Asia’s Sailing Soul: Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club
With its Kellett Island clubhouse set in the heart of Victoria Harbour, the storied Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club is an icon in the sailing world. Yet although RHKYC embraces its fascinating history dating back to the mid-19th century, Asia’s biggest and most active yacht club remains committed to positive changes.
Words: Guy Nowell Photos: RHKYC & Guy Nowell
RHKYC’s main site at Kellett Island
The history of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club is long and illustrious, beginning with the first regatta of the Victoria Regatta Club in 1849.
Thereafter, in the best Hong Kong tradition of acquisitions and mergers, it involved the Yacht Club, the Victoria Regatta Club, a German gymnasium, the Hong Kong Corinthian Sailing Club, the Victoria Recreation Club (which still exists) and the Hong Kong Yacht Club.
The club runs the busiest racing calendar in Asia
In 1894, after a polite request, Buckingham Palace advised that “the Queen approves of the Hong Kong Yacht Club having the title of Royal” and the warrant was granted that authorised members to “fly the Blue Ensign of Her Majesty’s Fleet, with the distinguishing marks of the Club thereon”. The RHKYC had arrived.
The Club has been housed in numerous premises over the years: Yau Ma Tei, Wanchai, North Point and Causeway Bay. Kellett Island, the present home of the Club, was an island in 1937 when the Hong Kong Government gave permission for RHKYC to use the land, although it has long been absorbed by advancing reclamation.
The main bar captures the club’s history
The present clubhouse was built in 1939 and commissioned in 1940, only to be shut down by the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in December 1941. Today, the Kellett Island clubhouse remains very much ‘headquarters’ for the RHKYC and houses plenty of tributes to the Club’s fascinating history.
Denis Martinet, current Commodore of the RHKYC, says: “Our history is very much alive and well, and an important part of the Club’s ethos. Our history is hanging on our walls, literally. We are still racing for trophies that mark occasions – or remind us of people – that have marked the pages of our story.
RHKYC Commodore Denis Martinet
“But we are not mired in the past. We are a dynamic and evolving organisation that moves with the times and always seeks to remain relevant in both social and strictly sporting terms.”
The Kellett Island facility includes two restaurants (fine dining and casual), three bars, squash courts, a bowling alley and pool table, snooker room, swimming pool, gymnasium, children’s playroom, Youth Club room, changing rooms, and all the administrative offices that keep the place going.
The pool is among popular facilities
In addition, it has probably Hong Kong’s best repair and maintenance boatyard for private vessels and a large hard standing area that’s home to several one-design racing fleets.
SOUTH SIDE TO SAI KUNG
But that’s not all. Middle Island, on the south side of Hong Kong island, became part of the RHKYC portfolio in 1937. It was originally set up as a home for Comet class boats before the Rowing Section joined in, finding Deepwater Bay to be a more congenial location for rowing than the harbour.
The Middle Island clubhouse off HK Island’s south side
A year later, after a typhoon had demolished both the boats and the single mat-shed, a new brick clubhouse was constructed and still exists as the topmost level of the clubhouse facilities.
Middle Island remains the Club’s centre for rowing, which includes coastal rowing, outrigger paddling and SUP activities. Its F&B facilities include the city’s best barbecue deck and an enormous hard standing catering to the Club’s dinghies and sail training fleet, with room to spare to accommodate visiting World Championship fleets and other large-scale international events.
RHKYC has a strong junior sailing programme
The Middle Island Sail Training Centre runs a full menu of courses (pandemics permitting) for aspiring sailors aged six years old all the way to grown-up. In 2020 a grand total of 2,698 students completed courses ranging from Optimist beginners to adult racing. Middle Island is also the home of the Club’s dedicated junior racing squad, the RHKYC Sharks.
The Club’s third property, Shelter Cove, near Sai Kung, started life in the 1960s as the Shelter Cove Yacht Club and was ‘merged into’ the RHKYC in 1975. Shelter Cove is a small haven of peace and much beloved by the Club’s cruising members.
