Recreational boating sets sail in Taiwan, but will a lack of infrastructure and skyrocketing fees send it into rough waters?
Canadian Marc-Andre Lefebvre and American Chris Carney are polar opposites when it comes to skippering a sailboat. While both are highly experienced sailors and boat owners, as well as longtime friends and Taiwan residents, Lefebvre’s meticulous style of running his sailboat, the Rewind, brings to mind the phrase, “shipshape.” Carney’s penchant for running into storms and navigating his sailboat, 悠悠 (YoYo), by his iPhone, on the other hand, recalls the idiom, “we’re all in the same boat,” but scarily. Both skippers share an equal passion for sailing, though, and for winning, as evidenced by both of them emerging victorious in their respective divisions (Class A, larger boats, for Lefebvre, Class B, smaller boats, for Carney) in the four day long Penghu Regatta 2015, held this year over Dragon Boat Festival weekend, June 17-21.
This was the third annual Penghu Regatta, sponsored by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, under the Ministry of Transportation and Communication (MOTC), the Penghu County Tourism Bureau, and several corporate sponsors, including Simpson Yachts and Ever Rich Duty Free shops. The race attracted a number of foreign flagged sailboats – eight of the 15 participating vessels were flagged abroad – and a good contingent of journalists from the international press. Race event coordinators and manager Kuo Ting, CEO of the Taipei Offshore Sailing Association (TOSA) noted that this year’s successful Penghu Regatta was just one of several regattas planned for this year.
The proliferation of regattas in Taiwan is a big turnaround for the nation that had until recently discouraged leisure boating. Yet with most of the winning skippers hailing from abroad, Taiwan still needs time before it acquires the necessary skill set to become a recreational boating center.
“There’s not too much of a sailing culture, not yet, but it will happen,” TOSA’s Kuo forecasts. “In Taiwan, new people are very interested in sailing.”
As an island nation situated along important trade routes and rich fishing grounds, Taiwan has long reaped the bounty of the sea. Its shipping lines include the world’s fourth largest container line, Evergreen Marine, as well as regional leaders Wan Hai and Yang Ming. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s fishing boats, including the largest tuna fleet in the Western Pacific, ply both coastal waters and the world’s oceans, bringing billions of US dollars to the nation’s economy. Its shipbuilding industry likewise remains strong, including a yacht-making industry that was until recently one of the foremost in the world.
But some the benefits of island geography have only recently become accessible to ordinary citizens. For decades, Taiwan’s coastlines were off-limits to civilians, the legacy of cross-Strait tensions and martial law. That changed with the more recent easing of tensions with China, and once- forbidden beaches are now crammed with weekend day trippers and thrill-seekers. Sports like scuba diving and surfing have gained broad appeal, and Taiwan even sends windsurfers to the Olympics.
Is recreational boating the next watersport to become popular in Taiwan?
Boating enthusiasts are hopeful that recent moves by the government, including revisions to the national Law of Ships that finally recognized private boats as a category alongside fishing boats and cargo ships, as well as the construction of three brand new marinas for private boats, will finally bring Taiwan up to speed with other developed East Asian nations. Hong Kong alone berths some 6,700 private vessels in nine marinas, and Singapore is renowned for its marinas capable of handling even the largest mega-yachts. Boat owners are hopeful for the growth of a thriving boating community that will include not only themselves but also a deep talent pool of experienced deckhands, dockworkers and maintenance workers.
TOSA’s Kuo, a pioneer in Taiwan’s sailing circles who learned seamanship through Taiwan’s yachting industry, is optimistic. “There’s not too much of a sailing culture, not yet, but it will happen,” he forecasts. “In Taiwan, new people are very interested in sailing, and it’s getting more and more popular. There are a lot of sailing schools – each marina has its own sailing school, and they make money.”
