Out of the blue one day last week, a young lady from Dalian added me as a contact on QQ through a Chongqing foreigners’ group, and asked if I would be interested in taking part in an amateur jet ski race, an addition to the professional China Powerboat League.
Since all the other racers are Chinese, the event needed an overseas participant to raise its profile and attract more interest from the public.
The race was to be held in Pengshui County, a three hour drive eastwards from Chongqing. The organiser would put us up in local full board accommodation, plus the jet ski training and race entry were free of charge. There didn’t seem to be any strings attached, so I gladly agreed.
On the Thursday night, we drove out to the Party Cadre School党校 in Pengshui彭水 where the lady in charge booked us a room for the whole event.
The final stretch took us through remote looking unlit bumpy roads at the dead of night, and I breathed a sigh of relief when our destination finally came into view.
My impression was that a Cadre School would be a sensitively guarded complex where unexpected foreign guests could expect a grilling interrogation, but no! Without a single word spoken or glance cast, the barrier lifted up. We parked the car, wondered across to the on-site hotel for check-in. The friendly receptionist showed not the slightest interest in my ID card, and handed us a keycard once we stumped up 100 Yuan as a room deposit.
It turns out that Cadre School hotels also cater for large organisations that need prolonged accommodation. The China Powerboat League booked rooms for all the racers and entourage, and we also saw large parties of teenagers dressed up in Olympics style China team tracksuits at mealtimes.
In name, this was a guest house宾馆(Bin guan) rather than a hotel 酒店(Jiu dian), and we were not optimistic about the level of comfort, similar to what we experienced in Zhongxian.
As it happens, the 12 floor building was new, hygienic and comfortable, with a heartily stocked canteen that appealed generously to all tastes.
The China Powerboat League
Powerboat racing isn’t new to China. The CPL became an official member of the International Powerboat Association in 1981, but the current national F1 format only began in 2011.
In each year of the competition, Pengshui County has played host to one of the legs. The Wu River乌江 flows through the main city, but doesn’t carry anywhere near the level of traffic the Yangtze or other major rivers do, meaning that the race can last a number of days without causing great disruption to the waterways.
The Wu river at Pengshui is large enough to allow a full scale racing event, the water is relatively clean and the temperature not especially cold, as I will vouch for later! There is quite a strong current along the eastern bank, but nothing that participants need worry about, and the riverbed is clear of underlying rocks and obstructions.
Another advantage is the stunning backdrop.
From any vantage point along the riverside pavements, the waters flow by swiftly with a deep and vivid blue taint. Looking up on either side, there are densely forested mountain ridges towering above the city, with thick wisps of clouds obscuring the crests from view. In the middle, old houses and newer apartment blocks vie with over each other for space a good third the way up the mountainside.
Come nightfall, the ridges turn to silhouettes, and the riverside and building outlines are lit up in a gorgeous array of colour.
As with other counties in Chongqing Municipality, the level of economic development lags somewhat behind the districts, but the way the pristine natural environment closely hugs the compact city area infuses an immediate sense of fondness, and I thoroughly enjoyed strolling the street sides and curious but friendly glances from passers-by.
Teams representing between 8 and 13 provinces nationwide attend the professional race events. Naturally, many of them are from coastline provinces, but since China has many great inland rivers and lakes, there are also teams from landlocked provinces, such as Hubei湖北 and Anhui安徽.
From what I saw, there were three main types of powerboat race. The first was contested by fully enclosed aquaplanes with speed boat engines attached to the back. The other two were between seated jet skis and the variety riders stand up on.
During the races, I watched as the pros flew across the water at breakneck speeds on their powerful jet skis, covering each lap in a mere fraction of time compared to my inexperienced and timid efforts. However, I was so preoccupied with the amateur couple PK race that I didn’t pay much attention to whoever finished in first place.
Unsurprisingly, one racer eventually made a false move and crashed painfully into the water. The marshal waved his red flag as he blew his whistle, and the oncoming traffic slowed down on sight, raising their left arms in acknowledgement.
In between events, there was public entertainment in the form of waterski and flyboard performances. In fact, locals packed the entire lengths of the riverbank streets to watch the action, and we had to park a long way from the contestants’ area to find a space.
The event lasts from May 12 to the 16th, but I only stayed until my elimination from the first couple round, when commitments back in Chongqing compelled me to return the next morning.
