New Xu Fu Voyage East / 新徐福東渡 / Evaluation of aborted row

by Christian Havrehed
8 June 2024

3 days, 10 hours and 30 minutes. That is how long we were at sea. We only made it about 100km (1/8 of the way) towards Nagasaki. Big failure?! Why give up so soon?

Let’s first look at what we have achieved.

For the first time in the history of the Peoples Republic of China, private individuals have been allowed to leave China by sea:

✅ in a rowing boat
✅ without an official guarantor (主办单位 / 发旗单位)

Big deal? You be the judge.

It is an enigma how open China is to cross border yachting. Theoretically you should be able to cruise to China, if you give due notice, but try and find anyone who has done that.

Here is my version of how cruising in and out of China operates, based on personal experience and talking to various yachties in China, Chinese and foreign.

To enter China in a pleasure craft you need an Invitation Letter. To leave China in a pleasure craft you need a Special Exit Permit.

In order to obtain these permissions, you need to have an official guarantor such as the Ministry of Sport, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Tourism, The China Yachting Association, a university like Sun Haibin’s Beijing Sports University etc., who is willing to guarantee that you will behave properly, push the approval through the system, and get all relevant government departments on board; Customs, Immigration, China Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) etc.

The reward for all this hard work is that if anything goes wrong, you, as the official guarantor, become the fall guy and heads may roll.

Therefore, unless it is a decree from above, the incentive of becoming an official guarantor is up there with putting drawing pins in your shoes and walking around in them just for fun.

The official guarantor requirement is a huge impediment to the development of cross border China yachting.

Private international yachts cannot sail to China, because they do not know anyone in China who is willing and qualified to issue a Letter of Invitation. On the Chinese side, even if they were contacted, and were inclined to issue a Letter of Invitation, how can they be sure the foreign private vessel will not arrive flying a spinnaker saying “Free Tibet”?

When it comes to Chinese private yachts leaving China how can anyone guarantee that the person will not be lost at sea, misquoted by the international press, or fail to return to China for whatever reason, like falling in love with a local beauty on a South Pacific Island?

I have a number of Chinese friends who have done international voyages out of China in sail boats, and it is always a herculean task to get permission to leave.

I am right now staying with my friend Yu Chen, the President of the Zhoushan Sailing Association. He estimates there is around 2,000 sailing boats in China, which could make blue water passages, but only a handful or so have done so, due to the Special Exit Permit bottleneck and a general lack of experience. A foreign sailor friend of mine living in China estimates the blue water sailing boats in China to be max 100 and Chinese sailors with proper blue water experience to be even less. So even if the Special Exit Permit was not required, the number of Chinese sailors leaving China in their own yachts to embark on blue water voyages would still be limited.

None of my Chinese yachting friends believed Sun Haibin and I would be able to leave China without an official guarantor. “Pigs might fly!”, they said.

So the fact that we have been able to leave China without an official guarantor is huge. This has set precedent, which will help speed up the development of cross border China yachting.

China is still figuring out how to deal with yachts. So the fact that we managed to get permission to leave in a rowing boat, a vessel type that does not even exist in China, is even more off the charts.

Rowing boats are classified as Sports Equipment, so we could not fill in a Vessel name on the emigration form (like where you write your flight number), as we did not possess a vessel. Case closed. Project dead. Go home!

Except, what I experienced up close of the Chinese civil servants and bureaucracy over the past weeks is truly amazing. Basically, if the system has decided something should go ahead, it will.

Everything has to be legal, but since we were dabbling in an area with little legislation so far, what to do? You adopt the 合法不符合常规 “Legal and unconventional” approach.

Essentially, you run through the existing legislation to see what can be used and then you make up legal work arounds for the rest. This happens in plenum with all involved parties. The amount of thinking out of the box is mind boggling. Everyone’s eye is on the prize, and no one goes home until the solution is hammered out. Let’s have another meeting to discuss this further at a later date is not an option. The timeline is not allowed to slip. Meetings often carried on into the night. That is how our James Bond solution was crafted.

