China’s top Paralympic sailor Xu Jingkun has entered the history books as his nation's first competitor in the solo transatlantic race Route Du Rhum.
Xu, 33, who lost his left forearm aged 12, will race against the elements, the clock and 137 sailors from 14 countries on the 6,562 kilometre (3,543 nautical mile) journey, crossing the Atlantic between Saint-Malo in Brittany, France and Pointe-à-Pitre on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
First held in 1978, this year's race started on Wednesday, 9 November.
Sailing on his 60-foot IMOCA, 'China Dream–Haikou’ – named after the port city and capital of China’s island province Hainan – Xu is documenting his journey on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok alongside micro-blogging network Weibo and WeChat, to raise awareness of opportunities in sailing for people with disabilities.
Xu is one of 17 first-timers in this race – and will be joined on the start line by Damien Seguin, France’s triple Paralympic medallist who last year became the first Para sailor to compete in the Vendée Globe, a round-the-world, solo, non-stop yacht race.
LA28 and global Para sailing “for all”
The Chinese athlete is steadfast in his support of World Sailing’s #BacktheBid campaign for sailing to be reinstated in the Los Angeles 2028 Paralympic Games.
“As a Paralympian, with direct experience of having to prove people wrong on disability, I am showing that sailing is the ultimate adventure, and a massive opportunity to mentally refresh, focus and challenge yourself as well as those who may underestimate you,” he said.
“We can have dreams and accomplish them. We also have the right to own our dreams and find the capability to make them come true.
“I am proof that sailing can be for absolutely everyone – ordinary people like me and with a disability.”
Unique Para sailing story
Born in the hills above Qingdao in a farming family, Xu was told after his accident to give up on the idea of following in the footsteps of generations of his family – so he threw himself into sports.
His sailing breakthrough came after he caught the attention of the Chinese Paralympic Team in the countdown to the Beijing 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games. He was given the choice between running, cycling and sailing.
After discovering sailing images online, Xu became fascinated and went on to compete in the Sonar class at Beijing 2008.
As a proud Paralympian, spurred on by a Games that broke several records at the time – including 1.9 million tickets sold – he took inspiration from key figures in global sailing, in particular Ellen MacArthur, who in 2015, aged just 24, broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe on her first attempt.
Chasing the dream
Xu’s dream to tackle the world’s most difficult sailing challenges started to become a reality when he recovered a 24-foot yacht from a ship graveyard in 2009.
After nine long months of restoration, he competed extensively in the China Sea.
In 2015, he completed his first solo transatlantic yacht race, the Mini Transat, on the standard 21 ft/6.50m class boat.
Xu then set off on a journey of a lifetime in 2018, taking three years to sail around the world, setting a Chinese record of 34,000 nautical miles and visiting over 40 countries.
“I had imagined the day when I would finish this voyage a million times before,” he told China’s largest newspaper group, The People’s Daily, on his return in the summer of 2020.
“Over the years, I’ve thought about my lost arm so many times, wondering what on earth I have lost because of that arm.
“As it turns out, I’ve lost nothing. It was exactly because of the missing arm that I had the opportunity to break into sailing.”
With Xu’s latest record-breaking adventure just underway, another one is already on the horizon.
The two-year countdown is on to the Vendée Globe 2024, the non-stop, solo, round-the-world yacht race considered to be the most extreme quest of individual endurance and the ultimate test in ocean racing.
When he completes the Route Du Rhum, Xu will cross back over the Atlantic solo to his Port-la-Forêt base in Brittany with valuable experience and ideas for potential boat adaptations to help “offset the loss of his forearm” for the next epic journey.
“I just haven’t had time,” Xu explained in an interview with global sailing expert and The Times’ sailing correspondent Ed Gorman for the IMOCA class. “Instead of adapting the boat, I will adapt myself. I am changing the way I do things to fit this boat.”
And as expected, Xu – known as ‘Captain Jacky’ in global sailing circles – is undeterred. He is calm, collected and has a plan.
“This is the beginning – my objective now is to clearly know my boat," he told the Vendée Globe 2024 news team. “On my way back over the Atlantic, I will have the perfect opportunity to think clearly about the necessary adaptations heading into the Vendée.”