Jet skiing on the Wu River
I’m sure many readers have experienced jet skis before, so I won’t delve into unnecessary detail.
The densely forested and mountainous surroundings make for a cool and wet climate in Pengshui, and the city is indeed a popular getaway from the summer heat for Chongqing locals. On each of our days here, there were bouts of heavy rain, and the temperature struggled to break 20 degrees.
Not to be deterred, the coach sat behind, taught me the simple process of turning on and controlling the ski, then must have nearly fell asleep as I timidly performed laps between two buoys spaced around a hundred metres apart. Eventually, he convinced me to hold onto the front panel while he demonstrated our Yamaha’s full prowess. I yelled all the way out of a mix of fear and excitement as he sped the ski forwards and round the buoys at full throttle.
I continued to practise laps by myself, and after a short time, I began to ride the jet-ski at near full throttle over the straights, and began to take sharp turns as my confidence grew.
The next step was taking on my passenger and race partner, my wife, who didn’t even seem to flinch as I sped ever more quickly.
Unfortunately, on my final turn that afternoon, I turned the buoy quickly at too light an angle, and before I even knew it, we were thrown into the cold waters in just our swimming costumes and life jackets.
I gulped down a mouthful of river water before feeling our life jackets thrust us back up to the surface. As you would expect, the water was very cold, but the coach rode out quickly to help out. My wife climbed onto his jet-ski, but I still felt the presence of mind to wade across back to my own, climbed on at the back, turned it on and rode back to shore.
While the experience of being thrown into the cold river wasn’t very pleasant, I still felt undeterred, and would have continue practising were there no admonishments to call it a day and return to the hotel!
Romance on Water 爱情艇好
The event organisers chose a touching name for our role in the proceedings.
In Chinese, 爱情(Ai qing) means love, and the characters 挺好(Ting hao) are literally ‘quite good.’ Look carefully, and although there is no difference in pronunciation, the third character for ‘挺quite’ has been swapped for ‘艇boat,’ making for a fetching play on names.
Our format was just like a last sixteen one on one knock out round. The eight couples are split into pairs to race each other for the finishing line. The winning couple proceeds to the quarter final, the other goes home.
To add a little spice, a cash price of 5000 Yuan was on offer for first price, reducing in increments of 1000 Yuan for each place behind.
Determined not to fall into the river again, I decided to just enjoy finishing the course at a steady pace, and not vying for the prizes on offer. In fact, the other ‘amateurs’ happened to include coaches and other experienced riders, so there was little hope of beating them anyway.
Reporters from Chongqing Television were stationed by the riverside, and conducted an interview with me in Chinese for the evening news.
Just before the race began, I familiarised myself with the course on final time, and put on all the kit, inlcuding helmet, life jackets, gloves and kneepads.
You may have been wondering what a PK race is. I believe this term is from Chinese computer gaming, and means ‘Player killing.’ Simply, it’s a knock-out competition, and in our case, we were split into four pairs of racers, with only two skis on the water at the same time for safety.
We stood behind our jet-ski and waited for the marshal to admonish an errant flyboarder to shore. Once he blew his whistle, we clumsily staggered onto the seat, and I spent a few precious seconds fiddling to attach my wristband lead to the ignition, by which time our opponents had already long since sped far into the distance.
I didn’t really care. There must have been thousands of spectators riverside, and possibly hundreds of thousands on watching live on television, and the last thing I wanted was the humiliation of falling into the cold water and being rescued, especially when there was only one other boat and the river and we were going so slowly.
The course took us out way further than during the training, and I took extra care as we approached the strong currents of the east bank.
We made it back to base without falling off, and the crowds very kindly offered us a round of applause as we disembarked.
After one final interview in Chinese with a Beijing television crew, we made our way back to the cadre hotel.
The past few days had been an unexpected, but a highly enjoyable and unique experience.
There was no race action in the mornings, so we took the opportunity to explore a local ethnic minority ‘old town’ called Jiulicheng九黎城, which I will write up in my next post.
Ironically, this visit to Pengshui was the first in all my years in Chongqing, but on the penultimate night of my race visit, I received an invitation from a Chinese friend and entrepreneur to attend a local government event at the Ayi River Scenic Area阿依河风景区. There were to be speeches from local government leaders, followed by a concert and bonfire party.
Of course, I was delighted to accept the offer of hospitality, so we’ll be there again next weekend!
Stay tuned to learn about the Ayi River experience and the event itself.