Style & ExperiencesFeature

Swiss sailor elected Commodore of the Royal Yacht Club of Hong Kong

Denis Martinet, a francophone Swiss sailing man who has lived in Hong Kong for two decades, takes the helm of Asia's first yacht club.

Cristina D’Agostino

By Cristina D’Agostino21 juillet 2020

Competitors in action during the Around the Island regatta 2014 at Hong Kong on November 16, 2014 in Hong Kong, China. Photo by Xaume Olleros / Power Sport Images

The Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club is one of the largest yacht clubs in the world. It boasts 11,000 members, a storied history marked by venerable rowing championships and a legacy of past commodores who have steered the course to success since 1890. Located on Causeway Bay, it has dominated the waters of Victoria Bay since the early days of British colonization. Today, according to the Commodore of the yacht club, Denis Martinet, sailing off the Hong Kong coastline, against the backdrop of an urban landscape made up of countless modern towers, “remains one of the most memorable experiences for any sailing enthusiast.”

Denis Martinet, Commodore of the Royal Yacht Club of Hong Kong since 2020 (DR)

Recently elected to a two-year term, Martinet is the first Swiss sailing man to be given the baton of command. His mother is of English origin, but Denis Martinet was born on the shores of Lutry, near Geneva where he learned to sail and measured himself against the challenging tides of Switzerland’s mightiest lake, and where he ultimately discovered his passion. However, he took a long break to pursue a career in the hotel business: first with Hyatt in Switzerland, and then setting his course east for Macao, where he was deputy manager of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel there for three years. After a number of other moves in the hotel world in Asia, he eventually landed in the watchmaking world , becoming one of the leading distributors of Swiss watches in Asia. Living in Hong Kong for almost twenty years now, he has garnered an intimate knowledge of the luxury sector in Asia and ferried his way through a sequence of economic booms and busts. In a phone interview from Hong Kong, Martinet explains his journey from the Lutry "Monkeys" yacht club on the shores of Lake Geneva to the sporting the imposing golden dragon of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club on his commodore's jacket today.

It’s a bit odd to learn that the man at the helm of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club is Swiss. Is this a way for you to expand your network?

Not at all. I see why you would think so, but no, that’s not the case at all. My network is the result of many, many years of work. I became commodore simply because I'm a true sailing enthusiast. I started sailing at Lutry, at the "Singerie"; I had a Moth, I was into 470. But unfortunately, my career and my travels never left any room for regular practice. It was only when I settled in Hong Kong with my wife Joanne that I finally found the time. I joined the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club in 2004 and I quickly realized how much I truly enjoyed being active there. It's an exceptional place, by the water, in a small corner of paradise. The people you meet here are captivating. Typical of this sport. To me sailing is like a chessboard that is constantly shifting. It's very tactical. It's very competitive. Unfortunately, there are far too few women involved.

Is the clientele mainly composed of expatriates?

That was the case for a long time. Just look at the names of the commodores: members of the Royal Navy at first, then as Hong Kong’s society opened up, diversity became an option. Today, the majority of members are Asian, but there are more than 20 nationalities represented. We have 6,000 active members, but 11,000 in all. It is the largest Yacht Club in Asia, if not the world!

The Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club on Victoria Bay (DR)

What are your ambitions?

My Vice Commodore is a woman and I hope she will succeed me. Diversity is paramount, and encouraging women and young people to take on prominent roles is one of my priorities. Of course, I would like to increase our sports presence at the international level. I have been able to take part in some very nice regattas abroad, and I would like to continue to work on one local regatta of international stature, the Rolex China Sea Race. Inviting members from other clubs to come and race in the same category in Hong Kong Bay is also one of our goals. Sailing in the bay past the skyscrapers is fabulous, and it’s a feeling I want to share.

You want to put Hong Kong on the map of the big circuits?

We hosted the Volvo Ocean race two years ago, and the World Match Racing Tour is coming up early next year. I know that Hong Kong is being considered for one of the stages in next season's SailGP. But of course, at this level, which is comparable to hosting an F1 Grand Prix, discussions take place at the state level, but we can still be an important advising partner. What I'm really proud of is our involvement in our own challenge for the Youth America's Cup – taking part in the main race would be beyond our means today, but developing a team of young people to represent Hong Kong and our club is very exciting. The Cup is the flagship event of our sport. Of course being from Switzerland I have very powerful memories of the Cup thanks to Alinghi. Moreover it’s a topic that always gets traction among our members, particularly New Zealanders and Britons who have yet to bring the Cup home!

How did you get elected?

The election takes several years. The club is very active, with very committed members. Every general meeting is attended by more than 350 people. We organize races every week. We have about ten boat categories and a very active rowing section. Then there’s the catering – we serve 20,000 meals per month, in six restaurants and on three different bases. The main one is on the bay, another is in the south on Middle Island with all the dinghies, rowing boats and J80s, and the third is in the north of the new territories with the 35 to 75-foot ballast boats and Dragons. We have 300 employees. You need to know how to juggle all these different things at the same time, in turbulent waters, as we've seen again recently at the political level. We have to be responsible towards the other social actors in the area. We are not just a club for privileged people, we must be socially engaged. For example, we recently set up a foundation to finance and encourage ocean-related charities. But going back to my appointment, I obviously had to rise through the ranks, from the lower posts up to Vice Commodore. I was lucky to be noticed and encouraged. Maybe it's because I have a big mouth... or the way I laugh!

The prestige is still very useful in terms of connections ...

Yes, it's undeniable, but it's not my motivation. Certainly, I get recognized. And I will represent the club at official ceremonies, such as the memorial service on November 11th. It will be very moving for me, thinking of my English grandfather who fought in the Great War. But my primary motivation is for the club to remain a sports club and not a “social circle”. We will not be shifting focus from boats to real estate, as others may prefer to do. No, what’s important to us is to be an active, sporty and socially integrated sailing and rowing club!

Which side are you prouder of, the Swiss or the English?

(laughs) I have to say that what has brought me here is also probably the fact that I speak fluent English without an accent, but I like to think that my ability to race at the helm of my Etchell, the most competitive class in the club, also played a role!

But obviously, it’s the pride of a young man who was a member of the Lutry club and who is now commodore of one of the most beautiful clubs in the world. Which they still haven’t heard about at La Singerie!

Denis Martinet, at the helm of his Etchell (Takumi Images)

What is the mood in Hong Kong today?

Hong Kong is a city of contrasts, in its architecture, its society. Both affluent and fragile. It is possible that, given the political context, Hong Kong will experience some emigration, as was the case in the late 1980s when the Basic Law was finalized. I think that Hong Kong will develop into a kind of mega-Monaco, somewhat sheltered from what happens every day in China. And as long as Hong Kong's financial centre is strong, the luxury sector will also remain important. Never underestimate Hong Kong's ability to bounce back. It’s not just another city – the Greater Bay area is home to 150 million people. There are plenty of opportunities.

Your business strength lies in your extensive knowledge of Asia...

Some would say that I am an old Asian backpacker (laughs). Over the course of my career I have indeed developed a network of connections and a deep understanding of the luxury market in Asia. High-end service and luxury in this continent have a lot of appeal, that was clear to me pretty soon when I started working in the hotel sector. I was fascinated by this refinement in taste. And the advantage with Hong Kong is that everything is possible. There is a real entrepreneurial spirit. You can set up a business in a very short time and very easily. That's how I set up my own company, MAD & Associates, in 2008, to distribute a number of brands, while at the same time expanding our geographical reach, from Australia to Europe, via China, where we are probably one of the only independent players in Shanghai. This pioneering spirit has always been one of our strengths!

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