The scenic Shelter Cove site in Sai Kung
Its 120-plus swing moorings give access straight onto the beautiful cruising grounds of Port Shelter and all points east. The clubhouse itself offers F&B service, an ideal spot for a sundowner and changing rooms. The large hard standing accommodates two of the Club’s racing classes – the Dragons and the Sportsboats – and a car park.
BIGGEST AND BUSIEST
RHKYC has often been touted as the ‘largest yacht club in the world’ by membership. At last count, there were 14,147 members encompassing 43 nationalities, of which some 8,000 are presently absent from Hong Kong. That leaves over 6,000 active members in the SAR. Martinet points out that the composition of the membership has changed substantially since World War II.
Members dress up for the Nations’ Cup; membership totals 14,000
“At that time, there were no Chinese members at all,” he says. “In the 1980s, it was still 60 per cent expatriates. Today it’s more than 60 per cent local members, while we continue to work to bring down the average age of the membership. Our younger members are our future.”
In recent years, the Club has gone to some lengths to make membership as accessible as possible. In addition to the traditional Ordinary and Full memberships, the RHKYC offers both Corporate and Individual Debenture memberships, and Junior (18-32) and Short Term memberships. But be warned: there’s still a waiting list.
Races to the Philippines have been run since 1962
As well as sailing, rowing remains a core activity of the RHKYC. The Rowing Section is an active participant in local regattas up to national level and a frequent winner in all classes at the annual National Championships. When travel restrictions allow, the Club’s oarsmen and ladies are regular competitors at regional events throughout Asia.
For the sailors, the sailing and racing programme is practically non-stop. The season runs from September to May, but racing continues even in the ‘off season’.
The Club schedules 16 major regattas and races in a typical year’s programme including the ‘blue riband’ Rolex China Sea Race down to the Philippines (first sailed in 1962) and the Hong Kong to Vietnam Race (from 1996), which were held in alternate years before Covid prevented recent editions.
Filling in the spaces in the calendar are weekly races for the Etchells fleet and the Dragons, Pandoras and Ruffians, the Flying 15s, Impalas, Sportsboats and J/80s. Records for the 2020-21 season show that the principal Club events engaged 863 boat entries and 4,580 sailor entries.
Volunteers play a huge role in organising events
“It’s a packed programme,” the Commodore acknowledges, with no exaggeration at all. “You can’t do it without volunteers – thank you, all! – and it’s part of the Club’s culture that we never seem to be short of volunteers.”
Mindful of its visibility as a centre of sporting excellence, the Club works exceptionally hard to be “green, sustainable, and environmentally friendly”. Since 2016, there have been no single-use plastic bottles on any of the RHKYC premises. None. And no plastic single-use takeaway containers, yoghurt pots or cutlery.
The Around The Island Race is Hong Kong’s most popular sailing event
Martinet is very supportive of all green initiatives. “You have to start somewhere. Members didn’t take long to get used to bringing their own water bottles when heading for the race course, and refilling them from the dispensers provided. Such initiatives are indicative of intent,” he says.
“All the Club’s major regattas and class races are conducted under Gold Status as certified by Clean Regattas – Sailors for the Sea. It’s just part of the Club’s Sustainability Policy, which serves as a roadmap for cultivating and operating a healthier, more sustainable yachting and rowing community.”
Rooftop ceremony after the 2019 Around The Island Race
The Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club is one of the very few sporting clubs around the world which can properly be described as ‘iconic’. Today, it stands as a proud and visible marker on the north shore of Hong Kong Island, enjoying commanding views of one of the world’s greatest harbours.
Unlike some other clubs in Asia, which are really marinas with an occasional regatta, the RHKYC is the real deal. It is, de facto, the doyenne of yacht clubs in Asia.
Note: The original article appeared in Issue 64 of Yacht Style