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Oct 28, 2016

The disappearance of a prominent Chinese professional sailor at sea has prompted pondering among the nation’s small but growing number of proponents of the sport.

Guo Chuan, 50, was last heard from on Tuesday. He is thought to have fallen overboard in high seas during his effort to set a new solo nonstop trans-Pacific world record by sailing from San Francisco to Shanghai aboard the Qingdao China, a 29-meter-long trimaran.

Xie Baiyi, 62, a senior consultant for the Chinese Yachting Association and himself one of the trailblazers of professional sailing in China, is hopeful that Guo will still be found.

“All of the people in the sport still hope a miracle will appear,” Xie told Sixth Tone. “We still need to wait.”

Guo’s list of firsts is long. The pioneer of Chinese sailing was the first-ever Chinese competitor to sail around the world in the 2008-2009 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race, one of the world’s leading professional offshore sailing competitions.

In 2013, he became the first Chinese man to complete a solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the globe. In 2015, he led a crew to set a world record with a 13-day sail across the Northeast Passage through the Arctic Ocean from Murmansk, northwest Russia, to the Bering Strait in the country’s far east.

Guo set sail from the U.S. West Coast on Oct. 19 and planned to complete the voyage to Shanghai by early November. On Tuesday, Guo’s shore team said they had lost contact with the boat. Guo’s trimaran is equipped with an automatic identification system that located the boat some 1,000 kilometers off the coast of Hawaii.

The U.S. Coast Guard called off its search for Guo on Wednesday evening after a Navy team found no sign of the sailor onboard the Qingdao China, but did find his life vest.

On Friday, Guo’s team said in a statement that they are currently contacting merchant vessels in the area that might be able to refuel rescue helicopters engaged in the search. The remoteness of the location — situated away from conventional sailing channels and fishing zones — has rendered the search process difficult, the statement added.

Xie first met Guo more than a decade ago when Guo had just started his professional sailing career. The two quickly became friends. They last saw each other around a year ago.

Now, Xie expresses confusion as to how Guo could have fallen overboard, and said that if he has indeed died, then the world of sailing in China has lost an important role model.

“Everybody is asking how this could happen despite such good equipment onboard,” said Xie. “I’m bewildered he hasn’t been found yet.”

Compared with other sports, Chinese government investment in sailing has remained relatively low. China has only twice won Olympic medals in sailing, when Xu Lijia won bronze in the women’s Laser Radial event during the 2008 Beijing Games and gold in the same event in 2012.

A lack of government support illuminates the necessity of commercial sponsorship if the sport is to thrive in China, said Xie. He has not seen any other Chinese professional sailor who can match Guo in terms of his ability to promote the sport and attract sponsorship.

For now, China’s sailing community just wants Guo back. “We don’t think he is gone,” Xie said. “Anything is possible at sea.”

(Header image: Chinese sailor Guo Chuan gives a thumbs-up in greeting as he returns to China after completing the Arctic Ocean World Record challenge, Qingdao, Shandong province, Sept. 27, 2015. Wang Haibin/IC)