Published: Thursday, 06 November 2014

It was a close fight all the way to Volvo Ocean Race Leg 1 finish in Cape Town that saw the determined men of China’s Dongfeng Race Team cross the finish line in second place at 15:22:48 UTC on Wednesday, just 12 minutes and 4 seconds behind Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Wins Volvo Leg One 5

Dongfeng Race Team sails past Cape Town's Table Mountain to the finish.

“As a team we might not have much experience in the Volvo Ocean Race but my men know how to fight and they fight for every 1 per cent,” says Dongfeng Skipper Charles Caudrelier. “I have a great team around me and for leg 1 we are really happy. We were not the favourites, we knew this, but I also knew we could do great things. I chose men that could fight.”

In particular, the Dongfeng team includes a lot of solo sailors who are used to fighting for every metre in the very tough Figaro event in France – also a One Design class like the Volvo Ocean 65 – and are used to doing many different jobs on board. A key factor in the crew selection to build a team that could support and train the Chinese sailors in the best way possible.

“You know for the Chinese guys it’s been the toughest race,” says Caudrelier. “They have never done proper offshore racing before; we all work together and without them we wouldn’t be here – it’s awesome what they’ve done. I’m proud of them and they can be proud of themselves; they are ready to help no matter what – they’re two fantastic guys.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Wins Volvo Leg One 3

“There is for sure a bit of frustration right at the finish, we thought we could come back. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing has done a fantastic race and deserve this. We were not the favourite but we have a story to tell with the Chinese sailors and so if we can do both – teach them and have a good result – we are very proud of that. It has been a fight – I think the race is going to be very, very hard!

“It’s only the first leg and there are nine more to go. And we will have to start again with other Chinese guys on board in the next legs – this is a key part of this project that we have embraced. But I am really happy we started like this and I feel we deserve it. It was not always easy in the build up to the start travelling from China to Europe then to the USA but it was necessary and the Chinese guys have been though a lot of training and they deserve this.

“We have no regrets – we had a few problems and we carried on, I’m proud of my men.”

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Wins Volvo Leg One 1

Emotional and jubilant scenes erupted on the dockside of the Race Village in Cape Town as the crowds of family, friends and public welcomed the boats. For Chinese sailors Jiru Yang (Wolf) and Chen Jinhao (Horace), it was their first Volvo Ocean Race leg.

“Although we had something unexpected happening during the leg, we managed to work it out instead of panicking,” says Wolf. “I think we all did a really good job in the past 25 days, and great teamwork for sure. I’m really proud to be one of the Chinese sailors on board for the first leg and really proud to be a family member of this team.”

Before the start of Leg 1, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing was the favourite to win and Ian Walker’s crew proved themselves worthy of this status, rarely dropping out of the top spots. For Dongfeng, the expectations were different – ‘underdogs’ and ‘wild card’ were terms used by some, but this team had a quiet confidence, preferring their performance on the racecourse to do the talking.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Wins Volvo Leg One 2

Abu Dhabi Skipper Ian Walker greets Dongfeng Skipper Charles Caudrelier in Cape Town.

They have overcome breakages and challenges and tough relentless competition from more experienced Volvo Ocean Race teams, and in doing so have demonstrated amazing seamanship, rapid practical repair skills, tactical know-how and the ability to sail the boat fast particularly off the wind (i.e. wind from behind). To that end, they have proved themselves to be contenders.

“I am a proud and relieved man today,” says Dongfeng Race Team Project Director Bruno Dubois. “The guys have done an incredible job on this first leg supported by our great partners – Dongfeng Trucks who bought us ‘east wind’, Aeolus Tyres who were the ‘guardian of the wind’ and the City of Shiyan!”

The team is backed principally by Chinese sponsors – Dongfeng Trucks (Title Partner), Dongfeng meaning ‘east wind’, Aeolus Tyres, Aeolus meaning ‘Guardian of the wind’ and the City of Shiyan (Platinum Partners). Zhang Qian, from Dongfeng Commercial Vehicles and Project Director of this Volvo Ocean Race campaign sent this message to the team: “Since the moment you set sail from Alicante, Spain, my heart has been sailing with you. Dongfeng arrived in Cape Town tenaciously, dealing with challenging conditions. Congratulations on your performance.”

It was only a year ago that Wolf and Horace dreamed of joining the crew of Dongfeng, going through the tough selection trials and then 10 months of rigorous training. A dream is one thing, the reality another.

“It’s not exactly what I imagined it would be,” says Horace. “I watched videos and, yes, I trained but realistically life on board was not at the forefront of my mind and actually it’s the most difficult part, living on board is so hard. I saw that you had to fight the waves and Mother Nature, but I didn’t realise you had to fight for survival on board every day.”

The new Volvo Ocean 65 One Design class – same hull, mast, sails, etc – made this race closer than anyone could have imagined before the start. Dongfeng nosed into the lead five days out from Alicante and the sparring with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing began. On the October 18th (a week into the race) Dongfeng broke a rudder in a collision with an unidentified object. Almost stationary for two hours while they replaced the broken rudder in pitch darkness with the spare one, 12 hours later they retook the lead.

Abu Dhabi regained the advantage after passing the Cape Verde Island, and at the Equator Dongfeng had dropped to fourth place after crossing the Doldrums. As the fleet pushed south to get to the Roaring 40s and the stronger breeze, Dongfeng slowly reeled in the leaders and as the boats pointed their bows to the east (and Cape Town) five days ago, Dongfeng Race Team was back in second. They pushed hard – clocking up the best 24-hour run of the race to date at 541nm on the November 3rd – but Abu Dhabi held them off.

Two days ago, Dongfeng had to deal with more damage when the pad eye holding the sheet block for the control lines for the biggest sails broke suddenly, with the released loads wiping out the pushpit, stanchions and part of the starboard wheel. In half an hour, they were back up to speed as they continued to make repairs, moving along at 20-25 knots but Abu Dhabi held on to the slender lead, covering Dongfeng’s every attempt to pass in the final phase of the leg.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Wins Volvo Leg One 4

Charles Caudrelier, Pascal Bidegorry, Chen Jinhao (Horace), Kevin Escoffier, Thomas Rouxel, Jiru Yang (Wolf), Martin Stromberg, Eric Peron and OnBoard Reporter, Yann Riou, can be very proud men today.

(Photos: Ainhoa Sanchez/ Volvo Ocean Race)