The last time I have seen anyone work this hard was when I was a strategy consultant in London some 20 years ago. When you consider this civil servant work ethos it is no wonder China has been able to develop at the speed it has.

The fact that our local government supporters have been able to find a legal way for non-vessels to leave China will also help expedite the opening up of cross border China yachting.

Sun Haibin and I feel proud to have been part of making these two historical contributions to the China’s yachting / water sports industry. We also feel honoured and grateful that the Chinese system dared to trust in us to do so.

I founded the Yantu Project (沿途方案) in 2001 with the mission to promote Sino-Western understanding through cross-cultural maritime adventures that challenge the Status Quo.

We have certainly challenged the Status Quo, and if the opening up of private yachting in and out of China now speeds up, that has the potential to do wonders for Sino-Western understanding.

Countries may have different political systems and disagree on a lot of things, but at the people-to-people level we are all pretty much the same and want the same things. The modern world / media just does not give us many opportunities to realise this. That news angle does not sell copy and is poor click bait.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Lester B Pearson said: “How can there be peace without people understanding each other, and how can this be if they don’t know each other? How can there be cooperative coexistence, which is the only kind that means anything, if men are cut off from each other, if they are not allowed to learn more about each other?”

Wise words that I learned whilst doing my A-levels at United World Colleges. They have shaped my life ever since.

Mutual understanding at a people-to-people level will be key for mitigating the disasterous effects of the oncoming Climate Change crisis. We need to see each other as people, like ourselves, to have any hope of navigating the Climate Change crisis without major wars.

Maybe this post is becoming a bit evangelic 👼🤔

Did we fail?

Let’s get back to the 3 days, 10 hours and 30 minutes and a measly 1/8 of the way to Nagasaki before throwing in the towel. Was it a failure?

At one level, yes, it was a failure because we did not make it to Nagasaki. So shouldn’t we have stayed out there longer and tried a little harder, you might ask?

All ocean rows take place in weather systems with tail winds and following currents, for the simple fact that it is impossible to row into any wind more than about 6 m/s (12kn). Beyond that the boat’s windage will be so much that you at best keep in the same position. At worst you are pushed backwards, despite rowing forward with all your might.

The secret recipe is then to deploy a drift anchor, which is a parachute looking “bag” around 1.5 meters in diameter tied with a long rope to either the bow or stern of your boat.

You cannot use a real anchor because the water is too deep, so you create drag through the parachute instead. (Try and throw a bucket in the pool with a line attached to it. Let the bucket fill with water and then try and drag it back to the side. You will feel a lot of resistance. The harder you pull, the more resistance. That is how a parachute anchor works).

If the current is really strong you can actually make headway to windward using this drag, even if you are going backwards when trying to row. More likely though, you will end up not moving either backwards and forwards, so it is like pulling your car over on the curb to have a nap.

No one has rowed an ocean against the winds and currents. It is simply not possible. If you row round Britain, or when I rowed round Denmark, you often have to wait for the wind to turn to be able to row on.
Now let’s project this onto our situation in the East China Sea.

At this time of year the wind is normally south-westerly, which is perfect for rowing to Nagasaki. Unfortunately, possibly due to Climate Change, the wind is uncommonly late in changing this year, so it is still blowing from the east and our daily forecast out at sea predicted this would continue for the next ten days (the max forecast from PredictWind Offshore App is 10 days rolling).

We were lucky to make good headway on day 1 due to a complete lack of wind, but that changed on day 2 with the wind on the nose at +6m/s.

It became impossible to make headway, so we deployed our parachute anchor. It did what it is supposed to do. It created drag with the current, but the current was not a pleasant one-directional current towards Nagasaki. Instead it was a tidal current going round in circles and slowly pushing us north-west into Shanghai shipping lanes and a different Chinese province.

We were being transported back to China and there was nothing we could do about that. We would have needed a miracle change in wind direction to be able to head east and it was not forthcoming.

