Sailing Through a Legal Mind

The last few months have witnessed many firsts for Hong Kong in one of the world’s toughest sporting competitions: the Volvo Ocean Race (‘VOR’). Hong Kong’s first time being a host city, first time competing and first time winning a leg of the race.

VOR race teams sail more than 45,000 nautical miles across the globe, enduring the harshest elements for weeks on end, and routinely surviving on just two hours sleep. All the while, they are aiming to give their best performance ever. Against this inspiring backdrop, I started to think about my own sail racing, which began three years ago upon the invitation of my then boss. Limited to Hong Kong waters and off terra firma for just hours at most, my experience is certainly much more modest compared to those competing in the VOR. Nonetheless, the same fundamental skills and attributes are required of sailors of all levels to complete a race successfully - an incredibly exhilarating feeling. The more I reflected, the more I also saw the similarities between competitive sailing and working as a lawyer.

1. The rules. Before even stepping onboard a boat, each sailor needs to be aware of the rules governing the race so that their participation counts and, more importantly, to ensure safety. There are many visual and sound signals given throughout the race, each signifying a particular instruction from the race committee. A particular pattern on a flag and accompanying series of blasts from a horn may indicate a recall or postponement of the start time for the class of boat you are sailing. There are also codes of conduct for specific situations, such as when a boat must give way to another boat. A breach of these rules may result in time penalties or disqualification and, at worst, physical injury. Clearly, knowledge and understanding of an extensive body of rules is at the heart of what a lawyer does and the consequences of not knowing them are equally dire.

2. Scale and time pressures. There are various pieces of equipment spread across a boat which need to be operated at the same time during a race. For example, a typical racing sailboat has numerous colour coded “lines” (ropes to the layman) to raise, lower and adjust sails. These are controlled by grinding winches, which provide the mechanical advantage necessary to overcome the force of the wind in the sails. To gauge the scale of the boats in the VOR, the size of the sails used is larger than two tennis courts. Indeed, all hands, and certainly more than one pair, must be on deck as with any legal project involving consideration of cross disciplinary issues and production of countless documents, all within challenging deadlines. Neither feats are achievable by an individual alone - teamwork is key.

3. Complex environment. The physical conditions at sea can change dramatically in a matter of minutes. I have faced the scorching summer sun as well as violent rainstorms within the same race in Hong Kong. Around the world, changes in the winds, currents and weather patterns are taking place at an accelerating rate due to climate change. Bringing in the right combination of talents at the right time is crucial to navigating through these changes successfully, much like the timely collaboration of the appropriate expertise needed in the ever transforming legal and economic landscape.

4. Perseverance. During a race, there are things that can go wrong which are completely out of your control. For example, I have experienced sudden changes in wind resulting in a loss of critical boat speed which the team had spent a long time gaining. In the VOR, a sailor may miss loved ones that they have not seen for weeks while at sea. They may long for sustenance other than the freeze dried food provided in the name of reducing storage space. Meanwhile, the race is ongoing and giving up is not an option. The parallels with life as a lawyer are self-explanatory. In such times, individual grit as well as camaraderie among teammates is essential to getting over the finishing line.

I have found sailing in general immensely humbling, challenging and rewarding. We are privileged in how accessible sailing is in Hong Kong; there are not many cities in the world where you can grab a cab and get onto the water within 20 minutes. For more information on adult beginner sailing courses and/or how to get involved in competitive sailing, please contact the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Aberdeen Boat Club, Hebe Haven Yacht Club and/or the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club.


Vice President (Senior Counsel), Citigroup