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Henry Salmon was seven when he moved with his parents to Hong Kong. At the time, he was immersed in the beloved classic Swallows and Amazons, a series that follows two families of children on their school holidays as they sail, camp and explore the lake around their summer homes on their dinghies. By happy coincidence, the Salmon’s new home overlooked Repulse Bay, where sailing boats frequently dotted the waters. Soon after, Henry enrolled in his first sailing course at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. His enthusiasm for the sport has grown to become so infectious that his parents and younger siblings have all learned to sail. Today, Henry is 15, and this summer, he will represent Hong Kong at the Youth Sailing World Championship in Cyprus.
Hong Kong offers the perfect opportunity for children to dive right into many water sports. From overnight surf camps to kayaking day trips, there are options to suit every child, ability and interest.
Kevin Coniam co-founded Surf Hong Kong out of a desire to get children to experience a lifestyle far removed from their city-centred lifestyles. Their base camp is at Tai Long Sai Wan at Sai Kung East Country Park, nestled amidst lush wilderness, where the surf is great and the waters are clean. “Children who are not strong swimmers won’t be taken into waters that are more than waist-deep and we run our courses on one of the more protected beaches,” says Kevin. For ages seven and up, Surf Hong Kong runs overnight summer camps, where children get to try surfing, kayaking, stand-up paddle surfing and snorkelling, topped off with the thrill of camping outdoors and swimming in the freshwater pools of the Sai Wan waterfalls. Soana Deunier, whose kids have attended the camp, says, “My city kids get to experience the magic of being constantly outdoors. They come back full of memories and more aware of the environment.”
Treasure Island Surf camp offers five-day courses for ages five years and up at Pui O Beach on Lantau Island. “I originally thought my five-year-old daughter Olivia might be a little too young to gain the full benefits of the [surf] experience, but my concerns were blown away. After a few tears on the first morning, it was thrilling to see, by the end of the week, how her confidence had grown,” says dad Dr Mark Wilson. He adds, “Surf school develops motor coordination and water confidence. However, the most important thing I would point out about surf school is that it is fun. As the instructors told my daughter at the start of her first day, the first rule of surfing is to ‘look cool’ at all times.”
Stand-up paddle surfing (SUP) has ancient roots in Hawaii and is the fastest-growing surf activity, popular because it attracts a wider range of skill levels and doesn’t depend so heavily on high and low tides. Some students can confidently learn the sport in less than an hour. “Surfing requires some skill and balance; however, stand-up paddle surfing is a great way to experience some of the thrill of surfing without riding the waves,” says Bryan Ng, the course development manager at Blue Sky Sports in Sai Kung. In addition to five-day camps offering a combination of water activities, Blue Sky runs dedicated SUP courses that can be combined with dragon boating or kayaking.
For children eight and above, Long Coast Sea Sport in Cheung Sha Beach, Lantau Island, has a two-day overnight camp that gives children a sampler of all surf-related sports including skim boarding, SUP surfing and body boarding.
Row your boat
If a camp format isn’t for your child, and you prefer an activity enjoyed as a family, you could rent a kayak for a one-day excursion. Paul Etherington started Hong Kong Kayak and Hike in 1998 along with the Hong Kong Tourism board. They have daily excursions that leave Sai Kung Pier in the morning and, as the name suggests, participants kayak to outlying islands, exploring sea arches and caves along the way, and then hike to see some of Hong Kong’s oldest geological formations. Children older than ten can share a two-person kayak with a guardian.
The Leisure and Cultural Services Department has set up five water sports centres in Hong Kong: two on the south side of Hong Kong Island, two in Sai Kung, and one at Tolo Harbour. These centres run one- to two-day courses that require advance booking and often fill up early. These centres also regularly host races and regattas that are open to the public. For those with younger children and who prefer more laid back pedal-driven boats or water bicycles, head out to either of the sports centres in Sai Kung. Wong Shek Water Sports Centre in Sai Kung East is surrounded by mountains on three sides which form a natural barrier that’s perfect for a scenic ride, and the Chong Hing Water Sports Centre at Sai Kung Country Park has a vast artificial lake that’s ideal for day-camping and family-friendly water activities.
Oliver and Sebastian Engelhart are twin brothers who have sailed with the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club since they were six years old. Oliver says, “I remember being petrified on our first day. It was the middle of winter, we didn’t have any wet suits on and the boat kept capsizing, but the instructors kept encouraging us to keep at it. Today, we are assistant instructors teaching new cadet sailors in the same boats we sailed ten years ago.”
In recent years, the sailing clubs in Hong Kong have seen a burgeoning interest in the sport. “When I first started at Aberdeen Boat Club (ABC), we had six Optimist dinghies, and we now have 25,” says Kevin Lewis, dinghy sailing manager at ABC. “A majority of Olympic sailors started their careers on Optimist dinghies, which are fibreglass vessels measuring seven feet long and designed specifically for children.” The Junior Sailing programme at the ABC is open to non-members and is one of the club’s most popular programmes geared towards children between the ages of seven and 11. “At the end of the first course, which runs for five half-days, there is no expectation of a skill level. Our aim is to get children to have fun, build confidence in the water and get them excited and interested in sailing. At the end of the second programme, they are required to sail around a course. And, by the third, the emphasis is on the right techniques.”
Richard Knight is the sailing development manager at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and says the concern that he hears most often from kids and parents is about the boat capsizing. “We take the fear out of it by doing a capsize drill on the first day. There is a flotation device on the mast, so the dinghy only turns 90 degrees and the children are taught to bring it back up themselves. With that out of the way, they ease up and start having fun.”
Other clubs that run junior sailing programmes are Hebe Haven Yacht Club, HK Sea School, Sail Training Association at Clear Water Bay and the water sports centres run by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
“Diving is a great activity for the family to do together – it involves exercise, exploration and shared experiences. It is not a sport rooted in competition; rather, it encourages a greater respect for the marine environment and a lifelong commitment to protecting our oceans,” writes Tracy Myer, a PADI staff instructor, in Scuba Diving magazine. However, the diving jury is still out when it comes to the effects of diving on children’s physiology. PADI recommends a conservative depth guideline of two metres in a pool for eight- to nine-year-olds and a maximum of 12 metres for kids aged ten to 11 with Junior Open Water training.
Darren Gilkison, a PADI IDC staff instructor at Splash Hong Kong, says, “We run the Bubble Maker course over two half-days in various shallow pools across the city. Children learn some basic skills and then apply those to playing games such as underwater ping pong ball races through an obstacle course. The PADI Seal Team programme is for young divers who are looking for action-packed fun in a pool, where they are introduced to underwater photography, navigation and environmental awareness.”
As mum Bridgette Salmon, who learned to sail after moving to Hong Kong, says, “Think about it: no one in this city is far away from water and it’s perfectly suited year-round for all types of water activities.” Summers have always been about adventures and exploration, and this summer may be the chance to give your children the memory of learning a new water sport – one that may very well open up a lifelong interest in the big, blue waters that surround us.