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  China Syndrome: Sylvain Barielle  

It's been a long time since the race for the Auld Mug was a competition between nations. For example, an American helmed the Italian boat in 1992 and an Australian ran the Japanese boat in 2000. The Kiwis have been part of nearly every team in recent memory and helped the Swiss win the America's Cup in 2003, effectively taking it from their own countrymen. On paper, Cup campaigns look more like the United Nations than the U.N. itself. Well, almost.

This year's Cup racing is no different and one of the newest players, China Team, fits right in. The team's Chinese-flagged boat was built by an Australian-based company in southern China and is sailed by guys from France, China, Singapore, Poland, Malaysia, Australia and Andora. Originally French challenger Le Défi in the 2000 and 2003 Cup, the team became an Asian effort in 2005 when Chinese executive Wang Chao-Yong and Li Yifei, vice president of MTV Asia, decided to have a go at the America's Cup and realized that partnering with an established team was the easiest point of entry. But while you can put a price on experience, there's no guarantee it's going to pay off. China Team is ranked last of the 12 teams going into the Louis Vuitton Cup this spring, In 2006, they didn't win a single match.

It's hard not to have a soft spot for the team, though. Who doesn't cheer for the underdog at some point? They're certainly giving it everything they've got, having built and launched a brand new boat in December. For a relatively low-budget team not expected to make it past the round robins, CHN 95 represents a serious commitment to this and future Cup races. And then there's the local angle: China Team's head of sail design and sail trimmer is none other than Sylvain Barrielle, CEO of the UK-Halsey San Francisco loft in Alameda. A native of France with four Cup campaigns under his belt, he joined the program in 2005 when his sails beat out those built by reps from North Sails and France's Incidences Sails in a design trial. China Team is the only campaign not using North Sails, but Sylvain claims that it doesn't mean much. "These days, the brand (North, UK, etc.) is just the cloth provider. Every team has its own sail designers and engineers. It's more important to put the right team together." As further evidence of the U.N. effect, his team hails from the East Coast, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. Sails are built in Asia, the U.S. and Europe.

Life on a low-profile team with a small budget isn't easy. The top teams have been practicing through the winter around the world. China Team, on the other hand, only resumed training late last month. And while Alinghi, BMW Oracle and Prada will build upwards of 20 sails to test the right shape, Sylvain and his team don't have that option. "We have to get it right, maybe not the first time, but the second time for sure," he says.
What about the fan base? After all, China isn't really known for its rich yachting tradition. There are only 600 members in the Chinese sailing federation, so it's safe to say sailing isn't a sport for the masses . . . yet.

It seems the team is causing a stir back 'home'. The Chinese China Team sailors have become celebrities, walking the red carpet and getting style makeovers. They may not be the next Johnny Depp, but they are hot stuff. And when China Team, Louis Vuitton and America's Cup Management joined forces to produce a televised concert promoting China's participation in the Cup, more than 75 percent of the total Chinese population over 25 -  that's 627 million people -  tuned in. "Usually if a program attracts 100 million viewers, it is considered to be very good," said Zhao Fei, a 23-year-old 470 sailor who works the traveller for China Team. "But over 600 million, that's extremely encouraging. Both for the sport of sailing in China and for our team. This result will help us get our name out there."

So it's a work in progress. "They're laying a very good base for a long-term project. When the Chinese do things, they think long term," Syvlain says.

In the short term, Sylvain has just left for Valencia to resume testing and training. The sailing team, which hopes to have eight Chinese sailors on board, will be announced later this spring, and Act 13, the last fleet race before the Louis Vuitton Cup, begins April 3. While Sylvain is gone, Synthia Petroka and Jason Crowson will hold down the fort at UK-Halsey SF, and depending on how things go, Sylvain will return to his normally scheduled programming in the Bay Area in May or June.

- latitude / ss

This story was reprinted from the February 2007 issue of Latitude 38's Sightings section. To order a copy (complete with color photos), use the subscription order form, and specify the 2/07 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Back Issues, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.

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