There have been close finishes in previous races, but this was an extraordinary one with four boats fighting in sight of each other on the final day, after 20 days of hard fought battles all the way from China.
Dongfeng crossed the finish line in 3rd place behind MAPFRE in first and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in 2nd, just 8 minutes separating these three boats which also means there have been four different leg winners so far in this race.
We realise third is our worst position so far in the Volvo Ocean Race but actually, crossing the finish line in Auckland after 20 days, 2 hours and 39 minutes, means more to our team than most people realise.
A leap in time back to one year ago would show you Charles Caudrelier desperately trying to train his Chinese sailors to adapt to life offshore during a ‘training leg’ from Sanya to Auckland. They were seasick, they struggled, and they really didn’t enjoy it. In fact, the team turned back to Sanya after 10 days and never made it to Auckland. Unfinished business.
Now, we fast-forward one year. If you had told Charles that he would be sailing into Auckland in 3rd place after the 6,000 mile leg from Sanya he wouldn’t have believed you. In fact, he might have even questioned if his team would even make it to Auckland.
“I’m a bit sad, for sure. We were last at one moment in the race and we came back, but I think we could have won this leg,” said Charles Caudrelier. It was a roller coaster leg for the Chinese team – suffering damage and in last place 10 days ago at Chinese New year, the team bounced back to lead 48 hours later and in the final few days to the finish in Auckland, the weather gods were against them. “All the clouds were against Dongfeng – every time we were leading a big cloud came along and stopped us. We could have passed MAPFRE last night – we stayed too much to the shore and we should have gone offshore. We did some mistakes so a bit disappointed but we did a good job too.”
The strength of Dongfeng Race Team lies in that very word – team… “The guys are very strong and never give up. I had some bad moments and Erwan did a fantastic job to push the guys. He was fresh and helped us in hard moments. We are tired and I feel a bit frustrated but we showed we are strong, we are fast and I feel more and more strong about our speed, and very confident for the next leg.”
“This leg was just like the first leg where all these things happen that are out of our control and we were sad but we cheered up fast and fixed the boat and tried to come back in to the race” added Wolf
After the triple successes of winning leg 3 to Sanya, taking the In-Port trophy there, and then leading the fleet out of Sanya on leg 4 and staying in front all the way to the Philippines, a bit of a fall from the stars was inevitable perhaps.
“Erwan had a very hard job and it was not easy to come on board for one leg, but he’s very strong in his mind and maybe if I had listened to him more we would have done better. For example, he wanted to go north, but I wanted to stay with the fleet which was a mistake. He is a fantastic navigator and it was not an easy job. Pascal is coming back for the next leg – he will be fresh and full of energy and we will be strong in next leg,” concluded Charles.
During this leg for the first time since the Volvo Ocean Race began four months ago, Dongfeng Race Team found themselves well and truly at the back of the fleet very much in last place on Day 10. In a video sent back from the boat we saw the usually calm Charles Caudrelier, smash the helm in uncontrollable anger as the mast track pulled away from the mast – a technical problem beyond his control. Charles explained: “I am frustrated. The consequences have been disastrous for us. These mistakes have cost us a lot of miles and since the breakages it’s been hard to get back into our rhythm. We are handicapped but we have no choice but to live with it until Auckland.”
Being at the back of the fleet, the team experienced a lull in morale that was new to them and their famous Dongfeng spirit. It meant some soul-searching and then digging deep and fighting back in a way that they had never had to before. They did it in true Dongfeng style, going from last to first in just 48 hours, taking back over 100 miles in the process.
“To be in the lead after all the hard knocks we’ve taken on this leg is without doubt one of my, and the team’s, proudest moments since the start of this race.” Charles e-mailed after the position report came through on Day 17. “We’ve had really hard moments, phases of total exhaustion, and moments of real frustration and anger, but onboard there is always someone ready to re-motivate the others, someone with a positive outlook. I am so lucky to be surrounded by a magic team. At the start of this race I was really feeling the pressure. The crew selection is the key to success on this race. You don’t need the best sailors, you need the best team – it’s not the same thing.”
We might not have come first in the end but that’s okay because we had unfinished business on this leg. Naturally anything other than first place is frustrating for such highly competitive personalities but the truth is this leg has been the toughest one yet and we’re proud to be crossing that finish line that seemed so far away this time last year.
This result leaves Dongfeng on equal points at the top of the overall leader board with Ian Walker’s Emirati boat holding the advantage on countback as they hold a higher ranking on the in-port leader board – definitely not expected by anyone one year ago on the way to Auckland with a rookie crew.