Meet Qingdao Ambassador Zhang Shan

16 July 2020

The legacy of the Qingdao Ambassador programme continues to inspire new sailors into the sport. Having never sailed before, Zhang Shan, a ESL Teacher from Qingdao, China is testament to this. After being inspired and encouraged by alumni Qingdao Ambassadors Crew members, she applied to take part in the Clipper 2019-20 Race. Now Shan has learnt to sail, visited the UK and Australia for the first time, raced over 5,000nm and represented her hometown on a global platform.

Zhang Shan at the helm of Qingdao being coached by Race Skipper Chris Brooks

Shan first heard about the Clipper Race five years ago from none other than Song Kun ‘Vicky Song’, who became the first Chinese woman to circumnavigate the world under sail when she took part in the Clipper 2013-14 Race. But Shan thought that ocean racing was poles apart from what she thought she could achieve and lacked the confidence to apply for a place.

“The first time I heard about the Clipper Race was from Vicky Song, who I met in a running group five years ago. Hearing about her experience of the race, I was inspired but I first thought it was too far away from my life, so at the time I let the thought of taking part go.

“Since then, I started following the Clipper Race and when another close friend took part in the 2017-18 edition, she talked so enthusiastically about the race and encouraged me to apply.”

The sailing city of Qingdao is the longest serving Host Port and Team Partner of the Clipper Race. Through this relationship with the Qingdao Organising Committee the partnership has enabled over 50 Ambassador Crew members to represent Qingdao, achieve something extraordinary, learn a new skill and experience ocean racing.

There is fierce competition for places, with candidates going through a tough selection process in order to represent Qingdao, Shan reported: “After submitting my application, I was invited to take part in the selection week. We had to complete interview tasks, English tests,sailing theory and on the water practice of some basic sailing evolutions.

“I felt really proud to be chosen as a Qingdao Ambassador.Not only because there were 50 people at the trials and I am one of the 14 ambassadors chosen but also I am so happy to be representing Qingdao because it’s my hometown. I grew up and live there so it’s amazing to have this opportunity to tell more people about my city.”

All Clipper Race crew must pass four levels of intense training in the UK before participating. Having never sailed, or been to the UK before, this was not only daunting, it was also an intense experience as Shan did all four levels of training back to back.

“In those four weeks, we developed our knowledge. Level 1 is about basic sailing, learning the sailing terms, with so many names for me to remember it was challenging but also fun. The second week included a sea survival course and we prepared for the more scary side of sailing, but it was really useful to learn and understand. During Levels 2 and 3 we got used to sailing in watches and living on board. On the final and fourth level, we sailed with our Race Skipper and fellow Qingdao crew and I remember we had storms which gave us a little taste of what it might be like during the race.”

Shan joined her team in the Whitsundays, to race over 5,000nm to Zhuhai, China, And after all the build up, selection week, training and following from home it felt momentous when she donned her Qingdao team shirt and stepped on board: “It is very different when I looked at the Race Viewer at home compared to actually being here. I’ve been reading the Skipper blogs and crew diaries, but it still felt a little bit far away.

“I also talked to my fellow ambassadors about how the race was going, I felt more excited but I still felt a little bit like an outsider. When I finally put on my red polo shirt and stood on the boat and waved goodbye to the people on the pontoon, I felt so excited because it was real, but nervous because I didn't know what was going to happen or how hard the race will be.”

Her first race was full of variety with the first Le Mans start of the 2019-20 edition, crossing the equator and navigating the varied conditions through the Solomon Sea, into the Pacific Ocean.

The experience did not fail to deliver on its wow moments, from celebrating Chinese New Year and crossing the equator with the obligatory offerings to Neptune, flat calm seas to tropical squalls and not forgetting the sea life.

“There are lots of wow moments on the boat. At the beginning when we didn't have much wind and the days were so hot and the nights were cooler, I saw lots of stars and shooting stars. Every sunrise and sunset was amazing and the wildlife I have seen on this race has been wonderful. There was a huge whale which came so close to our boat, so many flying fish, dolphins and when the waves crashed back and you saw the crests lit by the bioluminescence. I loved it!”

Due to the global outbreak of Covid-19 the race from the Whitsundays was diverted. Instead of racing to Sanya, China, the fleet had to travel to Subic Bay, Philippines earlier than planned and the remaining races of Leg 5 were completed here.

Despite joking that her biggest achievement is going over 20 days without a proper shower she said: “I think my biggest achievement is finishing this race. The weather has been really hot, 30 degrees on deck and even hotter below. I am very proud of myself and my team mates for completing the race in such hot and testing conditions and doing so well!”

Doing well is an understatement, the Qingdao team is currently on top of the overall leaderboard having graced the podium in six out of the eight races completed to date.

“I am very happy to be part of this team and I think we are doing so well as all the crew are working so hard together, with our Skipper Chris and AQP Rhiannon and we all have the same goal to win. We as a team don't mind having to do the very small detailed things, to answer the question ‘what can we do to make the boat go faster?’.”

After such an all-encompassing challenge it is often difficult when the experience starts to come to an end. Shan said: “For sure I am going to miss the Clipper Race, my boat and my teammates. I will miss the people most as we have such a collective because we have the same job to do; to finish the race, live together and to work together. I am going to miss that close connection on the boat.

“I didn’t have a lot of confidence to do a lot of things in my life, but after this race I have learnt a lot. Although I still have a lot to learn about sailing, I've got more confidence in myself to try new things in the future. I want to tell my story to encourage more people to learn to sail or take on a challenge. I think there are lots of people who are like me, hesitant to take part, but I think you have to try it, you have nothing to lose and you get more than you expected.”

As the global pandemic worsened, it was announced that the Clipper 2019-20 Race was being postponed and would not visit China this year. Shan’s message was: “Of course I am very sad. Even though we cannot make it to Qingdao this year, we as ambassadors will pass on the spirit of Qingdao and continue to tell people what Qingdao is like; the dragon spirit will go on with the whole team. We look forward to welcoming our crew, friends and family back to Qingdao for the great celebrations they were looking forward to when the race resumes.”

On Zhang Shan journey the Qingdao Organising Committee commented: “The Qingdao Stopover is the most characteristic stopover in the Clipper Race. Every year, the arrival of the Qingdao yacht attracts the attention of many Qingdao citizens. Five years ago, Zhang Shan was a teacher, without any sailing experience. It is the arrival of Clipper Race that let her know about sailing and navigation for the first time. Encouraged by friends, she passed the Clipper Race Ambassador Recruitment programme and realised the transformation from a teacher to a sailor.

“The Clipper Race is a journey filled with challenge and risk, but Zhang Shan proves to all with her determination and efforts that a confident woman at any stage of her life always can set sail bravely and ride the wind and waves.”

The Clipper 2019-20 Race is set to resume in February 2021 and will see the fleet complete the rest of its round the world voyage, including stopping in all three Chinese cities on the original Clipper 2019-20 Race route. The Qingdao Ambassadors programme will continue to develop young sailors and promote the sailing city on the Clipper Race’s global platform.

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