Charles Caudrelier knows more than most about what it takes to win the Volvo Ocean Race. As a crew member he tasted glory with Franck Cammas on board the Volvo Open 70, Groupama 4, when they won the 2011-12 edition and then two years ago he discovered what it was like to finish third when skippering Dongfeng.
Now Caudrelier is back and looking to capitalise on all that experience as he takes the helm of the Volvo Ocean 65, Dongfeng, for a second time at the beginning of a campaign to try and win the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race. At 42, Caudrelier is in his prime and he is relishing the chance to lead a new Chinese-sponsored team capable of competing at the front of the fleet over 45,000 nautical miles of racing.
Like last time this campaign is sponsored by Dongfeng, the Chinese truck and car manufacturer. The difference is that in 2014 Dongfeng Race Team was regarded as an underdog in the Volvo Ocean Race fleet whereas now Caudrelier and the team on the red and white boat from Sanya have the miles under their keel that inevitably make them among the favourites.
The Frenchman who hails from the famous Brittany sailing village of La Trinité-sur-Mer, is delighted to be representing China again – a country that has become his adoptive sailing home.
“For sure I am very happy because I have learnt about China and its people and I really enjoy working with them,” he said. “I am very happy to see Dongfeng Motor Corporation coming back and our Chinese sailors coming back for a second time. It is great for us to see a sponsor returning who feels happy about sailing and happy to get involved again.”
For sure I am very happy because I have learnt about China and its people and I really enjoy working with them.
Caudrelier does not worry about the favouritism tag. What he prefers to concentrate on is the benefit of all the experience gained from the previous campaigns. “Last time we were not the favourites because we had less experience than the others and we were a new team,” he says. “This time we are one of the first teams to get going and we have everything we need. We are in one of the best positions to do the best – for sure we are going to do everything to try and win even though we respect all our competitors and we know we will have some good teams against us.”
Alongside the value of experience, Caudrelier stresses the element of continuity in a team that is staffed by many of the same people as in 2014/15 both on the water and off it. On the shore side, the team will again be led by Bruno Dubois and Neil Graham will once again bring his huge depth of experience to bear as technical manager.
Caudrelier has already been assessing potential female crew members as Dongfeng Race Team looks to take advantage of the new opportunity for women to take part in the race under recently announced rule changes. “We had a very good spirit on the boat last time but the new crew will include some new sailors – it will be different and we will all have to get to know each other, but I will try to keep the same spirit as before,” comments Caudrelier.
So what would he say were the main lessons from the last campaign when Dongfeng stunned its rivals with its pace in the early legs, only for a dismasting in the Southern Ocean just before Cape Horn to put paid to hopes of an extraordinary overall victory at the first time of asking? Caudrelier says he realised that being a skipper in the Volvo Ocean Race is quite different from being a crew-member.
“I learnt that the race is very long – very, very long,” he says laughing. “Even if I knew it from my time on Groupama, now I know it as a skipper, which is not the same. I know that I have to be the guy who keeps the team together and keep everyone believing in our goal, especially during the final legs when everybody will be tired. My job in those key moments will be to be strong – stronger than everyone else to keep our team motivated.”
The mast break in the Southern Ocean has also left a scar. There was never a definitive explanation for the failure but Caudrelier has taken his own lesson from that heartbreak – looking after the boat will be an obsession. “This race can be very unfair sometimes and this is something we can never forget,” he says. “So I will take extra care of the boat even if we have not made a mistake or damaged gear – we have to be meticulous from start to finish.”
Caudrelier is looking forward to the longer time that this race will spend in the Southern Ocean than recent previous editions. It is an area of the globe he knows well and he understands what racing there will require from his team. “Yes, for sure I will also choose my crew for that,” he says.
In recent months he has been working on his inshore racing skills in one-design dinghy fleets. Although his CV includes victory in the coveted Solitaire du Figaro and numerous other race wins in the world’s leading offshore races, Caudrelier believes he can still improve on his inshore tactics and that this will come in handy in the in-port races in the Volvo Ocean Race.
The Frenchman is looking forward to sharing the story of this adventure with sailing fans from China and all over the world. “We want people to feel that they really can get to know us and share with us the tough times and the great moments,” he says. “We want to do well but we also want to engage with people and try to show them what racing at this level is really like and we are looking forward to meeting our supporters at every stopover.”
So what would it mean to him to win this race as a skipper? Caudrelier admits that for many years he dreamt only of winning the great solo ocean races but in the last few years the Volvo Ocean Race has become his focus. “It would make me very happy because the Volvo Ocean Race is one of the most difficult races to win because it is so long, so complex and so tough,” he says. “You have so much time with the boat, with the winds and the sea and with the people. This is the part of the race that I love – the human side – for me it is a real adventure, one of the last great adventures you can have in sailing.”