LEG 1: INTO BATTLE
After a 10-month mission to select its Chinese crew and blend them into a battle-hardened unit with their Western counterparts, the start day for the Dongfeng Race Team in the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 had finally arrived.
Fittingly, Team Brunel skippered by Bouwe Bekking beginning his seventh Volvo, led the fleet across the line on a classic opening stage that took the crews from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic, then across the Doldrums to the fringes of the Southern Ocean and the finish at Cape Town.
It would turn out to be an exhausting first three days as the crews beat down the Spanish coast. After the first 24 hours the fleet was spread over only 5.5 miles of ocean. “The boats are identical and it shows,” said skipper Charles Caudrelier. “This is going to be exciting.”
Out in the Atlantic the weather dictated a course close to the African coast. Dongfeng was showing excellent speed in light airs and took the lead. It was looking good for the underdogs when the Chinese team experienced the first big drama of the race.
“BANG!” - the boat shuddered with the explosive impact of a collision in the darkness. The crew immediately feared that the keel or the hull had been damaged. A quick inspection showed one of the rudders had been sheered off. A decision was taken to replace the broken section with the spare and Thomas Rouxel went into the water to help remove the stub and guide the new blade in.
After passing through the Cape Verde Islands, the Doldrums was the next challenge. The Chinese boat was in the middle of the fleet in this treacherous transition zone, with rivals to the east and west, and lost ground. After 60 hours she had slipped to fourth and Eric Peron admitted he was “gutted” at their ill-fortune.
On their 14th day at sea Caudrelier’s crew passed the island of Fernando de Noronha still in fourth place, 114 miles behind the leader Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (ADOR), skippered by Ian Walker. The St Helena High was the next obstacle. It was now a game of follow the leader, or dare to do your own thing behind, as the boats raced downwind in brilliant sunshine off the Brazilian coast.
By November 1st – the 20th day at sea – Dongfeng was back up to second place, just 16nm behind ADOR with Brunel just 4nm astern. The Chinese boat was “back in the game” as the leaders reached at 25-30 knots towards Table Mountain.
“It’s war out here,” was how Caudrelier described the scene after Dongfeng experienced the first major deck hardware failure of the race. A padeye that anchors the control line for the big spinnaker, had given way, exploding across the deck in a violent flash, causing significant damage as it did so.
With running repairs undertaken, it was a straight line race to Cape Town as the boys on Dongfeng began to realise that they were on course to finish in either first or second place. ADOR was still there, just 4.5nm ahead, as Dongfeng stalked them.
Walker did not put a foot wrong but the margin between the top two at the finish was a mere 12 minutes and four seconds after 25 days of racing. It was an extraordinary close result that demonstrated just how exciting this race was going to be.
For Dongfeng it was an arrival under the imposing backdrop of Table Mountain that made history. This was the first fully Chinese sponsored boat ever to make the podium in the Volvo.