HONG KONG — Sailing down the middle of choppy Victoria Harbor, surrounded by impatient coastal freighters and the city’s glimmering office towers, we are discussing safety equipment — the harnesses that will tether us to the boat, personal strobe lights and life rafts.
It’s a Friday afternoon, and we are sitting in the cockpit of Bewitched, a well-equipped 42-foot sloop named, oddly enough, after the American television show. A couple of hours from now, we will be at the starting line for an overnight race to St. John Island, 90 nautical miles west across the South China Sea.
Relatively few sailing races take place in open ocean. The chance to sail in Chinese waters is even more unusual. Foreign yachts are almost never allowed to enter mainland harbors, and this is one of only two annual races authorized to have layovers. Organizing this year’s race was particularly difficult after an American bomb landed on China’s Embassy in Yugoslavia. For the first time, a representative of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, which sponsors the race, had to provide a detailed briefing for Chinese naval officers.
By the time the 10-minute warning gun fires at 6:25 p.m., a dozen yachts have assembled at the line, off the southwest corner of Hong Kong Island. As we count down the minutes, the yachts behave like caged animals, moving back and forth in a small area, testing each other as they search for advantageous positions. Glenn, Bewitched’s owner, is at the helm; I am at the bow, calling out warnings for boats he can’t see under the large forward sail.
I am pointing at Ffree Fire, the biggest and fastest boat in the fleet, which is suddenly bearing down on us just seconds before the starting gun should fire. It clearly has the right of way, so Glenn tacks, taking us off the collision course and toward the line, which we cross a few seconds after the gun.
The wind is steady, blowing at about 15 knots, as we adjust our sails for the long trip west. The sun is setting, and a nearly full moon is rising.
Our crew consists of five Britons and me, an American journalist, all based in Hong Kong. Although we’ve never sailed together as a group, everyone has sailed with more than half of the others. Glenn, a seasoned skipper who acquired Bewitched from an American, has organized us into two watches, and at 9 p.m. we break into shifts, three hours on and three off. Anyone who is on the deck wears a harness, which is clipped onto one of two steel cables running from bow to stern. My watch is off duty first, and I manage a couple of short naps as we churn through the water at a satisfying six to seven knots.
Sailing at night is exhilarating. And also dangerous: It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find someone who falls overboard. When I come on deck at midnight, we can’t see land, but we are following the movements of several large cargo vessels.
We are tracking our own progress with a global positioning system, which triangulates off satellite signals. At 2:30 a.m., Glenn reports our location to the rest of the fleet during a scheduled radio broadcast. After he applies the handicaps that are intended to give boats with different sizes and shapes an equal chance of winning, he comes back on deck with a smile. “It looks like we have the lead.”
Unfortunately, though, a few hours later, when we are just a couple of miles away from the finish line, the wind drops just as we are up against an adverse current. Much closer to land than the other boats, we have to repeatedly tack back and forth to get around a headland, causing us to lose a substantial amount of time relative to the others. We finish fourth at 10:50 a.m., 32 minutes behind the winning boat’s handicap-adjusted time. After more than 16 hours of sailing, we are just 10 minutes after the second-place boat and 123 seconds behind the one that places third.
A pair of Chinese navy ships is stationed about a mile away. And after we drop our anchor in St. John’s Shai Tai Harbor and a sampan delivers us to a concrete pier, we are greeted by a squad of 15 uniformed mainland officials, all here to handle the stamping of fewer than 100 passports.
“Do you have any reading material?” one of them asks as he searches a bag.
He has his back to me and his colleague already has my passport, so rather than respond to his question, I lean over to turn over the tag on my duffel bag to hide the card that identifies me as a reporter for a well-known American newspaper. He seemingly fails to recognize the colorful depiction of the broom-riding Samantha on the side of Bewitched as a symbol of American culture.
Taken by a decrepit bus across the island, we see that St. John — which always has been known as Shangchuan to the Chinese even though Portuguese colonialists gave it the similar-sounding name of St. John — is typical of southern China: small villages, agricultural plots where oxen still do the cultivating, rice paddies, fish farms. This is where St. Francis Xavier died in 1552, soon after he had begun his mission to convert China to Catholicism.
Today, St. John is a popular vacation spot for mainlanders. We stay near a beautiful, mile-long beach where visitors can rent chairs and umbrellas or even ride a camel. Our hotel, however, falls well short of international standards. The sink in my room drains onto the floor, so my feet get wet every time I brush my teeth. Even though we pay less than $40 for each of our rooms, we feel vastly overcharged. And when walking on the promenade near the beach, we are regularly followed by several, usually six, prostitutes. “They come from the north,” a waiter tells us.
On Saturday night, officials from the regional government throw an awards dinner at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the beach. Sitting at tables beneath palm trees, we don’t pay too much attention to their lengthy speeches. The marching band is harder to ignore.
On Sunday, we have a 10:35 a.m. start for the second leg of the race, 60 nautical miles east toward Macau. For much of the morning, we are close to the coast. Rugged and barren, some of it resembles Maine or Greece. But no one vacations here. In fact, if we didn’t see small fishing boats near the shore, we would assume it’s totally uninhabited, apparently because of the difficult terrain.
The spinnaker is up all day. While that means we are making good time, we are traveling in the same direction as the wind, making a very hot day feel even hotter. On the other hand, with only occasional adjustments required to keep the spinnaker full, there isn’t much work to do. We have cans of beer with lunch and, in the late afternoon, a cocktail hour. Following a world-class sunset, the wind picks up, the air temperature drops a bit, and, once again, it looks as if we are doing well against the competition.
We cross the finish line at 10 p.m., fast enough to win second place. Taking down the sails, we start the engine and heat up a pot of chicken curry. We are going to leave Bewitched in Macau, which is still a dozen miles away. By the time we make our way through Macau’s bustling harbor, find a marina and clear customs, we have just enough time to catch the midnight hydrofoil back to Hong Kong.
Mr. Knecht, a Hong Kong-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, is currently on leave to write a book about Australia’s Sydney to Hobart race.