The annual Cross Harbour Race brings together thousands of avid and recreational swimmers, giving them a chance to traverse the waters of Victoria Harbour. Julian Hwang talks to Institute members who took part in one of the Hong Kong’s most famous sports event about what gets them diving
Photography by Anthony Tung
Participants of the New World Harbour Race swim towards the Golden Bauhinia Square Public Pier in Wanchai on 29 October.
Early Sunday mornings possess a certain element of tranquility. Apart from the occasional jogger or car driver, the majority of the city’s population can be found at home sneaking in an extra wink of sleep. Sunday 29 October, however, was different. Chattering loudly and teeming with anticipation, thousands of swimsuit-clad people of different ages and walks of life – including a few Hong Kong Institute of CPAs members – gathered around the Tsim Sha Tsui Public Pier as they prepared to dive into the waiting harbour.
Douglas Cheung, Corporate Finance Manager at CLC International Limited, was among one of the 2,940 participants who crossed the Victoria Harbour as part of the 1-kilometre New World Harbour Race (also known as the Cross Harbour Race), to the Wanchai Golden Bauhinia Square Public Pier. “When I was young, I always crossed the harbour by ferry,” recalls Cheung. “I think being able to swim across the body of water that helped shape Hong Kong into a global trading centre is a really special privilege.”
Cheung swims as a hobby and has participated in triathlons and other long-distance sporting events in the past, including the Standard Chartered Marathon and cycling marathons. “Swimming is a lifetime sport that’s good for all ages, and there’s also less chance of an injury compared to competitive contact sports like football,” he says.
Before becoming a swimmer, he suffered from chronic neck pain due to long hours at the office combined with an improper sitting posture. “I went to see many doctors and physicians, but nothing they prescribed or recommended would work,” he explains. “Then I met a physical therapist who suggested I follow a strict swimming routine, and all the stretching from swimming helped drive away the pain.”
Cheung is well aware of both the thrills and dangers of ocean swimming. “At a pool, safety is rarely a concern because there’s bound to be lifeguards and other swimmers around you,” he says. “You’re introduced to different elements when you swim at sea, including water currents and the lack of swim lanes to guide you in a direction.” Similar to previous years, the race organizers this year implemented extensive precautions, including multiple lifeguards posted along the swimming route, mandatory ankle trackers and a safety float tied around each participant’s waist. “These measures give us better peace of mind so we can stay focused on the race,” says Cheung.
While some participants may choose to treat the cross harbour event as an opportunity to compete for the best time, Cheung preferred to participate in the Leisure Group. “I’m at a bottleneck with my current swimming speed,” explains Cheung. Even after consulting his coach and tweaking his strokes and swimming posture to become more efficient, he noticed that his speed could not be improved any further, potentially due to physical or fitness reasons, according to Cheung. “Until I’m able to breakthrough that limit, I think aiming to complete in the harbour race and maintain my time of about 30 minutes will be my goal for next year’s event.”
Swimming with purpose
In June 2014, Ricky Hung saw an advert promoting the Cross Harbour Race. “The race back then was 1.5km that spanned from Kwun Tong to Quarry Bay,” recalls Hung, Associate Director of Relationship Management at Standard Chartered Bank Hong Kong. “It was only this year that they changed the route to Tsim Sha Tsui to Wanchai.”
“Having a big target to swim towards motivates participants more compared with just swimming in a general direction.”
Before signing up, Hung had enjoyed swimming in pools until doing repetitive, meaningless laps became uninspiring. Having a concrete goal reignited Hung’s interest. “With the convention centre’s large size, it is very easy to identify. I think having a big target to swim towards motivates participants more compared with just swimming in a general direction,” says Hung.
The experience of swimming across the Victoria Harbour is an empowering one, he adds. “This race lets us legally cross the harbour without riding on a ferry or driving through the cross harbour tunnel.”
Hung has also participated in running events such as the 10km Standard Chartered Marathon in 2016. But after he sustained a knee injury towards the latter half of the run, Hung, determined to keep fit, decided to take up swimming instead.
