By her own, admission Cynthia Wong is not a typical sailing yacht owner. As an Asian woman, she was certainly in the minority among the skippers at last year’s Solaris Cup in Sardinia.
Wong has been skippering sailing yachts since she bought a no-frills Archambault A35 racer-cruiser from France that was gradually developed into far more of a racer than a cruiser.
Her family then supported the purchase of a more cruising-focused Dehler 42 from the Hanse shipyard in Germany, with the Hong Kong-based mother of four still managing to gain some credible results on this elegant yacht.
However, Wong admits that her petite frame can work against her in the physical world of short-handed sailing, so has ordered a Solaris 47 EZC – designed for easy sailing – that’s set to arrive later this year.
“Strength is my major obstacle in sailing. I only have one electric winch for the halyard and when I did my single-handed race, after each tack I found it hard to sheet in the jib to maximum trim because I don’t have enough strength to grind,” she admits. “I either have to do some weight training or take the easy way out, with all electric winches.”
Wong’s decision to order a fully automated Solaris may be the ‘easy way out’ in her own words, but her background in sailing doesn’t suggest a weak-willed personality.
“Sailing is a pleasure. Sailing is for anyone as long as they have the courage to learn something new. I often tell my lady friends, ‘Look at me. I don’t look strong at all and if I can skipper a boat, you can’. It’s all in the mind,” she says.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’ve introduced a friend who can’t swim to sailing. I just told her she must wear a lifejacket at all times on deck until she can swim.”
Wong was introduced to water sports in 2003 when she took up wakeboarding, followed by waterskiing and wakesurfing, but it was when she started windsurfing in 2007 that her interest in sailing began. Two years later she bought a Hobie, then larger sailing boats followed.
“I enjoyed windsurfing and sailing a lot more because you’re free and don’t need to follow a speedboat. Motor sports do not give me the pleasure that sailing has to offer.”
Wong started to sail seriously after she and some friends decided to buy a sailboat together for cruising. After doing some research and testing some boats, Wong then sought advice from within her own family before making a final decision.
“When I asked my mother if I should choose the faster boat or the one with a nicer interior, her advice was to buy the fastest boat with the same amount of money, so we bought an Archambault A35, even though she only has a very basic interior.”
Although the yacht, Andiamo, was intended for cruising, Wong finished third in her first race, the ABC (Aberdeen Boat Club) Opening Regatta, after only two months with the boat.
Wong said she felt comfortable skippering the yacht ‘within a few months’ and quickly gained in confidence as she and her team competed and won regularly, with the A35 gradually modified to become more of a racer.
“Although I’m mostly on the helm, I’ve learnt every job on the boat so I can give orders to my crew as to what they should do to make a boat sail faster.”
As the A35 became a competitive boat, Wong’s family urged her to buy a Dehler 42, a good-sized family cruiser, although again the racing bug bit fairly quickly after Daydream arrived.
“She’s easy to control and I can sail her single-handed. I finished third in a single-handed race with her.”
Wong may be a capable and competitive sailor, but admits there are a couple of aspects of yachting she’s never quite mastered. “The most difficult aspect of owning a boat is to deal with the engine and electronics. I have taken lessons, but never seem to be able to master it!”
SAILING ON THE SOUTH SIDE
Wong has derived immense pleasure from sailing, even encouraging friends who own motor yachts to switch to sailing “because it’s much more environmentally friendly”.
“I’m really happy knowing that while I’m sailing, I’m not polluting, because I really respect and care for the environment, in particular the sea. Sailing boats burn a little fuel getting in and out of marinas, but it’s so important we reduce carbon emissions.
“Over the past decade, I’ve seen Hong Kong’s waters becoming more and more polluted. Plastic pollution in the sea is increasing in a dramatic way, so it’s time we all started to do what must be done to reduce pollution and clean up as much as possible. We have a duty to leave a better world for future generations.”
She most often sails around the south side of Hong Kong island, making the most of the many islands and bays where she can anchor.
On weekdays, she often takes the Dehler out to practise racing skills including starts, tacking, jibing on the gennaker, furling the kite or code zero, mark rounding, trimming and so on.
Saturdays are often for racing, while Sundays are for sailing with the family, including her three daughters and son, her youngest, who all sail competitively.
“I like the freedom of owning a boat. In the morning, if there isn’t enough wind to windsurf, I’ll call my boat boy to say I’ll go sailing in 30 minutes and the boat is prepared for me to go. I can then sail for a half day nearby,” says Wong, a proficient piano player who enjoys listening to the likes of Chopin, Mozart, Debussy, Beethoven and Schubert while sailing.
“If I’m with friends, I like to take them to seafood lunches either at Lamma or Po Toi, Cheung Chau or Po Toi O. I just love the sound of the wind and the water, and spending time with family and friends. I also love the romance of sailing and listening to beautiful music while I’m at sea.”
For all her love of sailing, Wong has had a couple of frights at sea, including her “most scary episode” when, after sailing back from Sai Kung, she looked set to crash into Beaufort Island near Stanley.
