Just call him Andy. Those seeking for a prototypical salty-seadog persona need look no further than the laconic Mr Lam. The terse and blunt skipper is one of Hong Kong’s most veteran sailors, and he’s about to set sail on his 12th consecutive Rolex China Sea Race.
This year also marks the Rolex China Sea Race’s 50th anniversary, and Lam has been participating in the biannual event for 24 of those 50 years. “Every year is the same,” he says, before adding elliptically, “and every year is different.”
On April 4, at exactly 12.10pm, Lam will sail out once again across the China Sea in a 565 nautical mile journey that takes around four days and culminates at Subic Bay in the Philippines. Over 30 yachts have enrolled so far, and more than 40 are expected to take part, including a number of overseas crews. The competition is tight, but for Lam, who is an engineer by profession, it’s not about winning. “Sailing is just fun,” he says.
Lam began sailing casually in 1976, after going out to sea with some friends. But the lure of the open water proved irresistible, and eventually Lam and company purchased a secondhand 40ft cruiser with racing capabilities called The Orient Express, which has remained his trusty yar companion through all his races.
On land, Lam is an engineer, but on the ocean he’s the skipper and boss. As skipper, his role is to make sure the boat is safe and sound and equipped with the right rigging and safety equipment, and to take care of the crew. He says: “I’m in charge of the boat, just like a captain.”
Lam acknowledges that, like any intense sport, open water sailing has its challenges and dangers, but he sees that as merely a moot point. What draws him back to the ocean year after year is the beauty, the isolation and the camaraderie that sailing affords.
“Being on open water feels fantastic!” Lam lights up. “The first few times I was very excited – just like the Boy Scouts going camping!” And this fraternity is no small part of the deal.
Lam explains with easy eloquence: “One good thing about going out on the ocean is that you get to spend more time with the crew. Not like day racing, where you go out and then come back and go to the bar. When you spend four or five days with someone at sea, you get to know each other. Share a few jokes. It’s beautiful when the light gets black in the nighttime and you look up at the stars. Just the wind and the waves. Sometimes a bird swoops down.”
And dolphins? “Yes, we see dolphins all the time,” he smiles. “Where the boat goes, the dolphins will follow.”
The Rolex China Sea Race is known as Asia’s premier blue-water classic, and is famous for its stunning beginning, when the yachts shoot off against the backdrop of the Hong Kong skyline on surrounded by colourful sampans and hulking commercial liners.
The race has a two-part weather structure – the first few days are characterised by rough waves and forceful headwinds, while the tail end is often marked by a difficult search for breeze, and even frustrating dead calms.
“The Hong Kong side is choppier,” Lam acknowledges, “but the Philippine coast is dull. When you have low wind, that’s very hard. Even harder than rough conditions.”
This year Lam will be joined by a six-person team who will operate a two-watch system of four-hour intervals. “I’ve been a member of the club for a long time and we all know each other, so when I plan a race I ask around. ‘Do you want to go? Do you? No, you can’t go!’” He laughs. “And that’s how everything started. Basically we just pick up and just go.”
And is he pumped about the 50th anniversary? Not really. “I don’t know about this 50th stuff,” he says. “We just go. We see it as just another China Sea Race. It just happens to be 50. And we will go on, and in 10 years it will be 60.” Interview: Maddie Gressel.
Rolex China Sea Race, April 4, Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club.