Managing expectations was high on Charles Caudrelier’s mind when the Dongfeng Race Team skipper prepared to set sail on leg four –another hugely challenging stage from Sanya to Auckland, New Zealand’s fabled “City of Sails.
“Coming second twice in a row and then finishing in first place into our home port of Sanya was a better result than we could have ever expected,” reflected Caudrelier. “The problem now is that we’re under more pressure than ever to keep our position.”
There had been significant crew changes at each of the two previous stopover ports but now came the most ambitious. Pascal Bidégorry would be replaced for this leg by the experienced French offshore navigator Erwan Israel.
The opening phase of the 5,264-mile stage to New Zealand promised a potentially boat-breaking upwind thrash across the South China Sea to the northern tip of the Philippines.
The rough ride to the Luzon Strait saw the fleet tightly bunched once again with Dongfeng taking an early lead. An early casualty was Wolf who got thrown off the pedestal grinder in the cockpit three times by big waves hammering down the boat.
All the navigators knew there was an option to split from the fleet once past the tip of the Philippines and sail northeast to get into fresher breeze further off the coast. This time the Dongfeng skipper and his stand-in navigator were caught in two minds but decided to stay with the others as Team Brunel and Team SCA tacked away.
In the next few days the two northerly boats began surfing at 2-3 knots faster than the group to the south and their lead inexorably built as they were catapulted to the front of the fleet. On Dongfeng the pressure to stay in the tight southerly group was intense as the yachts headed southeast. But things were not going the Chinese boat’s way. This time the halyard system failed that holds up the biggest headsail, the J1, disconnecting the huge sail from the top of the rig.
This proved to be the beginning of a miserable time over the Chinese New Year on Dongfeng as Brunel raced to a lead of over 100nm and Caudrelier’s men slipped back to last place. The halyard failure was followed three days later by a third bout of mast track delamination. “The consequences have been disastrous for us,” Caudrelier fumed.
The Dongfeng skipper recovered his mood as the boat gradually began catching Team SCA and Mapfre as the fleet entered the Doldrums. Dongfeng’s easterly position proved a good option as the Doldrums gave way to a strong northwesterly flow while Brunel’s lead steadily evaporated.
Having been last and wounded, the Chinese yacht was once again leading and the dream of a leg win into Auckland was on. With just 500nm to go, the fleet was spread over only 52nm with Dongfeng enjoying an advantage of just 3.5nm over Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (ADOE) and 12nm over Mapfre.
These three gradually separated from the rest as the race reached its tense climax. On several occasions Caudrelier and co were driven to distraction as they parked-up under lifeless clouds. And in the end they paid the price of being ahead when they ran out of wind, allowing Mapfre to take the win in the darkness and Walker’s crew to grab second. As Walker put it, Dongfeng had been “ruined” by one windless cloud. The bitterly disappointed team on the Chinese boat were third. After 20 days at sea, Mapfre got in four minutes ahead of ADOR which, in turn, was four minutes ahead of Dongfeng.
WOLF FEELS THE FULL FORCE OF THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
Wolf was thrown off the pedestal grinder in the cockpit three times by big waves hammering down the boat during the opening rough weather of leg four. On one occasion he ended up bruised and battered, face-first, in the leeward steering console.
“The first three days were really tough,” he said. “The big waves made people ‘fly’ when they were not ready to deal with that. All of us experienced different levels of seasickness.
“I’m OK. I kept eating seasick pills and tried not to stay in the cabin. I didn’t eat a proper meal in those few days. You saw I fell down once in the video, but actually I fell down three times. It wasn’t a big deal. We are men in the ocean, we are used to that already. However, to be honest, it does hurt when I open my mouth to eat.”
Yang Jiru (Wolf) was not the only sailor in the fleet to suffer on the way to the northern tip of the Philippines with several other crews having to deal with injuries caused by the violent motion of the boats.