“We had the gennaker on, but the wind got stronger so I decided to drop the kite. My crew was unable to pull the sock so we had to drop without the sock. Somehow, the kite went in the water and we were unable to retrieve it with only two of us on board,” she recalls.
“We were very close to Beaufort. I decided to drop the mainsail as well, so at least the boat could stop moving. The boat was drifting towards Beaufort, but we just managed to finish pulling up the kite in time.”
EASY SAILING WITH SOLARIS
In light of such episodes, it’s all the more understandable that Wong has chosen the fully automated Solaris 47, EZC (Easy Sailing Concept) for her next yacht, as it will take away much of the stress and muscle required to handle a sailing yacht.
Wong first noticed the high-end Italian brand when a Solaris One 48 appeared on the same pontoon as her own yacht.
“I wondered what this beautiful blue boat was,” said Wong, who made enquiries and went on to sail the 48-footer several times with the brand’s Asia Representative, Enrico Zanella.
As her interest in the brand and its models increased, Wong was invited to Italy last summer to do sea-trials during the Solaris Days, held in the stunning Costa Smeralda waters off Sardinia.
She then put that experience into practice at the following two- day Solaris Cup, skippering a Solaris One 44 model, supported by an experienced crew, including several from Hong Kong.
For her own boat of choice, she settled on a Solaris 47 a fast cruiser named Saphira that’s currently under construction and is scheduled to arrive in Hong Kong in the fourth quarter of the year.
“I really enjoyed the Solaris Cup. The Costa Smeralda waters are so beautiful and unique. The colours are simply amazing and during our first training day we were welcomed by three dolphins. We had delicious food and fun events at Yacht Club Porto Rotondo, which is a lovely, welcoming club,” said Wong, who said she plans to return for this year’s Solaris Cup.
“The racing was fun, with over 30 yachts. In some ways, it was similar to Hong Kong in terms of islands and the sailing courses. The wind and weather was good. Our yacht GioiA was the first One 44 in a group of four and we passed a few boats with good teamwork.”
Leaving aside the many attractions of sailing in Italy, Wong believes the Solaris 47 EZC makes a lot of sense for someone looking to focus more on the pleasures of sailing than the challenges.
“The Easy Sailing Concept is exactly what I’m looking for. The furling boom, the self-tacking jib and all-electric winches make life so much easier for ladies like me and for people who want to enjoy sailing, but don’t want to deal with the physical hardship of grinding or pulling the lines,” she says.
“It’s about using technologies to make sailing easier and safer. I can sail the boat by myself, while my family and friends relax and enjoy the journey. The boat is very fast and yet it’s still comfortable for the people on board.
“Italy has the best design and there’s great attention to detail and beauty. It’s also a top-quality build. It’s a very sturdy, oceangoing boat because of the hull design and construction.”
Zanella also provides training to ensure owners and prospective buyers quickly become accustomed to using a Solaris and how to get the most out of this boutique brand, which produces only a limited number of yachts per year.
“The emphasis of the Easy Sailing Concept is on making everything easy so even the training should be easy,” Wong says. “However, you must put in the time to learn. You just need a few lessons to familiarise yourself with the boat, on top of normal sailing training.”
A LIFESTYLE AND A SPORT
Zanella himself believes there’s a misconception in mainland China and other parts of Asia that sailing is only a sport, revolving around races and regattas.
He’s determined for more people to realise the widespread appeal of cruising, and Wong herself has always been a strong supporter of both.
“Sailing is not only a sport, it’s a lifestyle. Racing is exciting, while cruising is almost meditative, calming the mind, relaxing the body,” she says.
“Whether you’re a novice or an experienced skipper, anyone can enjoy sailing in their own ways. It can be with many friends, with a full crew, or just one or two on board.
“Unlike sports like football or tennis when a player can only have a fair game with people of similar skill, sailing is for everyone – as long as you don’t get seasick!”
Even in Hong Kong, Wong is in somewhat of a minority as an Asian female owning and skippering sailing yachts and in her own quiet way, is breaking through a few barriers and proving that anyone can sail.
As such, she genuinely hopes that the sport will continue to grow in popularity in the city she calls home and elsewhere in the region, where the spectacular cruising grounds are still very much underappreciated and underused compared to what she has seen in the Mediterranean.
“The water is beautiful and clean in the Med, and sailing is very popular there. In Hong Kong and some other Asian countries, motor yachts are more popular. On a motor yacht, people want to quickly arrive at their destination, drop the anchor and stay put, whereas in sailing, people enjoy the journey. In fact, I often sail without a fixed destination – I go where the wind takes me,” she says.
“This difference has more to do with the value system of Asians versus Europeans. Asians are generally more results-oriented whereas people in the Med are process-oriented. If Hong Kong people can take a step back, empty the mind, enjoy the freedom, we can also enjoy nature. Hong Kong has many beautiful islands. We just need to reach out and enjoy them.”
Solaris Brings Easy Sailing To Asia