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Ready About! The Mast Man

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Lifelong sailor and long-time DB resident Nikolaus von der Luehe is about to embark on a new adventure – but not before a brief campaign on behalf of the Discovery Bay Yacht Club. Elizabeth Kerr reports
PHOTOS BY Richard Gordon – www.richardgordonphotography.com & Michele Felder

Nikolaus von der Luehe comes to the door of his Sheung Wan office himself. There are other people milling about, but he has no trouble getting the door. He also commits to a now somewhat alien gesture: He extends a hand to shake. Well, he is a sailor.
Settling down in his office, the first thing that I notice is how heavily it’s dotted with magazines, books, gauges, tackles, trophies, photographs and maps related to yachting, which is not surprising given Nikolaus’ obvious enthusiasm for the low-key, welcoming Discovery Bay Yacht Club (DBYC) – totally unrelated to the superyacht- focused Lantau Yacht Club. Work, however? He actually trades in industrial thermostats.

And for the record that’s Commodore Nikolaus von der Luehe, a position he’s held at the DBYC (www.dbyc.net) for the last four years and which he’s ceded to new commodore Stephen Hart. Nikolaus and his wife Diana are heading back to Germany for good at the end of the year with, as he says, “One crying eye and one laughing eye.” The couple is only semi-retiring – they’ve purchased an old 14,000-square foot manor house close to Rostock on the Baltic coast, which they’ll be living in and managing as a vacation destination (www.schloss-puetnitz.de).

“It’s going to be hard work. The aristocratic name may still exist but it doesn’t pay the bills. We’ll be washing the windows and maintaining the grounds,” Nikolaus says with a chuckle. That might be where the laughing eye comes in. He’ll be leaving “home” but starting a new chapter. Setting sail on the next adventure as it were.

PLAIN SAILING

Born in Fürth (the town’s most famous native is Henry Kissinger) not too far from Nuremberg, Nikolaus first arrived in Hong Kong in 1976 at around 11 years old, after his businessman father had moved the family around Germany and to South Africa. He finished school in Hong Kong, did his military service in Germany, came back to Hong Kong for an apprenticeship, went back to Germany, spent some time in the UK as an exchange student (where he met Diana in 1983), and relocated time and again.

Ultimately though Hong Kong was always home, and in 1989, while in his early 20s, Nikolaus settled in DB. “That was long before it was Dogs and Babies,” he quips. “Unfortunately, I didn’t buy a flat.

“I was always a water rat: scuba diving, swimming, windsurfing, water skiing, and then eventually sailing,” he recalls. “So, when I saw the opportunity to be close to Central, where my office was at the time, and be by the water I jumped at it.”

Nikolaus stumbled into sailing after his father joined the Stanley Services Boat Club in the late seventies. He recalls water-skiing behind a friend’s Hobie 16 as a “scrawny teenager” in a strong North Easterly monsoon off Stanley. “Once I discovered sailing, I thought it was so fabulous I wondered, ‘How could other people not want to do this?’ I’ve gone long stretches of time when I didn’t sail but I’ve always come back to it,” he says.

The sailing stories are indeed plentiful. Nikolaus once made the trip back to Hong Kong from the Philippines on a yacht he’d purchased with a friend through a storm, without power, and with a dead engine. “To say that I was concerned is putting it very, very mildly,” he understates. Clearly Nikolaus is comfortable living dangerously.

Arguing that really, sailing is just a rudder and a sail, Nikolaus is delighted to give a Sailing 101 tutorial. He throws around words like “jibs” and “tacking,” and finishes with a story about capsizing (which, evidently, is no big). He hasn’t seen Dead Calm; he picked apart All is Lost, though he mostly enjoyed it.

ON THE RIGHT TACK

Prospective members, by the way, don’t need to know about jibs to join the DBYC. Founded in 1999 by Jim Ferney, the DBYC fancies itself the tonic to the tonier clubs that have given yachting its image as a rich man’s pastime. “We aim to draw local sailors together in friendly and social sailing events, and to introduce beginners to the fun of sailing and racing yachts,” Nikolaus says. “I used my previous yacht, Legs 11, as a training platform for many novice sailors in the DBYC. She needed eight crew to be sailed competitively, so there was ample opportunity for inexperienced sailors to hone their skills.”

All in all, Nikolaus is very much dedicated to evangelising for sailing, and isn’t beyond trying to gently persuade even non-sailors to sign up – particularly in DB where it’s so affordable and accessible. He marvels at how easy it really is to get on the water in DB with Nim Shue Wan so handy, but worries no one realises how much opportunity for sailing around Lantau there is, or more likely mistakenly believe it exclusive to the wealthy and those training for the America’s Cup.

“You can have a HK$3 million boat – but you can have these too,” Nikolaus reasons, gesturing to one of the many boat photos in the office and pointing out the craft he bought cheap and rehabilitated for the club. “You can put some maintenance and a little TLC into an older boat or you can take a share.”

With many DBYC members always looking for crews, anyone interested in a crash course on sailing can find one if they commit to the time. And the DBYC really does have the most affordable membership of any club in the city (or at least it probably does) at HK$1,000 per year, which the club keeps down by not having a clubhouse, meeting digitally and advertising by (mostly) word of mouth.

“DBYC is volunteer-run and therefore very affordable to join,” says Nikolaus. “There is something for every budget and every level of interest, whether you own or part own a yacht or are simply looking to crew. We are looking for volunteers. We need new people.”

Regardless of who’s commodore, after a few COVID- wracked years the DBYC is coming out of its enforced semi-hibernation. The club has events lined up through December, including the 4 Picks Rally on June 4, the Cheung Chau Blast on June 26, the Middle Island Regatta on October 15, and a Christmas party on December 10. Non-members and non-sailors are welcome, and hopefully the social element will inspire Hongkongers cooped-up too long to try something new.

“We don’t take ourselves so seriously,” Nikolaus finishes. “And there really is something for everyone.” Let’s just avoid those storms and power outages, yeah?

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