Skandia Wild Thing in 2004.
Ragamuffin‘s crew includes the renowned 86-year-old Australian yachtsman Syd Fischer and most of the sailors who steered her to victory in the Transpac Race earlier this year, with the addition of Ian Walker, skipper of Volvo Ocean Race team Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, who also has two Olympic silver medals to his name.
“There’s lots to look forward to, but top of the list must be almost guaranteed windy downwind racing for 700 miles [more than 1,100km],” says Walker, who’s no stranger to the Asian Grand Prix circuit.
“The Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club (RHKYC) is probably my favourite yacht club in the world. The location is awesome and the members and staff are always very welcoming. I’ve sailed in the Around the Island Race and the San Fernando Race. The racing is serious but the social side is never forgotten. The racing looks very competitive, especially in and around the 40-foot mark.”
Also on board will be 22-year-old Luke Parkinson, who represented Australia in the Youth America’s Cup in San Francisco, and David Witt, who previously ran Grant Wharington’s Skandia, as well as race chairman Geoff Hill.
The event is a qualifier for the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race, which has attracted yachts such as Lucky, a TP52 owned by American Bryon Ehrhart. Lucky is a newcomer to the Asian racing scene but she comes with plenty of ocean-sprint-race experience in the US and Europe. She won her class in the 2010 Rolex Middle Sea Race and the team has slowly been working its way east with plans to be on the starting line for the Sydney Hobart.
“I’m looking forward to some good downwind sailing and pushing ourselves as hard as we can,” says Ehrhart.
Walawala 2, a Singapore-based Sydney GTS 43 owned by Steve Manning, is a regular sight at Asia’s premier yachting events, and she’ll be on the start line with a few of her crew from sailmaker North Sails to help keep her spinnaker in trim.
This is the first Cat 1 offshore for Walawala 2, though her predecessor competed in ocean races across Asia. Expectations for Walawala 2 are high, as her Sydney-based sister ship Occasional Coarse Language Too was first in class in the 2012 Sydney Hobart.
“The Vietnam Race will be the first opportunity to enter a long-distance race since the new boat – and one in which the boat will really be able to stretch her legs,” says Manning.
“The boat is designed to take advantage of a good downhill blow and it will be a great opportunity to see how sailing in this mode plays out both for the boat and the crew.”
The entry list also includes Hong Kong sailing-circuit regulars such as Chin Yew Seah’s Avant Garde, Fred Kinmonth’s EFG Bank Mandrake, Sam Chan’s Freefire, Anthony Root’s Red Kite II, Steve Ho’s Surfdude and Simon Powell’s Sell Side Dream. There’ll be three of the highly competitive TP52s and a good number of 40-footers on the starting line, setting the stage for some fiercely fought competition.
However, there are just as many of Hong Kong’s premier racing boats that will remain in port. Most Hong Kong boats have amateur crews, which means taking days off work. Delivering the boat back to Hong Kong with the wind directly on the nose is also enough to turn some owners away.
“Over the years we’ve had mast failures, rudder failures, retirements due to sickness and enough shredded kites to keep the sailmakers in business for quite some time. It’s not a cheap race to do,” says Lindsay Lyons, head of race and regatta promotions at the RHKYC.
One of Hong Kong’s best-known boats, Sam Chan’s Freefire, suffered a damaged mast in 2008 and a broken rudder stock and bowsprit in 2011, but Chan has returned to set his spinnaker for Vietnam once more.
The South China Sea is infamous for its sudden gales and wandering fleets of unlit fishing boats. Imagine that from the deck of a yacht rocketing down wind and waves in pitch-black darkness.
“I’ve had some very tough sailing in the China Sea and will be very happy to be heading south-west for a change,” says Walker, remembering the brutal pounding that the Volvo Ocean Race fleet took in these waters in the 2008-09 race and again in 2011-12. “The seas can be steep and, as we approach Vietnam, we’ll have to be on our guard for local boats and fishing nets. The charts may not be as accurate as we’re used to in some parts of the world, so some old-fashioned navigation and eyes out of the boat will be required.”
Arriving in Vietnam is part of the draw for crews and yacht owners. “It’s culturally very different from Hong Kong and everyone who finishes the race seems to absolutely love it there,” says Lyons. “However, it’s changing and becoming more international, so it’s nice that the race started going there before it became big business.”
Nha Trang lacks a marina, so the multimillion-dollar yachts will anchor in the lee of Hon Tre, a nearby island. This has led to boats going adrift in past years, adding a worrying twist to the event once the crew are ashore with cold beers in hand.
These waters also remain inaccessible to yachts on a cruising basis, making the race all the more special for sailors keen to visit these unspoiled shores.
The start of the race at 12.30pm on October 17 will be visible from the harbour front as the boats sail east from Causeway Bay and through Lei Yue Mun.