'Green Dragon' fires up Chinese hopes


THE CHINESE are learning new words and phrases like spinnaker, mainsail and “all hands on deck”, and it’s all because of the Green Dragon, a maritime joint venture between China and Ireland that is helping put the world’s most populous nation on the sailing map.

When the Green Dragon continues its journey around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race today, the Chinese-Irish yacht will be hoping to make good time on the huge journey of 12,300 nautical miles to Rio de Janeiro, but also to live up to a weighty ballast of Chinese expectations.

China’s greatest days on the open seas ended 600 years ago after the death of Admiral Zheng He, the Muslim eunuch explorer who forged trade routes around the globe during the Ming Dynasty.

Chairman Mao Zedong considered yachting the epitome of bourgeois decadence, and it is only in the latter part of the 30-year period of reform that the newly wealthy have begun to consider sailing as a serious lifestyle option.

The profile of the sport, and of the Green Dragon in particular, has been given a major boost by the inclusion of Chinese sailor Guo Chuan on the crew for the 10 ocean legs covering 37,000 nautical miles over nine months.

The sight of a green dragon on the mainsail of the racing yacht speeding into the Chinese port of Qingdao stirred many hearts, both Chinese and Irish.

Qingdao native Guo was hired to write diaries and upload photos as the boat’s media crew, and he is like a rock star in the eastern coastal city.

His crewmates refer to him as “Beckham” after seeing the rapturous welcome he received when he steered the Green Dragon into the port in Qingdao late last month at the end of the fourth leg from Singapore, when thousands came out to meet him and local and national TV stations queued up to interview him.

“I hope my dream continues successfully as far as the home port of the Green Dragon in Ireland. I don’t need to fly to Ireland – I can sail,” said Guo.

Among the main sponsors of the Green Dragon project is Tourism Ireland, which hopes the vessel also manages to leave a greater awareness of Ireland among the Chinese in its wake. Fáilte Ireland received €8 million from the Government to build a marina in Galway to receive the Volvo Ocean Race teams when they arrive, and also to sponsor the Green Dragon itself.

China is set to become the world’s most important tourist industry in the next few years and this is one of the reasons why the Irish have put so much effort into publicity here in Qingdao.

“With China set to become the largest outbound travel market, this kind of event gives you great exposure. On the night the Green Dragon arrived, it was the Green Dragon that everyone here was interested in,” said Emma Gorman, who is project managing Tourism Ireland’s involvement in the Volvo Ocean Race.

Bono visited the boat with his brother Norman Hewson in Alicante, but U2 lookalikes with huge papier mache heads greeted the crowds at the hall in Qingdao, which was full of Chinese people eating Irish food supplied by Good Food Ireland, and entertainment by Arcana from Galway.

“Our concept is all about giving a real flavour of Ireland so that’s why we had the food and the personalities behind the food,” said Gorman.

Ireland’s profile in China received a significant boost during the Chinese New Year TV show on CCTV, which is the most watched TV show in the world with hundreds of millions of viewers.

The “CCTV Spring Festival Gala” featured Riverdance, the first time a foreign group had featured so prominently on the show, and the whole country is talking about how the Irish troupe high-stepped its way into the Year of the Ox. In fact, Riverdance has replaced Roy Keane as the thing about Ireland most people in China know about, distracting attention away from the tainted pork scandal of recent months.

“I don’t know much about Ireland. Irish dancing is very famous, but after this event I know a bit more. If I had an opportunity I’d love to visit,” said Zhang Huizhen, from Qingdao.

Snow Qu, who works for the electronics group Philips in Qingdao, said she was a big fan of Guo. And is also a big fan of the brown bread and jam on offer.

“The food is great. If we could go to Ireland, we’d go,” she said.

The Green Dragon, which is fourth in the race rankings, and the other boats are expected to arrive in Brazil on March 20th.