It might be the victorious teams swigging expensive champagne after a grueling circumnavigation of the globe or the swanky sports cars filling the car parks of private yacht clubs that give people the impression that sailing is reserved for a certain kind of person with a certain kind of income.
And while the people who own the yachts in question are generally more well off than the rest of us (and most yacht clubs may well have the odd Hooray Henry), sailing is actually a very accessible sport that doesn’t have to cost the earth.
The first people to tell you so are often the sailors themselves.
‘It only takes one storm at sea for you to be heavily humbled. Respect is something that sailing beats into you.’
Nick Moloney has, among many other achievements, won the largest solo sailing race in the world, the Route du Rhum; he was part of the team that won the Jules Verne Trophy in 2002; and he’s the current holder of the Cariad Trophy for the fastest circumnavigation of Hong Kong Island. He is the first to admit the sport he loves has a slight image problem.
‘There is no question that in some circles sailing is perceived to be an elite sport and in many cases this is warranted,’ Moloney says.
‘Yacht club environments, where the car park is a statement of wealth, and high membership fees support this.
‘This environment is quite common in Hong Kong, for example, whereas France is possibly one of the strongest and most professional sailing fraternities in the world, and they don’t really have yacht club establishments or a yacht club culture.’
Naomi Walgren, assistant manager of sailing promotion at Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, agrees that sailing can come across as a bit exclusive and that it can be daunting walking into what is usually a tight-knit community.
Then there are other factors that can be intimidating, such as the very specific terminology used in sailing which Moloney likens to learning another language.
But he is quick to offer a compelling counter to these issues: Sailing is a sport that can change your life.
Jump right in
And getting involved isn’t as difficult or expensive as most people would think. In fact, it doesn’t have to cost anything, at least initially.
‘If you’re interested in sailing, go down to the yacht club. Or when there are races on, go down to the dock and ask to go out sailing. People will take you out,’ Walgren says.
‘Start with Saturday and Sunday racing (traditionally less competitive and more recreational), and eventually you will get to know people and they will introduce you to other people.’
Moloney agrees, adding that the main thing you need to start sailing is a desire to get onboard.
‘I am so incredibly appreciative for all that sailing has given me in life’
Is it really that simple? Well, yes and no. Walgren says that after a period doing this you may be gently encouraged to consider a membership at a yacht club.
There is no obligation to join but when everyone else on the boat is a member, fitting in and becoming part of that tight-knit community could prove difficult in the long term.
As far as the actual sailing goes, it is of course preferable to have some experience and the best way to get that—even if it is just knowing your bow from your stern—is to take a course (presuming you’re not like Moloney, who learned to sail as a boy when he came to an agreement with a local boat renter; he helped the renter rig and pack up his fleet at the beginning and the end of each day, and Moloney got to use the boats for free).
Join the club
Hong Kong has several yacht clubs, each offering different courses depending on your level of experience.
Courses at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, which has three locations, include everything from general boat handling to how to rig and use a spinnaker (you will have to log 36 hours sailing to learn how to do that).
The club also offers five-day beginner courses that will see you sailing into the sunset before you know it.
After that, the world is your oyster … or something like that.
When you’re ready to head to the club or the dock, look at a sailing calendar (available at clubs, and through local and regional sailing associations) and find a race that suits your level of skill.
Be sure to ask around the clubs for special events, too. Four years ago, the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club started the Po Toi Challenge, a race specifically designed for young sailors and potential members that allowed them to ‘experience the thrill of racing in a friendly and sociable environment.’
The race is followed by lunch and an awards ceremony, offering participants a chance to talk to more experienced crew and skippers.
For both Moloney and Walgren—who got a job as a deckhand the day after her very first sailing trip in Australia’s Whitsundays—sailing has given them jobs and careers. It has also given them unbridled joy and taught them valuable life lessons.
‘I am so incredibly appreciative for all that sailing has given me in life—the people I have met, the experiences I have had and the places I have been,’ Moloney says.
‘When you start sailing you firstly experience an enormous sense of freedom, yet it only takes one storm at sea for you to be heavily humbled. Respect is something that sailing beats into you.’
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Photo: Alamy and Nick Moloney