Exceeding expectations

Text by Agathe Armand
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Exceeding expectations Text by Agathe Armand
 
I remember sitting down with Charles Caudrelier last summer, shortly after they sailed Leg 0 in Alicante.

Arms crossed, a French frown on his face, Dongfeng Race Team’s skipper had just had a rough time sailing this practice race, his team’s first real confrontation with the fleet.

They’d lost a sail overboard… and, more seriously, one of the two Chinese rookies almost followed it in the water.

“This is not your average Volvo Ocean Race campaign and every single crew member I have chosen knows that,” he said.

There was no doubt that Dongfeng’s mission to bring sailing to China was going to be a challenge – and he admitted that there were some difficulties it caused in terms of performance.

“It doesn’t make us any less confident but what it does mean is that our team will have to go the extra mile.”

Going the extra mile. That’s what he called it.

I also remember standing on a rib in Sanya, the team’s Chinese home port, six months later.

Charles and his men crossed the Leg 3 finish line in first place. They made history as the first Chinese team to win a leg of the Volvo Ocean Race in its 42-year history.

I remember the pride on Charles’ face and on every one of his French and Chinese sailors – Swedish crew member Martin Strömberg was onshore for that leg.

I remember the hugs, and the look on Black’s face. One of the Chinese sailors of the team’s squad, the 21-year old was new to sailing.

Imagine – his mum would remind him “to fasten the seat belt all the time at sea.”

And here he was, a professional offshore athlete coming home in first place of the world’s toughest ocean race.

“One year ago we were here and we were discovering the Chinese sailors who were rookies and now they’ve won the leg - it’s just fantastic,” smiled Charles.

“Maybe it’s the first time in offshore sailing something like this has happened - in just one year these guys have become great sailors.

“I am so proud, this is everything I wanted but I didn’t dare to think about. It’s a team job and you cannot win a leg without a strong team.”

Second in the first two legs, first into China, Dongfeng went on to take third into Auckland and were quickly becoming legitimate challengers for the trophy.

And then, the Southern Ocean. It’s known as the most extreme area of the planet for a reason – and Dongfeng found out about its might the hard way, breaking their mast approaching Cape Horn.

Forced to abandon the leg, they sailed to Ushuaia under jury rig. The boat was then to be delivered to Itajaí, just in time for the new mast to be stepped in before the start of the next leg to Newport.

It was a crushing moment for the French skipper, who saw his team awarded eight points for not finishing that leg. It meant that Ian Walker’s Emirati crew gained a massive advantage in the race for the trophy.

But if there’s one thing that Caudrelier and his men have proved this edition, it’s that they’re determined, and they never say die.

The next leg, into the United States, they won. It was an epic finish – the red boat coming in just three minutes and 25 seconds ahead of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing after a battle into Narrangassett Bay.

“I think the high point for me was perhaps not winning the leg into Sanya, but winning the leg to Newport from Brazil where we came back from the mastbreak,” explained Charles.

“It was a massive challenge for our whole team – sailors, shore team and management – and we pulled it off with a great win against Abu Dhabi in the closing stages of the leg.”

But despite the ecstasy of that finish, it wasn’t going to get any easier for Dongfeng.

The remaining legs of the race were more struggle – a fourth place into Lisbon after being overtaken by Team Alvimedica only metres from the line, a point docked by the Jury for sailing an incorrect course through a Traffic Separation Scheme off the American coast, a disappointing seventh place into Lorient, their European home port, and a final fourth place into Gothenburg.

But for all the disappointment it caused them, the Dongfeng men should not underestimate their achievement.

They took third on the overall podium, finishing behind Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Team Brunel – and they also captured the hearts of fans all around the world.

“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 mastbreak which required huge energy to recover from,” confessed Charles in Sweden, as the race came to an end.

He sounded frustrated, he sounded exhausted – because he knew they could have won.

But most of all, he sounded proud. Proud to have performed beyond expectations, proud to have made it around the world with a group of friends and sailing novices who proved you could be culturally mixed, unknown to the race, and still excel.

“A year ago I never would have believed this possible. I have lived the most incredible human story with this team and I am so proud of the progress of the Chinese sailors.

“It was challenging but it was worth every second.”