The drum beat started, the tannoy crackled into life and the fireworks exploded from the end of the sea wall, scaring the life out of half the crew; a warning would have been nice. Not the snow and sub-zero temperatures that we had feared but sunshine, albeit with a chill in the breeze and the same brown haze that had engulfed us since reaching Hong Kong. The media RIB approached the boat and we sat, stood, waved and pumped our fists while it described ever decreasing circles around the boat, threatening to take off the bowsprit. A man claiming to be an ‘agent’ brazenly jumped on board and was promptly escorted from the boat while several cases of Tsing Tao made their way up to us. A division of uniformed officials approached the boat and reminded us that the locals would make us very welcome but on their terms only. Our Chinese stopover had begun.
The visit was to be short and our arrival date of about 10 days late was suggested by one to be the latest arrival in Clipper Race history. Who was I to disagree with such a pointless statistic? The other boats were preparing to leave the next day but we had two days grace to undertake a number of essential duties – victualling, sail and rudder repair, rigging adjustments, engine maintenance. Clipper Ventures had gone all out for us on this stopover for reasons not completely clear: free accommodation, an invitation to the farewell dinner, complimentary laundry services and dinner with the Race Director.
Initial formalities complete, we were led from the pontoon by translators, marina staff, officials; who knew who half of these people were? Smiling like stunned idiots, we made our way through lines of red and gold drummers pounding the skins, high fiveing the locals who lined the route and posing for photographs when asked. As we ascended onto the stage a throng of local media and keen spectators closed in behind us and we turned to look back over a sea of faces and cameras and lapped up our 15 minutes of fame. The skipper was placed in the front row and presented with a red cape and a staff to be given deity status in Qingdao. Looking like a cross between Gandulf the Grey, Superman and Axel Rose he will be unbearable from now on. I suggested that if he tried really hard he might be able to fly. The speeches were in Mandarin and English. The “ocean warriors” were welcomed to China with gifts of a red scarf and a horse, presumably to signify the new Chinese year. Their courage and bravery, dedication and commitment were celebrated. “I think they’ve got the wrong crew” whispered Sam. Perhaps, but I’m sure that even the warriors of old hankered for a hot shower, flush toilet and clean sheets after a few months of rape and pillage.
The farewell dinner, our welcome, heralded the start of the gastronomic assault course we were about to undertake. Food in general comprised a selection of unidentified animals, vegetables and minerals bathed in sauce and stocks ranging from palatable to disgusting. First guess its genus and species, next begin the autopsy to identify the body part, then pluck up the courage to eat it. The roasted chicken was easy; someone had accidentally left the head on the plate. My first sortie into the unknown was jellyfish; chewy with a crunch when you made an effort, slightly acidic with a very bitter aftertaste. I wished I hadn’t taken two pieces. Peek round the back of the restaurant and see tomorrow’s main courses swimming, crawling or slithering in their tanks. One noodle soup tasted “like horses smell” according to one astute observer. Perhaps that one was too obvious. Fear not, though, for when it all got too much, Burger King, Starbucks and Haagen Dazs were available for some respite before heading once more into combat.
The number of people who spoke English was small and this made simple things a challenge to be overcome with basic words, hand signals, creativity and, above all, patience. Checking into the hotel without a passport was a mission, the supermarket was confusing at best, getting a haircut involved lots of picture books and pointing, and I was warned that going for a massage was potentially awkward. I decided that the cost would determine whether the service included any ‘extras’. Luckily my lady steered well clear of my more sensitive meridians.
Our stay ended with us rebuilding the boat in another race against time, dignitaries on the dock at 13:30, another set of drummers, slipping lines at 14:00 and be warned about the fireworks. We left on time with the mainsail bricked in the cockpit, the Sikaflex still drying and below decks in absolute chaos. However, the rainbow display of fireworks exploded as we nosed around the breakwater and we began the ‘Big Kahuna’, 5,700 miles across the North Pacific to San Francisco. America of course has its own culinary challenges, but given the choice between chicken’s feet and pancakes for breakfast, I’ll take mine with maple syrup and ice cream, thanks.
Writing from 34’24.319″ N 123’14.273″ E