Spirit of Hong Kong

My Dear Rotarians and friends, in particular my Action Presidents,

I said last time that I might talk a bit more on the yacht race which had been very much part of me these days. But where do I begin with such a complex and multi-line story? I think I would tell it as it comes to the mind, and if it gets boring, you can jump a few paragraphs to the end.

I would begin by explaining what the BT Global Challenge 2000-2001 is. On the face of it, it is a yacht race between 12 identical 72-foot steel ocean racing yachts. The fleet is to go the “wrong way” around the world, from east to west against the prevailing winds and currents, stopping at seven ports on the way. The yachts left Southampton, England on 10 September 2000, arrived Boston 18 days later, stopped for abut two weeks before their 35-day second leg to Buenos Aires, arriving there on 19 November. They would set sail again on 10 December for Wellington, then Sydney, Cape Town and La Rochelle before returning to Southampton on 23 June 2001 by which time they would have covered some 30,000 miles over a period of ten and a half months.

Each yacht is provided with a professional skipper and 17 crew volunteers. And listen to this. To be a volunteer crew member, you need first to pay the organizer 25,000 British Pounds. You would then undergo training at sea for 19 days, sailing about 1,000 nautical miles before being assigned to a vessel with 17 strangers. During the 10 and a half months, you would spend more than 160 days at sea, be subject to temperature extremes from well below zero to over 40 Celsius, and brave winds of 62 knots and waves of 25 feet. You would sleep in very tight quarters for four and a half hours at a stretch, eat a lot of freeze-dried pasta and rice and surrender privacy, but you would go round the world and experience the adventure of a lifetime.

The race organizer is called Challenge Business. The company is established to plan, promote and administer events which allow “the ordinary person to experience the extraordinary.” In brief, the company provides the yachts, recruits and trains the crew, generates sponsorship, determines the route and works closely with each port authority and the Royal Ocean Racing Club – the technical supervisors of the race.

Many people involved in the BT Global Challenge will say that it is not a yacht race, but rather a unique metaphor for business, and more importantly, a metaphor for life. “It is about self-inspiration, the ability to inspire others, to work in teams and above all leadership. It is an example of supreme human performance and the ability to look for competitive advantage through the inspired performance of people. It is about the leading edge imagination if there is such a thing.”

Leaders need to know what works and what doesn’t, particularly at the time it matters. They are in the imagination business. They are constantly trying to imagine a world, which has better communication leading to better relationships, which create better business and ultimately a better world.

Invest Hong Kong is the government department set up in July 2000 to spearhead Hong Kong’s efforts to promote direct foreign investment. In August 2000, Invest Hong Kong decided to sponsor one of the 12 yachts and named it “Spirit of Hong Kong.” There are a few reasons for that.

Hong Kong is very much like the BT Global Challenge. It is exciting, it is challenging, and it is very rewarding for those who choose to be part of it. Hong Kong’s spirit is based on a commitment to freedom and a celebration of success, in a similar spirit of the yacht race. Invest Hong Kong has participated in the world’s toughest yacht race because the race would provide a unique platform to communicate to audiences around the world that Hong Kong, with its unique association with the increasingly important Chinese economy, remains one of the most dynamic cities in the world and that it truly is Asia’s world city.

And so I became associated with the yacht race, as a member of Invest Hong Kong. So far, Spirit of Hong Kong has done rather well. It was awarded the Marble Trophy, an award given for the fastest 24-hour segment during Leg 1, and the Silver Honour for coming in second for Leg 2. It now ranks fifth in the overall score chart.

Reading the journals filed by the skippers and crew members can often be a moving and uplifting experience. A lady member spoke of her constant crave for clean and dry clothes. The crew of “Save the Children Fund” reported their experience of navigating too close to a burning oil rig, having sailed astray a bit. A few skippers moaned about always being chased by other yachts. One skipper who did not stock up sufficient food for the crew described the ordeal of the last three days and the last meal with such details that would make you savour the simple things of life with gratitude and joy and hopefully help you never to take for granted what you have in life. Then there was the story of our skipper Steve Wilkins who decided to sail east before crossing the doldrums. They dropped to the last place, causing their families, friends and sponsor tremendous anguish, frustration and anxiety. Then, as predicted by the skipper, it crossed the doldrums in record time and began its climb first to the third and then the second place where it stayed till it reached Buenos Aires. There were many other human stories, of the ritual for christening sailors who crossed the equator the first time by the Neptune King and of how the crew celebrated Halloween uneventfully, but unforgettably. If you are interested, go to the websites of BT Global Challenge (www.btchallenge.com) or of Invest Hong Kong (www.InvestHK.gov.hk) or any sponsor of the other 11 yachts. They are, in alphabetical order, BP, CGNU, Compaq, Isle of Man, LG FLATRON, Logica, Olympic Group, Quadstone, Save the Children, TeamSpirIT and Veritas. The following paragraphs, taken from a page of the BT Global Challenge web site, provide a description of British yachtsman Sir Chay Blyth, the first person who sailed around the world non-stop and single handed against the prevailing winds and currents. The journey was billed by journalists as “The Impossible Voyage” at the time.

Everyone always sailed east to take best advantage of prevailing winds and currents. No one had been brave enough — or foolhardy enough — to sail against these considerable forces of nature.

“I convinced British Steel that this had never been done before, since time began,” says Blyth. “People thought it could not be done. In fact, Sir Francis Chichester came right out and said it was impossible. That’s why I called my book ‘The Impossible Voyage.’”

With a brand-new, 59-ft. steel boat under him (named for his sponsor, British Steel), Blyth set sail from Southampton in October 1970. Alone, he headed the wrong way. As no one had ever done this before, he had no idea how long he would be at sea. So the boat was packed to the gunnels with 18 months’ worth of supplies and spare parts.

Just beyond the Cape Horn, BRITISH STEEL was picked up by a mountainous wave and slammed down on her side. The impact shattered the boat’s self-steering device. In 1970, they didn’t have such things as GPS autopilots or computerized steering. Self-steering was accomplished by a wind- and current-driven device attached to the rudder. With this device now beyond repair, Blyth was forced to sail by hand.

“From Cape Horn through two southern oceans and back up to England, I had to either balance the boat or steer by hand,” Blyth recalls. “I couldn’t get more than two hours’ sleep at any one time. I was becoming so exhausted that I would often just pull everything down, wash everything down and just go get some sleep.’

Having to stop dead and get some sleep added weeks to his journey. But 292 days after leaving England, Blyth made a triumphant return. It would be no deserted Irish beach for the adventurer this time.

“To give you a measure of how my arrival back was received, HMS “Ark Royal,” an aircraft carrier, met me about 1,000 miles out from my arrival in Britain,” he recalls. “The first person to meet me when I stepped ashore was Prince Philip, followed by Prince Charles, followed by Princess Anne, followed by our Prime Minister, Ted Heath.”

He had finally bagged the big one. The Queen awarded him the honorary title of Commander of the British Empire. Eventually, the nation rewarded Blyth the way it has rewarded its heroes for more than a thousand years. Blyth was knighted, becoming Sir Chay Blyth.

My Action Presidents, does that sound familiar and does it ring a bell? Sir Chay Blyth completed his impossible voyage based on the belief that he could do it. He never had any doubts that he would not. President Frank Devlyn has asked us to dream the impossible dream, reminding us that Don Quixote never had any doubts about his dreams not coming true. Perhaps it is that very spirit that has taken him and his two successors to Beijing a week or so ago to explore how Rotary can regain its foothold in China. Long may that spirit last!

Talk to you soon.

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