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Chinese boating extraordinaire sets sail to mark claim over disputed islands

Earlier this month, China's pioneering sailor Zhai Mo once again turned heads, making headlines with yet another one of his adventurous excursions out to sea. But unlike his past travels, this one was different and carried a strong political message: the Diaoyu Islands belong to China. 

With his sailboat Jiangtaigong, the 45-year-old painter-cum-sailor and his crew of nine men dared to edge within just three nautical miles of the hotly contested Diaoyu Islands on August 3, scattering 100 banners depicting national flags in the area's waters. Accompanied by the China Coast Guard, it was a calculated move intended to claim China's stake in the islands.

"Even though we were just a few people on a sailboat, we voiced our opinions to the people of Japan and other countries," Zhai told the Global Times. "We got there and we claimed our sovereignty, which is the most important thing."

Inspiring the nation as "the first Chinese person to sail around the world on his own" after covering 36,000 nautical miles from 2007 to 2009, Zhai said that despite the cast-iron political rhetoric embedded in his latest outing to the sea, the trip should not be misunderstood as a movement to "defend the islands."

"It was rather more of a free and personal voyage," he said. "A Chinese man who sails for sport can't make that much trouble. This approach to maintaining sovereignty is a lot more peaceful."

Analysts say that a peaceful approach may just be what is needed as the territorial dispute has forced the two East Asian powerhouses into a tense relationship. 

The troubled situation could do with some cool and calm, precisely what Zhai has tried to inject, said Liu Dianfang, deputy director and secretary-general of Xiamen Yachting Industry Association.

"He acted moderately, and this reflects positively on Chinese people in showing that we are now taking rational measures to maintain our sovereignty," he told the Global Times. 

Strong intentions  

Shandong Province-born Zhai said that he first came up with the idea to sail to the islands in 2009, after he single-handedly circumnavigated the globe. Drawing from ancient military strategist Sun Tzu's Art of War, he said that now was the perfect time and condition to launch the 50-hour voyage from his home province, making his way through the Yellow Sea and East China Sea before arriving at the islands.

Despite an injury during the journey, if it were not for the bandage fastened around his left hand, Zhai would not have remembered the pain when he was welcomed back in Xiamen, Fujian Province. He told local media that he "strongly felt that he was home" as his boat approached the shores.

His sailboat was renamed after Jiang Taigong (1156-1017BC) before he set off for the islands.

Known in almost every Chinese household, Jiang is a legendary figure who inspired the ancient saying that goes: Jiang Taigong has gone fishing, whoever is willing will bite the hook. 

In his day, Jiang was a great politician and strategist who assisted King Wen in defeating dictator-like King Zhou, the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046BC).

Diaoyu in Chinese means "fishing" - so everyone knows what Zhai's intentions are with the naming of his boat.

Zhai said that he, too, has dreams for people at home. He wants Chinese people to literally broaden their horizon by learning more about navigation, which he believes will help them see the world in a bigger way.

"It's a very practical subject. There are many navigation schools elsewhere, take Portugal for instance, but not in China," he said. "That doesn't bode well for the country's ambition to become powerful at sea."

"As long as China is powerful at sea, we'll be able to show others that we are a strong country," he added. 

A free spirit

Setting politics aside, the hulking artist with long locks and broad athletic shoulders has managed to appeal to the public as a free spirit dedicated to developing the sport of sailing in China through a number of highly publicized adventures. 

The trips have led to sponsorships from Chinese enterprises, which help fund the finances needed for his journeys out to sea. He also supports his passion by providing sailing lessons and selling paintings that he works on whenever he finds spare time.

Well-known for spending his 300,000 yuan ($48,991) savings on his boat after that fortuitous day he met an intriguing Norwegian sailor on a trip to New Zealand for an art show exhibiting his pieces back in 2000, Zhai admits that he "often acts first, then thinks later."

It is perhaps why his girlfriend at the time grew tired of waiting for him to return from his two-year journey. 

Still, it is the freedom of the sport that Zhai loves and hopes that more of his compatriots can also experience out at sea. 

"Boats allow for the freest form of transportation," he said. "You're not restricted in the way that you are when you travel by vehicle or airplane," he said. "When I sail I can go anywhere I want and I don't need to worry about visa hassles (since ports only require you go through simple customs formalities)."

As for Zhai, who has overcome his share of hurdles out at sea - being tracked by sharks, chased by pirates and even caught by armed forces of a US base in the Indian Ocean in 2008, who suspected him as a spy - he said none of the scares would slow him down. 

Though Zhai has not yet said where he plans to sail next, it is likely to be a trip packed with adventure and one that will draw a bit of attention.

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