Obstacles to building momentum persist, however, with boat registrations and boating licenses, as well as insufficient space in the marinas and a dearth of resources. Most frustrating for the boating community, though, are changes to the fee structures charged for berthing (parking) a boat in the marinas that have seen many boaters’ fees quadruple. And with the management of one of the three government-built marinas having been given to a private organization, which has subsequently raised fees even higher – far higher, by some accounts – these boaters feel that Taiwan’s boating community is being sent right back to the starting line.
“I work very hard to save the little bit of money I have to buy and to maintain a boat, but I probably won’t have the ability to continue it if things keep going the way they are,” says Lefebvre. “I’m really, really considering right now, what is the backup option? What can we do? I feel we’re being punished for trying to promote sailing in Taiwan.”
Carney, who makes his living giving sailing lessons on his sailboat, observes that unlike the United States and many nations in the region, Taiwan has almost no grassroots boating culture. And, despite the government’s efforts to promote watersports, “With the rates they are charging, they are making boating only available to the very wealthy,” he says.
How did Taiwan’s sailors end up in this headwind?
Taiwan only began developing its recreational boating industry in 2009, partly in response to the global financial crisis as well as rapprochement across the Taiwan Strait resulting from the election of Ma Ying-jeou. Among the breakthroughs in social and economic ties that occurred at the time was the loosening of restrictions on mainland Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan, which catapulted Taiwan from being one of the less-visited nations in East Asia to becoming a desirable tourist destination. Some in the government saw affluent yachters as a potential target for Taiwan’s tourism industry.
The government also recognized that investments in public infrastructure, in this case boat marinas, would benefit the employment rate and general economy. In 2009, the Fisheries Agency under the Council of Agriculture (COA) began projects to redistribute berthing privileges in three fishing harbors, Badouzi (known more often by its diminutive, Bixia) near Keelung, Wushi near Yilan, and Anping outside of Tainan, to allow space for the construction of floating docks and other infrastructure necessary to safely and conveniently harbor pleasure craft.
The plan has so far developed well, and the three marinas completed in 2013 are now filled to capacity with pleasure craft ranging from small motorboats to mega-yachts. The Fisheries Agency calls the completion of these marinas a “milestone for the development of domestic yachts leisure industry.” According to its website, the Agency sees the marinas as “promoting tourism and travel” by attracting “international tourists, yachts and sailboats, and professional maritime sport enthusiasts to engage in maritime sports in the waters around Taiwan.” The Agency also sees the new infrastructure benefiting the local yacht-building industry, and boosting the economy of fishing communities.
“I work very hard to save the little bit of money I have to buy and to maintain a boat, but I probably won’t have the ability to continue it if things keep going the way they are,” says boat owner Lefebvre.
In 2010, Taiwan’s Law of Ships was amended to finally recognize pleasure craft as a legitimate category of vessel, and further refined in 2012 to distinguish between small recreational craft and bigger yachts. Prior to 2010, a private vessel had to be registered as either a cargo ship or a fishing vessel, and daily jaunts required reams of onerous paperwork. Now, rules have been streamlined and sailing itineraries can be handled by filling out a simple form and sending a photo of it to the Coast Guard via the Line smartphone app. Sailing and boating schools are proliferating near these recently built marinas, and yacht sellers such as Simpson Marine enjoy prominence in the market. Nearly all of Taiwan’s 200-some floating docks are filled, and boating looks set to follow surfing and scuba diving into wide popularity.
With growing popularity comes a greater strain on available resources, however, and with demand growing for limited berths, Taiwan may have already reached its current capacity. By the immutable laws of supply and demand, it’s perhaps only inevitable that fees rise on waterside real estate.
Berthing charges rise
Prior to this past spring, marina berthing fees were calculated by weight, at NT$20 per ton per day. At these rates, bigger, heavier power yachts paid far more than smaller vessels, particularly light sailboats. For Lefebvre’s sailboat, this amounted to around NT$4,500 per month, which he admits, “if you compare that to North American prices or European prices it’s quite cheap. So we had a good deal for a while.”
