For the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15, the Dongfeng Race Team competed with dual objectives. They sought to be competitive, and to do so by including multiple Chinese sailors in the race crew. Finishing third, with the threat for better prior to their dismasting, the team succeeded in setting the groundwork for future campaigns. Here French skipper Charles Caudrelier shares his insight on the experience…
Skippering Dongfeng Race Team was my first experience as a leader in a big project. In the past I was very close to Franck Cammas in the Groupama Sailing Team for example, but most of the time I have sailed double-handed, or single-handed, so this was quite different.
As skipper with Dongfeng Race Team I learnt about the pressure on the leader. But I also took on the challenge of what was really interesting about this project – the attempt to cross cultures and create a team from both East and West.
We thought we knew the Chinese when we started but when the campaign got underway everything was new. We had to understand the culture and the way China and Chinese people think and work and communications were not easy because of the language barrier.
I have no regrets about taking this on because I have learnt about China and the Chinese people in a way I could never have done before. This campaign has opened my mind – it has been a huge window on the world and on China and that has been fantastic to experience. Trying to manage a project like that was a unique experience of life for me, as well as something invaluable for my career.
I hope that Dongfeng Race Team is going to continue in the future but we all know that we are not going to grow the offshore sailing and racing community in China with just one Volvo Ocean Race – it will take years and years. The most important thing, though, is for it to continue.
With our strong overall result in this race, the good team spirit we created, and by winning the leg into China and then winning again into Newport, we made the Chinese people proud of us. And when people are proud of someone or something, they talk about them and everybody was talking about us. So I don’t think we could have done much better on that score.
The Chinese like to win – that is the most important thing – and we became a Chinese team because we won some legs. If we had always come last I don’t think they would have taken us to their hearts as a Chinese team in the way that they did. So I think the Dongfeng project has been a success, but it is only a first step and there are hundreds of steps to go.
Finishing on the podium in third place overall would have been a dream for me at the start and it was an excellent result, there is no doubt. But I can’t hide a certain disappointment because I knew that – despite our tag as the underdogs – we actually had a chance to win the race. We were always first or second until the last three legs when our performance dropped. As a skipper and as a leader I can’t help but think that I failed a little bit in my job because I think we had a good team and I made some mistakes and we could have done even better.
For sure we had our difficulties, not least breaking the mast in the Southern Ocean, and we dealt with many other problems that took a lot of energy to solve. But I think we really lost the race on the leg to Lisbon from Newport where we were ahead, and in a very good position to win the leg, and we didn’t manage to achieve that.
After that it was another story. On the next leg to Lorient we changed our way of sailing, trying to defend second or third place overall, instead of attacking like we were doing before. I think that was wrong and we paid for it.
This is obviously my own point of view. I am a competitive sailor and I like to win. People on the outside say we achieved a fantastic result to be third overall and on the podium and that is true, but we were on the inside and we know that sometimes we missed a little bit of courage at key moments.
It was an amazing race and a very close fight with the other boats right around the world but there is always a gulf between being able to win and actually winning. You need to be strong at all times no matter what happens and that is why Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (ADOR) won because they never failed. I think Ian Walker deserved this victory. He had completed two previous Volvos that were extremely difficult and yet he was still there trying to win. I admire that quality in a person – when they want something they work hard and stay focussed – and he did that.
We were not the favourites, we were a special team with our own mission, and maybe we were a little more tired than the others because of the mast break which required huge energy to recover from. But, for sure, our performance in this race was pretty good – we were the only boat to really fight for first place against ADOR and we can be proud of that.
I think the high point for me was perhaps not winning the leg into Sanya – although that was an amazing feeling and something up until then that we could only dream about achieving – but winning the leg to Newport from Brazil where we came back from the mastbreak. It was a massive challenge for our whole team – sailors, shore team and management – and we pulled it off with a great win against ADOR in the closing stages of the leg.
This race was very different from the previous Volvos because it was in one-design yachts and it felt to me like a bigger, round-the-world version of the Solitaire du Figaro. For 90% of the time we were in visual contact with other boats. It has become a really a big, long game and in terms of stress it is difficult because it is unrelenting – you are always trying to be 0.1 of a knot faster than the next boat. That is tiring and everybody becomes more exhausted. The boats are easier to handle than before but the crews are smaller so that aspect of the challenge is just as hard.
Despite it all, I would love to do the race again. I would like to win it. I enjoyed working with Dongfeng but the Volvo takes you away from your family for long periods so I can’t take a decision about doing another race on my own.
Charles Caudrelier runs his rule over his sailing team…and the manager:
Pascal Bidégorry, navigator – French
I don’t know if I would have managed to do so well without him. In terms of navigation he was really good and made some excellent decisions. Everybody said we had a faster boat – I don’t say that. I say ‘we had Pascal Bidégorry on board’
Kevin Escoffier, bow – French
Kevin brought knowledge, energy, positive spirit and great driving to Dongfeng – without
Kevin the race would have been very different. He was one of our best choices
Martin Strömberg, pit/trmmer – Swedish
A great coach for the Chinese crew and link with them when I was stressed, Martin brought huge experience to the boat and he did a fantastic job, especially co-ordinating manoeuvres
Thomas Rouxel, crew – French
One of the best drivers and trimmers around, you wouldn’t notice him until he wasn’t there. He is my friend and I am happy we did the race together
Eric Peron, crew – French
Great with the media and great with the Chinese crew, Eric did a good job as bowman, driver and trimmer. Like the others Eric never complained and was always positive
Chen Jinhao (Horace), bow – Chinese
The best rookie in the race. His improvement, energy and motivation is huge. He could be the first Chinese skipper in the Volvo
Yang Jiru (Wolf), crew – Chinese
Competitive and hugely motivated, Wolf conquered his fears to race and he was all the stronger mentally for it. I am not sure he is made for sailing but he knows how to fight
Liu Xue (Black), crew – Chinese
A really impressive sailor who learnt very quickly, he has huge potential. Like Wolf he may prefer to race inshore in the future
Cheng Ying Kit (Kit), trimmer – Chinese
The “father” of the Chinese crew, Kit can do everything. My guess is he will become the first Chinese navigator in the Volvo Ocean Race
Liu Ming (Leo), trimmer – Chinese
One of the most motivated individuals in the team and a nice guy, Leo wanted to sail but proved an invaluable member of the Dongfeng shore team
Kong Chengcheng (Kong), crew – Chinese
An Olympic sailor and a great guy, Kong wanted to be part of the team and made a big contribution on shore. Again his future might be more inshore than offshore
Bruno Dubois, team director – French
Bruno was the leader of the spirit of our team, and he did a fantastic job. We were like football players. All we had to do was kick the ball and he was the manager who dealt with all the other problems. He did a really good job of freeing my mind to concentrate purely on the sailing, so he made it easy for me.