TAKING ON THE SOUTHERN OCEAN
As the Dongfeng team re-assembled in Auckland, there were two things on the mind of their skipper, Charles Caudrelier, and neither of them was a preoccupation with trying to win the leg. The Frenchman was worried about the safety of his sailors and about trying to get his boat past Cape Horn in one piece.
Everyone was raring to go on a 6,776-mile leg that would taken them from New Zealand to Brazil, but the start was delayed because of the weather. Tropical Cyclone “Pam” had been causing death and destruction in the south Pacific and was heading for the seaway the boats would be using as they struck out from Auckland.
So three days late, on March 18th, 2015, the time finally came for goodbyes on the dockside. Back on the water, the Dongfeng crew quickly got into their stride, briefly leading into the Hauraki Gulf. By the second day all the crews were in the roughest weather of the race so far. They had caught up with Pam’s coat tails.
In the light winds behind Pam, a day later, they were going upwind on a smooth sea. Dongfeng seemed to be sluggish and her crew were puzzled by the lack of boat speed as they dropped to sixth and last place. For two more days Dongfeng duelled at the back of the bunch. Out in front, Team Brunel was 60 miles closer to Cape Horn as the Chinese boat followed the leaders into the Roaring Forties.
The big weather hit on day six and it caused chaos in the fleet. A black night in 30 knots of shifty and gusting wind, with big, breaking seas, posed a lethal combination. The danger was that the boats could lurch to windward causing an uncontrolled “Chinese” gybe. This is exactly what happened on Dongfeng, Team SCA and Mapfre. On Dongfeng it took the team three hours to release everything and get going again. They were back in last position by the end of the night.
But in the next few days the crew began to find their stride, pushing the boat along at up to 20 knots before increasingly strong winds. There were long clear spells when the Farr-designed thoroughbred surfed on great sweeps of rolling ocean. But these were punctuated by vicious squalls when the crew worked hard reefing in bitterly cold rain.
After 12 days at sea Cape Horn was in their sights, 300 miles further east. They all knew it was going to be a hell of a ride to get past it with predicted winds of 40-50 knots. At this point Caudrelier had started to back off a little. Getting to the finish was the most important thing; winning the leg could wait.
Then in the early hours of their 13th night at sea, there was a loud “CRACK!” The mast had suffered a breakage over the top of the third spreader and the broken section was hanging off it like parts of a demented puppet.
In an instant the brave men on Dongfeng had gone from racing to nursing a broken machine. It was a bitter blow. The crew began sailing under headsail towards the Argentinian port of Ushuaia, 250 miles east of their position. “It’s really hard for everyone,” said Caudrelier. “We were leading the race overall and this is a kick in the teeth.”
Reluctantly the team decided to abandon the leg. With Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing going on to win the stage, Dongfeng was now in second place but seven points adrift.
DISMASTING: LIU XUE’S (BLACK) TAKE ON A HEART-WRENCHING MOMENT
“I thought a lot when the accident happened. What I wanted to do most was to let my family to know that I was safe. As the race went on there was more and more media coverage and my family started to know more about this leg and my mum was concerned about my safety.
“I was sleeping below when the accident happened. I was shocked when I came on the deck. I had the feeling all the time that this was like a movie. The ‘scenes’ of this leg are been played quickly in my brain. I’m not reconciled at all – the team worked closely and we fought so hard. And it’s all gone in no time. Nothing left. We were only 240 miles and 10 hours away from realising the dream. “In this short 10 minutes, my dream has been crushed. We’ve been through so many suffering days before, we fought so hard just for this.
“Our skipper is surprisingly calm this time. He’s too calm. We don’t even have the feeling that he’s just been through such frustration. Probably it’s because he has his old mates Pascal, Damian and Martin onboard, and their presence gives him energy. The presence of Damian is the key to solving this problem. Because he’s there, we were not in a panic. His makes us feel confident.”