Sailing away

Updated: 2011-06-05 08:06

By Zhao Yanrong and Xie Chuanjiao (China Daily)

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 Sailing away

A sailing competition in Qingdao, Shandong province. Chinese interest in the sport has grown following the 2008 Olympic Games. Cui Meng / China Daily

 Sailing away

Increased demand for sailing activities has created good business opportunities and a better understanding of the sport. Cui Meng / China Daily

As sailing attracts increasing attention, the number of Chinese people engaging in the sport is on the rise, Zhao Yanrong and Xie Chuanjiao report from Qingdao, Shandong province.

Sailing is an all-consuming passion for the real enthusiast, such as Arpad Senti, the former Austrian Olympic trainer from Vienna. Now the 50-year-old is teaching beginners in Qingdao, one of East China's most beautiful coastal cities. "There's a big difference between Olympians and beginners, but I've never regretted my decision," he said. Senti praises and encourages his students even when they only make a slight improvement, one that would not be worth mentioning to a professional sailor. When the summer sailing camps are in full swing, Senti holds classes all day, with more than 20 students attending each 4-hour training session.

"I enjoy living in Qingdao and promoting one of the exciting sports in the world," he said, having moved to the city not only because he married a Chinese woman, but also because he saw business opportunities in the up-and-coming sailing center.

Senti opened the first city's sailing shop and ran a sailing club for 3 years up until the end of 2008. However, the Olympic sailing events did not bring the host city a much-improved market. More people were aware of the sport, but that interest was still not great enough to support Senti's business in those days.

Having spent a year in Europe, he returned to Qingdao in 2010 because he realized that the situation had improved. "Now, with more international sailing competitions happening in Qingdao and all the work done by the local government, I have more confidence," Senti said.

Sailing away

As one of China's most famous coastal cities, Qingdao has a long history of boat building, with more than 10 shipyards established since the 1950s. Qingdao Shipyard Co Ltd even produced 5,000-ton vessels.

However, the production of sailing boats was non-existent until the Olympic Games, which not only brought a sailing culture to the city, but also more business related to the industry.

Since the early 2000s, many local boat companies have started making sailing boats and yachts in the city and there are currently more than 50 companies producing more than 10,000 sailing and yachts a year, with approximately 90 percent of their products sold overseas. One of those companies, Qingdao Nauticstar Marine Co Ltd is the local industry leader.

"We are lucky to set up our business in Qingdao at the start of a golden age in the city," said Hou Jie, general manager of the company.

The company, established in early 2002, started with a variety of businesses, including automobile design, light aircraft and yachts. As Qingdao prepared to host the Olympic sailing events, the local government contacted Nauticstar, and asked the company to provide the support vessels for the competition.

"The International sailing events in Qingdao provided with us many business opportunities, and we had a chance to realize many of our design and product ideas," Hou said.

There are more than 150 employees, including 13 foreign designers, 11 different research teams and 60 groups working for Nauticstar, which has been covering almost all of the domestic and international sailing competitions in the city. It also successfully bid for some of the support-vessel projects for the 2012 London Olympics.

With many companies competing in the lower end of the market, Nauticstar instead focuses on improving its designs and the quality of its products. "We target the high-end and the international market," said Hou.

Once it had become established in the domestic market, Nauticstar started reaching out to the global market by purchasing international brands. Currently, the company is in contact with a leading European sailing company, and is considering an overseas listing later this year.

"By buying foreign companies, we can utilize their advanced knowledge and skills to train our designers and workers."

Participating in international exhibitions is another effective way to expand in the international market. Every year Nauticstar attends at least three major exhibitions in Europe, especially in Mediterranean countries.

While encouraging local companies to expand in international market, Qingdao is also planning to establish a sailing and yachting industrial park by 2015, when it hopes the output of local sailing and yachting industry could reach 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion). It also plans to build Qingdao into the Chinese "City of Sails" by using all the resources from the 2008 games.

The venues for the 2008 regatta are still well maintained and have become a local landmark and an important aid in the development of sailing events, especially as the world's first "Olympic Sailing City" museum was established at the venue.

After five years' promotion, Qingdao now has 28 professional sailing clubs, more than 2,000 licensed sailors, and many student-training programs serving 165 local schools. About 5,000 students have been trained to sail so far.

The local government raised 8.68 mil-lion yuan in 2007 and bought about 1,000 sailing ships for the local schools.

Education in sailing has become a part of physical education system and a selection system for students. "No students wanted to be trained as sailors five years ago, but now more parents are sending their children to the training camps," said Lin Zhiwei, chairwoman of the Qingdao branch of the Chinese National Sports Association, and head of the Qingdao Sailing Association.

In the past five years, more than 100,000 local residents have sailed, and the local government will continue to promote the sport in their daily lives. "I am sure that figure will increase," said Xia Geng, the mayor of Qingdao. "We are looking for 300,000 residents to engage in the sport by 2014."

The city has hosted a number of international sailing competitions and events. The first Qingdao International Sailing Week was held in 2009, deliberately referencing the famous Kiel Week competition, which is held annually in Germany. More than 200 celebrities from the sailing world came to the city for the competition.

"A lot of people questioned the decision to hold such a high-level international sailing event at the beginning," said Lin. "But the good relationship we retained with the International Sailing Federation from 2008 Olympic Sailing Games was the key to our success." Meanwhile, the first Olympic Sailing City Mayor & International Sailing Summit Forum was also successfully held in 2010.

The Sailing Week in August is also likely to attract more experts to the city, and in addition to participating in conferences, they will also be invited to take part in a competition called Celebrity Challenge.

About 20 special guests, including some champions, sailing company CEOs and chairmen of sailing associations in other countries will be invited to the event. All ten boats used in the event will be produced in China.

"We intend to keep the celebrity events in our sailing weeks, which attract a lot of attention," Lin said.

The Extreme Sailing Series, which is one of the top international professional sailing events, was held in Qingdao in April, and other professional events such as the Clipper Round the World Race will also come to the city in August.

"To improve the sailing culture, we still need to host more top competitions, then we'll be able to see the difference in skill between professionals and amateurs," said Qu Chun, vice-president of Qingdao's Yachting Association.

The association is working on building up a Chinese training and certification system, modeled on the evaluation systems in the United States and Europe. Due to the lack of an internationally recognized licensing program in China, Chinese sailors have to train overseas at very high cost.

"When we set up our certification system, the cost of training sailors could be cut by around a half, and that will make the sport more convenient for the public," Qu said.


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