Disappointment then the relief and joy
The mood was downbeat – confidence had taken a knock after the disappointing end to leg seven – when Dongfeng Race Team assembled for the 647-mile penultimate leg from Lisbon to Lorient.
Not helping matters was a poor showing in the Lisbon In-Port Race when Dongfeng was sixth out of seven boats, with the re-built Team Vestas now back in the fleet. The start of the leg saw the crews almost becalmed off Lisbon as they crept round the cans before heading out into light winds off the coast.
Early on Charles Caudrelier and navigator Pascal Bidégorry had a chance to get away alongside Team SCA at the head of affairs. But instead of taking the opportunity presented by a favourable windshift, they chose to tack off to the west and it proved a big mistake. From there Dongfeng haemorrhaged miles and after a day at sea she was in last place. “Not good for us and a tricky situation as there are very few options to come back from here,” summarised Caudrelier.
As the light winds turned into a heavy upwind thrash past Cape Finisterre, there was a split in the fleet but Dongfeng was never able to establish herself in the middle order. As the jubilant crew on Team SCA sailed to a memorable victory, Dongfeng came in last. A hard pill to swallow for the French sailors arriving at their adopted European home port.
With just leg nine to come and with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing now having won the race, the Chinese boat had gone from fighting for first place overall to battling to hold onto third place on the final podium. Both Mapfre, now just two points behind, and Team Alvimedica, another two further back, were potent threats.
There was a lot still to do for Caudrelier who was mulling over the change in fortunes for his brave team. “Is it better to have almost won and lost,” he said in Lorient, “or is it better to have never come within reach so, when the disappointment comes, it doesn"t hit you quite so hard?”
Despite the gloom after legs seven and eight, the team came out fully psyched-up for the final 960-mile dash to the finish at Gothenberg via a pit-stop at The Hague. This was an intense leg with light winds, adverse tides and a complex pattern of Traffic Separation Scheme Exclusion Zones to avoid. The Chinese team was determined to defend their position on the podium.
The final days of this epic race began with more light winds through the tidal gates off the west coast of France before a big split opened up as the fleet headed northeast through the English Channel. Dongfeng chose the English side along with her closest rivals Mapfre and Team Brunel while Team Alvimedica built an impressive lead on the French coast.
At The Hague, Dongfeng was second to arrive behind Alvimedica but with a margin of only 34 minutes over Mapfre. The final 500 miles to Gothenberg were a nail-biting test for Caudrelier and his crew as they covered Mapfre almost all the way to the finish up the North Sea and then around the northern tip of Denmark.
With the line in sight, the Spanish boat managed to slip past to take third place for the leg, but Dongfeng"s third place on the overall podium was safe. Finishing behind Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Team Brunel, it was an outstanding achievement for the first fully Chinese-sponsored team in the Volvo Ocean Race.
“I want to thank Dongfeng and Bruno Dubois for giving me this opportunity,” said an exhausted Caudrelier at the finish. “A year ago I would never have believed this would be possible. I have lived the most incredible human story with this team and I am so proud of the progress of the Chinese sailors.”
Yang Jiru (Wolf) summed up the feelings of the Chinese crew members: “I know from the reaction back home that this project has been great for offshore sailing in China. I hope it will inspire young Chinese sailors for years to come.”