Arguably, we should not have gone to sea at all, given the weather forecast. That would have been the soundest seafaring decision.

But we had a once in a lifetime opportunity to row out of China. How could we not go? How could we not hope for a miracle change in wind direction?

At sea you have to take responsibility for your own actions and your potential impact on the safety of others. It is the real shit out there and can be dangerous. It is not a video game where you can press pause or start over if you die.

We were constantly surrounded by 5-7 vessels of +150 meters in length often less than a mile away and we were not yet in the busy Shanghai shipping lanes.

Surrounding vessels could see us via our AIS (Automatic Identification System) and stayed clear of us as we were bobbing around on our drift anchor.

But what would happen when the waterways became more restricted? Would we pose a real navigational hazard to them? Would they have no choice but to run us down or ground themselves? The biggest vessels we saw were 7 times wider than Yantu 2 is long.

What if the China MSA had to come and rescue us after we sent out an SOS? That would more than wipe out any positive impact we have had on opening up China for cross border private yachting.

Another thing which could have wiped out all our goodwill in China would be using our AIS in Chinese waters. Since Yantu 2 is registered as a Sports Equipment in China, it was not possible to get an AIS through China MSA. So we used our Danish AIS.

However, Yantu 2, as a Danish vessel, has not been cleared to sail into Chinese waters, so if we had entered Chinese territory with the Danish AIS on, that would have caused an international incident.

If we had drifted into the Shanghai shipping lanes and had had to switch off the Danish AIS to avoid an international incident, surrounding ships would have found it very difficult to see us, so we could well have been run down and caused an international incident anyways (except we would then not have been around to have to answer for that …)

Good seamanship is to only go to sea when you believe you can make it to your destination safely without the help of others. It is not good seamanship to say: “I am not sure whether I can make it. I’ll see what happens. If things go belly up, I can always get saved by the coast guard”.

Us heading out to sea did not altogether fall into the good seamanship category, so as soon as we realised that the miracle wind change was not forthcoming and the overall effect of the circular tide was sending us north-west, the only right cause of action was to get ourselves off the water ASAP by relying on our local contacts in Zhoushan to come and get us and without setting off a major rescue incident involving China MSA.

The Zhoushan China Fisheries Law Enforcement expertly towed us back to Shengsi at 15kn. I am pretty sure that if Yantu 2 could speak she would require therapy, as she normally travels at 2-4kn.

It is not a nice feeling to “fail”, particularly when we have been working flat out for 3-5 years to make this happen.

With the cards we had been dealt we took a calculated risk, tried our luck, and manged a safe exit with minimum impact on our surroundings.

Our local supporters are of course also disappointed, but no one is questioning whether we made the right decision.

I still believe the row to Nagasaki can be done, but only when the seasonal westerly winds have firmly set in.

In any case, rowing the East China Sea will be a bigger technical challenge than rowing the Atlantic or the Pacific, due to the less predictable weather systems and currents.

Win some, lose some. That is the game of human powered expeditions that push the envelope into new territories. Or as a mate of mine says: “If it was easy, anyone could do it”.

So, what next?

Well, we did not make the 800km across the East China Sea, but we still have the 500km coastal row in Japan. We need to clear Yantu 2 back into China and pack her away. It is a public holiday in China until the 11th, so we cannot move forward until then.

Having wrapped things up in China, Sun Haibin and I will fly to Japan (probably 13th), buy two sea kayaks, stick our sponsor logos on them, and embark on the 500km coastal row around the southern half of Kyushu island.

The Japanese Xu Fu Associations are still waiting for us and we can’t wait to visit them. Japan will be a blast and an amazing cultural experience🙃

It does not matter we will be kayaking instead of rowing. Actually, for coastal rowing in Japan sea kayaks will be safer than an ocean rowing boat, so seen from this angle failing to row to Nagasaki is a plus.

In Japan we also have our Xu Fu Environmental Scholarship ESG outreach program to deliver together with UK NGO Atlantic Pacific. Click here to learn more.

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