2012 marked the golden anniversary of Asia’s premier offshore yacht race, the 565-nautical mile Rolex China Sea Race. The diverse 25-boat fleet varied from the sole participating Maxi, Geoff Hill’s sailing yacht Genuine Risk, which took the Sunday Telegraph Trophy for Line Honours as well as a Rolex Yacht-Master timepiece, to the many 50 and 40-footers racing to win the China Sea Race Trophy on corrected time.
Start of the 50th Anniversary Rolex China Sea Race Photo by ROLEX/Daniel Forster
The Overall title on corrected time went to the Singaporean entry Zanzibar, who also laid claim to a Rolex Yacht-Master timepiece in addition to inscribing their victory in the record books of Rolex China Sea Race history.
“The race started a bit more complex than we thought,” said Geoff Hill of Genuine Risk’s experience on the South China Sea. “Our plan was to go south of the rhum line and come up and we effectively stuck with that.”
The softening of the breeze on the second day made breaking the current race record, established in 2000 by local yachtsman Karl Kwok on his Volvo 60 Beau Geste (elapsed time 47h 43m 07s), next to impossible. Genuine Risk needed to arrive in Subic Bay before 12:03 on Friday, 6 April (UTC +8) to set a new Rolex China Sea Race record. When she finally crossed the line it was over 14 hours later than the required record time.
“I think if we had gotten the breeze we could have broken the record,” said Hill, “we are pretty confident of that… but we didn’t get the breeze, and that’s what ocean racing’s all about.”
Hill has been racing the Rolex China Sea Race since 2004, although this was the first edition for him on Genuine Risk, a Dubois 90 Maxi with a canting keel, 16-foot draft, huge sails and enormous power. Previously, Hill raced onboard his TP52 Strewth, a boat about half the size of his current machine. Hill admitted to “feeling spoiled” after his Maxi experience on the South China Sea, and pre-race, his primary challenges were optimising the boat and preparing the 24-man crew in time for this year’s race start. “What is interesting about this race,” added Hill, “is that you just never know who it will be. The weather will actually determine who wins on handicap, because there are just so many variable patterns.”
Sailing yacht GENUINE RISK Photo by Rolex/Daniel Forster
The 2012 race saw a clean start just off the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, with winds of 12-15 knots propelling the fleet out of Victoria Harbour. The superyacht Genuine Risk led the fleet the first evening followed by Neil Pryde’s Hi Fi. Almost 24 hours later, the surge in the monsoon, which was responsible for the race’s strong Harbour start, receded and was replaced by a south-easterly, forcing the crews into crucial tactical decisions. The fleet split, with the faster boats at the front – Genuine Risk, Hi Fi and Freefire – branching off to the South, while the rest of the fleet chose to head east, positioning themselves for the expected replenishment of the monsoon.
However, the forecasted breeze was fickle, and the second day of racing proved to be fairly frustrating, with poor winds and slowing speeds all around. By the third day conditions began to accelerate, giving an advantage to the boats with asymmetric sails like Genuine Risk, the TP52s and the “Hot” 40s, including Ambush and Sell Side Dream.
As predicted, it was Genuine Risk that finished first, on Saturday 7 April at 02:43.26 (UTC +8). “We enjoyed the race,” said Hill, “it was tactically very demanding because of all the changes in the breeze. This boat was out on the water for the first time in nearly 12 months; we also had a new crew and that’s all come together pretty well, so we are very pleased with the way it went.” The second boat into Subic Bay was Neil Pryde’s Hi Fi, finishing the same day at 16:00.54 (UTC +8). Pryde is a Rolex China Sea Race veteran, having participated in nearly every edition of the race since 1968.
His Welbourn 52 Hi Fi has been extremely successful offshore, counting line honours for the 2008 and 2010 editions of the Rolex China Sea Race, and overall winner in 2010, among her achievements. “The first night we got very good mileage down the track but the second day we just ran out of wind and had a very bad day,” explained Pryde. “We had a game plan to stay south and I think we lost out quite a lot. We didn’t get any wind and had a hard time, allowing the smaller boats to catch right up to us, but that’s yacht racing. We had a plan, we stuck to it, and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Singapore entry Zanzibar made gains overnight going into the third day of racing, although the lead was changing regularly between a handful of competitors. Zanzibar reached the finish line at 20:44.48 on 7 April, putting intense pressure on the rest of the fleet to beat her on corrected time.
Jonathan Mahony, Owner/Skipper of Zanzibar explained that the team had a broad game plan to stay left of the rhum line, which ultimately paid off. “As soon as we saw an opportunity to head back out to the left we took it. We were looking great the second day, we caught a beautiful front running down across the gap and found ourselves in a nice position, while we saw everyone else parked up on the right. Things only got stressful and tense once we knew we were doing quite well on the big boats. We saw the others had a horrible park up and we were just trying to avoid doing the same ourselves. We had a couple of hairy moments but in the end we just managed to sneak in. We are absolutely satisfied, I mean, you will always have a few holes in this race, which can lead to a tactical nightmare, but we were expecting that. I would say we had a great race.”
EFG Bank Mandrake needed to finish before 01:15 local time on 8 April in order to topple Zanzibar’s lead, but with the still breeze off the finish, the team only crossed the line at 02:30.30, still finishing second in IRC Overall. Red Kite II, Australian Maid and Vega were also in the running for the Overall title, but by 13:30 (UTC +8) on 8 April the results for IRC Overall were in and it was Zanibar that took the title on corrected time, beating out the “big boats” and all other competitors on handicap. Hi Fi finished third in IRC Overall on corrected time.
Richard Killip, crew onboard the yacht Zanzibar, said the race went well for the team because they took an outside route. “It was good fun, it was challenging and we worked the boat incredibly hard. But it’s like Neil Pryde said in Hong Kong: you need an element of luck to be able to finish well, particularly coming into Subic. That’s true, and coming in through here, anything can happen.”
The 2012 edition of the Rolex China Sea Race proved once again that changing local conditions provide constant challenge and tactical re-evaluation as crews race out of Hong Kong to the Philippines on this 565-mile sprint. As Geoff Hill said, “I think the Rolex China Sea Race is one of the most underrated offshore races in terms of challenges, distance from shore, and range of conditions. You leave Hong Kong and you head offshore till you hit the finish. This isn’t a coastal cling, a Channel dash, or a Mediterranean meander. This is a genuine offshore event across a tricky, crowded, notorious seaway.”
As this year’s race comes to a close, all look forward to the next edition of the biennial Rolex China Sea Race; rendezvous in 2014 at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club for what promises to be another challenging adventure across the South China Sea.