We’re sitting aboard a Beneteau Oceanis 55 in Hong Kong’s Aberdeen Harbor. Even to a complete landlubber like myself it’s clear this is a beautiful boat. From the smooth, streamlined hull to the spacious, tan deck and buttery cream sofas, the design resonates with classic French elegance in every detail.
A quick snoop below reveals smartly appointed cabins and a surprisingly luxurious living space. Three double-bed cabins feature glossy mahogany paneling and en-suite bathrooms, while the main galley boasts a fully functional kitchen and adjacent, large entertaining area.
With a flurry of activity the crew hoists the anchor and we ease out of the marina past the harbor’s iconic Jumbo Floating Restaurant. High up on our left, the brightly colored roller coasters of Ocean Park cling to the rocky mountainside, while in front lie verdant islands surrounded by calm, lilting seas. Out of the channel, the sails are released and a gentle breeze guides us in a few lazy loops around the bay, a profound sense of peace and freedom instantly washing over us.
Assembled aboard is a motley crew of prospective buyers, sailing enthusiasts and representatives of Simpson Marine – Asia’s leading yacht broker. I’m enthralled by the escapades being recounted, of families who have gone traversing the globe for months at a time, living on a healthy diet of fish and fruit, interacting with different cultures away from the tourist trail and even keeping up with school or e-mails via 4G in the middle of the ocean.
Conversation turns to the bulging calendar of events in the sailing world: demanding races, glittering social events and not-to-be-missed shows. In Hong Kong, the latest buzz was the 2017 Aberdeen Boat Club & Beneteau Four Peaks Race held in January, a grueling overnight challenge that saw 21 crews take part.
“This race is not easy,” warns Ewa Stachurska, group marketing manager of Simpson Marine. “It takes place over two days, with four mountains that you have to run as well as sailing between locations and finding a landing spot. Sometimes you have to take a kayak and get wet. And of course, you’ve got to be quick, so that might mean running at night,” Stachurska adds.
“It really takes a lot of planning and preparation. The teams go around all the peaks in advance and make contingency plans – what happens if there is no wind?; which is the best path up the mountain? – so there are a lot of tactics, which is part of the appeal and the fun of it all.”
Winds of Change
The craze for yachting in Asia-Pacific burst onto the scene just 15 years ago, brought by the expatriate communities from the US and Europe. According to Andy Treadwell, managing director of the Singapore and Thailand Yacht Shows, there has never been much of a cultural affinity with the sea in Asia, but this is changing rapidly.
“The majority of the world’s yachts spend the summer season in the Mediterranean, going west to the Caribbean around October. But increasingly, yacht owners are interested in heading to Asia. Not only does it offer premier cruising grounds, stunning beaches, rich cuisine and world-class hospitality, but the infrastructure is rapidly improving.”
The region also has the added allure of being “uncharted territory,” with a vast aquatic playground approximately five times the size of the Mediterranean and destinations only a few hundred miles’ sailing apart.
Within Southeast Asia, Stachurska reveals Hong Kong is the most mature market, particularly for day or weekend sailing thanks to a combination of beautiful islands, good winds and a receptive audience.
For longer excursions, Thailand is the destination of choice, where you can sail all year round exploring the Gulf of Thailand or the magical karst topography on the Andaman Sea. Like Hong Kong, the yacht scene in Thailand is supported by solid infrastructure and friendly government initiatives, meaning first-rate marinas, easier rules and registration and lower tax.
In Taiwan, though it has a long history as an important yacht producer, it was illegal to sail in its surrounding waters until 2010 – a slight impediment to the growth of a yachting lifestyle. Since then, however, the industry has flourished, with a number of premium facilities and notable events such as the annual Penghu Regatta, which sees enthusiasts cruising around the archipelago of 90 islands in the Taiwan Strait.
China has also been slow off the mark, with constraints such as the well-documented anti-corruption drive and, again, regulations hampering the market. However, given the country’s penchant for luxury goods, industry insiders are confident this is still a lucrative market, with reports suggesting the number of leisure boats and yachts in China will reach 100,000 by 2020 from just 3,000 in 2012.
Elsewhere in the region it’s a story of untapped potential. Indonesia’s 17,508 islands offer amazing draws for avid mariners, though there is a cumbersome amount of red tape and high taxes to overcome. Both the Philippines and Myanmar’s Mergui archipelago are emerging hot spots for the adventurous, but lack of service support centers turn off many casual sailors. After all, as Stachurska points out – if you were driving a car, you’d want to know there was a garage nearby.
In Asia, like the rest of the world, powerboats are by far the most popular option for luxury cruising, the preference being for motorized vessels that require fuel – versus wind – to jet around the ocean. They’re easier, quicker and usually more comfortable to live aboard, though noisier, more expensive to run and less ecofriendly. Catamarans in particular are extremely popular, the twin hulls providing stability and extra topside space for entertaining.
However, another big trend at the moment is the extravagant world of super yachts. For the ultra rich, it is the ultimate accessory. Broadly categorized as anything above 100 feet, these superb vessels display the highest levels of craftsmanship and come with all the bells and whistles.
According to a joint report by yacht specialists Camper & Nicholsons and Wealth-X, the global authority on wealth intelligence, there are 4,476 individuals in the world who own a super yacht, with the average price coming in at a cool $10 million. Of course, there is no upper limit.
Stachurska reveals some figures from the premium Sanlorenzo brand in Simpson Marine’s portfolio (five of which they’ve sold in the last few years). One explorer-type super yacht costs a casual €20 million ($23.4 million), while another 172-foot super yacht, fully customised with a steel hull, will set you back an eye-watering €30 million ($35 million).
But no super yacht would be complete without its accessories – and we’re not talking inflatable noodles. The range of luxury water toys has exploded to James Bond levels, with miniature planes, jet-propelled flyboards, submarines and sonar systems all being demanded by these ultra-high net worth mariners.
Learning the Ropes
For us mere mortals, the best chance of boarding such a craft is through a yacht charter. Chartering has naturally surged in popularity as a leisure-time option with the growth of the industry, and caters to all segments and budgets.
On any given weekend, Hong Kong’s numerous bays are dotted with junk boats, hired for the day by groups of party revelers looking for a taste of the high life at sea. Companies like Simpson Marine provide more luxurious experiences, offering bareboat or fully crewed charters – complete with onboard chef – for longer voyages. It’s also an ideal way to dip your toes in the water and test a range of boats before committing to skippering a vessel and taking to the high seas.
Another way to ease oneself into the life of a sailor might be to attend one of the various exhibitions that occur throughout the year. “There is no better way to discover the yachting world than visiting a prominent boat show,” says Treadwell. “You will meet a range of industry experts and fellow yacht enthusiasts who will be able to provide you with valuable advice.” Ship builder Beneteau sponsors boat shows, test drive events and owner rendezvous events to showcase their yachts.
These industry events offer docks bursting with the latest yacht models, attracting diverse crowds, from casual admirers to avid sailors. And while the yachts are the main attraction, attendees can also expect a presence from all other sections of the luxury market, from watches and jewelry to cars and fine dining, alongside glamorous parties and high-end entertainment. In fact, the social aspect is an integral part of the yachting experience.
“Of all the luxury segments, what is nice about this industry is that it’s kind of laid back,” says Stachurska. “Whether someone owns a small yacht or a massive super yacht, most of the time they’re very approachable people who share a passion for boats, for water and for relaxation. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about – relaxation and pleasure.”