Being in the water is his way of unwinding and enjoying a bit of personal time. “I usually swim at pools early on weekend mornings, as it works best with my family’s schedule,” he says. “Being the only person there, swimming with the entire lane to myself is quite relaxing.”
Hung says it’s essential for all participants of the Cross Harbour Race to ensure that their body is in good shape and capable of handling the long-distance swim before signing up. For members thinking of participating in the Leisure Group of the race next year, Hung recommends timing their laps at a pool first to see if they can meet the race’s entry requirements. “People who haven’t participated in the race before need to pass a time trial first,” he explains. “You’ll have to demonstrate that you can complete multiple laps totalling 1.5km within 45 minutes or less to qualify.”
As the try-outs begin in September, starting to train around April should provide sufficient time to build up the necessary strength and endurance needed to swim that distance, according to Hung. “The Institute usually organizes swimming classes in collaboration with Hoi Tin Swimming Consultant during this time,” says Hung, who used to be a regular participant of those classes. “I wasn’t too familiar with most of the swimming styles before I signed up in 2014, so I mainly did breaststrokes.”
Hung completed the 1km race this year in 30 minutes, beating his time of 50 minutes for the 1.5km race in 2014. “Apart from the sea being a bit cold, the water conditions this year were great,” he says.
A personal achievement
Julia Cheung, a first-time participant of the race, felt a great sense of satisfaction when she reached the finish line. “I’ve never participated in these large-scale events before, but I’m proud to have completed it because it shows that my body is still capable, even at the age of 55,” says Cheung, Vice President of Finance and Company Secretary at Skyfame Realty (Holdings) Limited, a Mainland property developer and listed company in Hong Kong.
Cheung swam occasionally during her school days, but dropped it due to an overly packed work schedule. It wasn’t until 10 years ago that she decided to pick it back up for leisure. “Swimming helps me to relax and refresh myself after work,” says Cheung, “and while you have your mind focusing on something else, you may even get new solutions for work-related problems.”
“I’m proud to have completed it because it shows that my body is still capable, even at the age of 55.”
However, after several years of swimming again, she felt that her technique was wrong and was eager to learn more swimming styles. At the same time, she found out that the Institute was organizing swimming classes and signed up straight away.
It was at one of these classes that Cheung learned about the New World Harbour Race. “The coaches suggested that I give the Leisure Group a try in 2016, but I wasn’t able to pass the time trial,” she recalls. Keen to improve, she sought a coach for one-on-one or two-on-one training sessions, and later passed the time trials this year without problem.
Cheung had trained to the best of her ability for the race, but there were some things that she couldn’t anticipate, such as the lengthy wait time at the starting point. “Before we are given the signal to go, we needed to enter into the water and wait within the starting point’s boundary,” recalls Cheung. “Treading water quickly became taxing especially with so many people crammed into one small area, so accidental kicking or pushing was inevitable.”
“Swimming is a lifetime sport that’s good for all ages, and there’s also less chance of an injury compared to competitive contact sports like football.”
After the race started, Cheung also noticed that she had followed the wrong people and was swimming a suboptimal route. “The event organizers had recommended swimming along a curved path for an easier time against the water current,” says Cheung. The people she had followed had made a beeline for the finishing point. While the distance was less than the suggested path, pushing against a current made the journey much more tiring. “To ensure that I was swimming in the right direction, I used breaststroke most of the time during the race rather than freestroke, which is the preferred style in long races,” says Cheung. “This left me with a minor backpain after the race, but despite so, completing it in about 30 minutes has given me mental satisfaction and confidence.” Cheung is considering signing up again next year and for more open-sea events.
She still enjoys attending the Institute’s swimming classes for the consistent exercise and the chance to meet new friends, and even share career advice with younger members. “I met Ricky Hung at the classes,” she says, “and we’re currently discussing potential work collaborations.”
The first cross-harbour swimming race was held in 1906. The original route was 1.6 kilometres and between Tsim Sha Tsui and the former Queen’s Pier in Central.