A pioneering and inspiring Chinese sailor taking on the Route du Rhum
You get used to hearing stories of perseverance against the odds, determination to succeed and not taking no for an answer in the IMOCA Class. But one of the newest skippers to join the ranks for this Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe really does take your breath away.
The 33-year-old Chinese sailor Jingkun Xu has arrived at the start village in St Malo for this four-yearly classic after the most improbable of journeys – a voyage through life that is remarkable in what as already been achieved let alone what might lie ahead.
Jingkun was born into a poor Chinese farming family living in the hills above what is now the nation’s “Sailing City” of Qingdao. If all went well, the most he could have hoped for was to follow his parents into the hard grind of farming. But all did not go well. At the age of 12, Jingkun suffered a devastating injury to his left arm in a firework accident that required its amputation just below the elbow. To all intents and purposes, he was told, his life was ruined.
But the young boy was determined that his injury would not define him and latched onto the idea of joining the newly-constituted Chinese Paralympic team. Instead of destroying his life, his injury would become his opportunity. He was given a choice – sailing, cycling or running – and even though he had never seen the sea or a boat, he chose sailing.
In 2008 he and two crew-mates finished 10th out of 14 in the Sonar class at the Paralympic regatta in Qingdao, by which time Jingkun had already read about the feats of Britain’s Ellen MacArthur. Inspired by her example, he started to dream of sailing alone around the world in the Vendée Globe.
In 2012 he sailed around the entire coast of China in a 24ft keelboat he had refurbished after rescuing it from a dump. He followed that in 2015 by becoming the first Chinese sailor to complete the Mini-Transat, finishing 36th out of 43 in the Series Division.
Then, accompanied by his Chinese wife, Sofia, he completed a three-year circumnavigation in a Lagoon catamaran in June 2020 – sailing 34,000 miles and visiting 40 countries without an autopilot – before purchasing Alan Roura’s 2007-vintage Finot-Conq IMOCA. Along the way he has qualified as a sailing instructor, set up his own sailing school in China and become an ambassador for Qingdao.
Now this Chinese sailor, who fixes you with a strong and confident gaze, stands on the brink of his first ever race in an IMOCA after a frantic few months getting the boat ready while living on board. With little sponsorship funding as of yet, he has had to learn everything from scratch and has had precious little time to sail on a boat which he has named “China Dream Haikou” after the Chinese city where he and his wife lived.
The Route du Rhum is in his sights, but the dream remains the Vendée Globe and Jingkun is going to do everything in his power to be one of the 40 skippers on the startline. “For me, this is my first time in IMOCA and the first time joining the Route du Rhum,” he said in English in the cockpit of his boat. “But in the long run my goal is take part in the Vendée Globe. For my project I must finish the Route du Rhum; I need to finish, take care of the boat, don’t damage anything and finish the race.”
“I do all the work on my own,”he explained, “so I have had only two or three sessions of training. At the beginning it is very hard, it is not an easy boat, but it is a good thing because I did all the work by myself, so I am learning fast. I have learnt the electrics and the technology, so now I can control the boat but I also need more learning and training.”
Remarkably Jingkun is not the only sailor in the IMOCA fleet with one hand, as he follows in the footsteps of the Frenchman Damien Seguin, and the two have known each other for years, going back to their Paralympic days. Jingkun says he would like to develop some adaptations on his boat to help offset the loss of his forearm, as Seguin has done with his cockpit winch pedestal, for example. But he believes this is more difficult to achieve than for Seguin – who was born without one hand – because Jingkun has almost no forearm below his elbow on his left side.
“Nothing has been done,” he said in his strong mellifluous delivery. “I haven’t had time. Instead of adapting the boat, I prefer – and it is much easier – to adapt myself. I am changing the way I do things to fit this boat.”
Jingkun admits he is both nervous and excited to be joining the ranks of the IMOCA class and to take part in one of its most iconic races, but he says he has been warmly welcomed by his fellow skippers. “I know a lot of the sailors because we did the Mini Transat together in 2015. So when I came here I did not feel like a stranger. I was here in 2015 and I have a lot of friends here and I got to know the workers and some sailors too,”he said.
One of the many impressive aspects of this story is the phenomenal social media following that Jingkun already enjoys in China. His is bigger – and bigger many, many times over – than all the other IMOCA skippers combined. On one Chinese social media platform, he has more than 130 million followers while more than 300 million Chinese are expected to follow the live stream of his race start on Sunday.
Already a two-time Chinese “Sailor of the Year,” Jingkun hopes his exploits will inspire other young Chinese sailors to make their dreams come true. “I feel excited and I care about all the people following me,”he said. “I am surprised and lucky to have so many people following me and supporting me – it is because we are the first Chinese team to get a place in the Route du Rhum and also in IMOCA. We have worked so hard this year and have tried to record whatever we are doing (there was a TV crew on board during our interview), and the Route du Rhum is what we have worked towards and we hope it will introduce people to our team and also to offshore racing.”
And so the adventure begins as Jingkun takes on his second solo crossing of the Atlantic – this time to Guadeloupe – before sailing his boat back to France as he starts his epic journey to the Vendée Globe.
During our interview Sofia had acted as translator when her husband could not think of the words he wanted to use in English. As I left the boat, I asked her if she was nervous about him going off on a powerful foiling IMOCA that he has had precious little time to get to know.
“No I am not nervous,” she said. “I am confident about his ability. He’s not a crazy adventurer – he only does things he knows he can manage.”
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