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New culture on high seas

By Dusty Lane | China Daily | Updated: 2013-04-30 08:09

Extreme Sailing will bring its unique brand of competition to state-of-the-art Qingdao venue this week, Dusty Lane reports.

Sorry McDonald's - don't expect to see a spike in sales when the Extreme Sailing Series comes to Qingdao this week for its third act of the season. With its stadium-style venues and tight courses, Extreme Sailing was designed to bring sailing to the masses.

With its state-of-the-art venue and downtown location, the Qingdao International Sailing Center was designed to bring the masses to sailing.

It's a surprisingly serene combination - a cultural exchange on windy waters. Many on the circuit call Qingdao the most intriguing of Extreme Sailing's eight "acts".

New culture on high seas

The Extreme Sailing Series Qingdao stop will be held at the venue of the 2008 Olympic sailing events this weekend. Provided to China Daily

Nick Moloney, who helped develop the Extreme Sailing concept before spending four years as a skipper on the circuit, works as a commentator and ambassador for the series.

"They care that they don't know anything about sailing - they come down in droves because it's colorful and it's exciting," he said. "We, as a traveling circus - we want that cultural exchange as well.

"In China, it's more cultural. Yeah, you can get Maccas (McDonald's) if you want it, but you can get that anywhere. But (in Qingdao) you're eating out, trying to get a feel for the culture. They make us feel welcome and excited, and we want to do the same for them."

This will be the ESS's third swing through Qingdao, and it's already earned a reputation as one of the wildest on the tour. The often-choppy waters provide ideal conditions for the spectator-friendly series, which is designed for high-speed, short-course races that occasionally lead to boats capsizing. Qingdao was home to perhaps the series' signature day, in 2011, when four boats capsized and an entire day of racing was cut short.

Even when chaos is at a minimum, Qingdao is one of the tour's signature stops. The marina is world class - built for the 2008 Olympics - and its downtown location has a way of attracting eyeballs.

"People all crowd over to watch the race because it's really colorful and attractive and it's really close," said Song Kun, a Qingdao native who took up sailing in 2006 and now works as an in-stadium commentator for ESS after spending the past year working with Team China in the America's Cup.

"People are in their office buildings and they can all see it and it's great, especially with live commentary, and people are cheering, and it's a very, very good venue."

Song is a behind-the-scenes coordinator for the event in Qingdao, which will play host to the 2014 ISAF Sailing World Championships.

So, China's built a world-class venue in Qingdao at which sailors like to sail and spectators like to spectate. That's neither cheap nor easy, but it's a done deal.

The bigger question is, what does it mean for the sport in a country that's ravenous for athletic success in general, and Olympic medals specifically?

The tiny, prosperous, coastal country of Oman has honed in on sailing as a sport in which it can both promote tourism and establish itself on the international athletics stage.

So far, so good: Last season, The Wave, Muscat, won the ESS championship, followed by Oman Air in second.

Sailing is Oman's thing, but it's still looking to China as a model.

"Qingdao is aspiring to do exactly what (Oman) is aspiring to do, which is support itself as one of the key sailing cities around the world," said Mohammed Al Eissa, regional PR manager for Oman Sail. "I was very humbled by that.

"At this point I would rather focus on what we can learn from China, because what China has done in rising and reaching the Olympic level is actually quite impressive. They have definitely been steps ahead of other countries in terms of what they have achieved.

"To us, China is actually a learning story - in terms of hosting the Olympics, hosting the world championships - and seeing how we can work in terms of developing sailing in Asia and internationally."

That doesn't mean China has an impossible task ahead; neither does it mean China's a sailing power yet.

It might be the one sport in China that's developing at a sustainable speed - rapid, yet measured.

Song has noticed a measurable improvement in the sport since she took it up in 2006 - "Sailing in China is booming," she said as has the rest of the world.

Two New Zealand sailors, Blair Tuke and Peter Burling, teamed up to win a silver medal in the 49er class at the London Games last year. Both were in Singapore as crew members for Team Korea.

They've seen what China has to offer on the international stage. China has won five Olympic medals in sailing.

"They're not as strong as some of the other countries," Tuke said. "But they've won medals at the last two Olympics, so they're pulling it together."

Talk enough about Chinese sailors, and you'll hear the same complaint you'll hear about other Chinese athletes, both from and about them. Maybe it's misguided nutrition, maybe it's overtraining, maybe it's genetics. Probably, it's a combination, in that order.

"They're not very big," Burling said. "But they learn the job (quickly)."

"They just need to get a little stronger, I suppose."

As with many things in China, it's an endeavor that's slowly improving. Some see the part that's slow; others see the part that's improving.

"China doesn't have a huge base of sailors, but that will come, " said Brit Robert Greenhalgh, a veteran sailor and former ESS champion who was competing for Team Aberdeen in Singapore.

"They're a nation that are trying to get their feet in sailing. China is definitely trying to push sailing as a sport. They're very dedicated people, and I think they could be very good."

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