Now, however, the Fisheries Agency has changed the formula to charge by length, charging NT$400 per day for boats ten meters long or less, NT$600 for boats 15 meters long, and so on, with a maximum charge of NT$1500 per day for mega-yachts 30 meters long. As a result, the rates assessed for light sailboats like Lefebvre’s Rewind have skyrocketed to NT$18,000 per month, US$7,200 per year, while owners of proportionately heavier power yachts have seen their monthly bills decline.
“What they have done is increase the prices by four times for poor guys and divide the price four times for millionaires,” says Lefebvre. “It’s really unfair treatment for a public infrastructure that was built with our taxpayer money.”
Even more ominously, while taxpayer money paid for these new marinas, the yacht marina in Badouzi has been handed off to a private management firm, Sunvast Development Co., which has resulted in even steeper rate hikes.
“I foresee this happening in other harbors, it’s going to happen everywhere now,” Lefebvre warns. “Rich guys who certainly don’t need to save money are getting a break for now but even if the marinas go private and fees skyrocket… they won’t give a damn.”
“With the rates they are charging, they are making boating only available to the very wealthy,” says boat owner Carney.
The problems in Badouzi are actually even direr than Lefebvre imagines, however. According to an insider close to the situation, who declines to be named, when Sunvast took over the operations of the marina this past January, it discovered that the entire construction of the Badouzi marina was poorly planned, leaving boats parked in poor proximity to prevailing winds and vulnerable to significant damage in the event of a typhoon. The slips are also showing deterioration despite being only a few years old, and many of the facilities, including important safety features, are inadequate. For example, while each section of harbor has its crucial firehose, the firehoses lack a water supply, and Sunvast was forced to supply fire extinguishers instead. The company is negotiating with the Fisheries Agency to rebuild the marina to bring it up to safety and convenience standards. Negotiations are dragging on, with little progress likely before national elections in January 2016. Sunvast has a three year contract to manage the marina, but due to the safety considerations, they are unable to accept any further boats on a permanent basis into the marina. Instead, they allow boats to berth on a daily basis, an exceedingly expensive option at NT$90 per foot per day (boats and ships are generally measured by the foot). For a small 33-foot sailboat, this would result in monthly charges of over US$3,000 per month – annual charges of US$36,000 – exceeding even the US$24,000 annual fees of Hong Kong’s costliest marina, Discovery Bay. The insider says the company recognizes that this is an untenable situation for Taiwan’s boating community but says the company’s hands are tied until the policy makers can come to a decision on upgrading the marina.
Boat owners face few options besides either paying the rising fees or simply selling off their boats. Utilizing fishing harbors is one option, but with fixed concrete docks that require constant management of the lines holding the boat in according with incoming and outgoing tides, not to mention contingents of rugged fishing boats with little regard for the safety of dainty yachts, these are not considered viable options. Private marinas exist as well, but here the prices are even more exorbitant.
The answer seems obvious: transform more of Taiwan’s already substantial fishing harbor infrastructure into full-service recreational craft marinas. Proponents of the move see a number of benefits. Most clearly, it could present a ready market for Taiwan’s dwindling yachting industry, which has been in the doldrums for the past decade in the face of steep competition from Chinese yacht makers. Also, it would meet the demand for space that is already apparent, as the waiting list for existing berths is long and growing. It would also allow Taiwan to transition away from its fishing industry, providing experienced captains, deckhands and maintenance crew with ready employment as global fisheries continue to decline. And with overcrowded marina conditions prevalent throughout East Asia, marina infrastructure would likely be readily snapped up by foreign vessels, adding significant sources of revenue to Taiwan’s lackluster economy.
Perhaps the best reason for promoting boating is “It’s fun!” says Carney. “When the boat gets going and starts to lean into the wind, it’s like a big toy. And besides, it looks pretty. Everybody likes to see a boat on the water.”