The crew led by Charles Caudrelier of France put in one of its strongest performances of the race to date on a stage that saw extremely tough conditions in the Southern Pacific Ocean, to finish just minutes behind leg winner Team Brunel.
The last five days saw a continuous match race with the Dutch boat with Dongfeng catching up and overtaking on several occasions as the crews sailed north from Cape Horn.
In the end Caudrelier’s crew crossed the finish line on a bright sunny morning in light airs on the Bay of Itajai, just 14 minutes and 50 seconds behind Brunel after 16 days and 14 hours at sea.
This performance – Dongfeng’s fifth podium finish in seven legs and its fourth second place – transforms the team’s prospects on the overall scoreboard.
With rivals MAPFRE currently on course for fifth place for the leg, Dongfeng could start Leg 8 to Newport, Rhode Island with a one point lead over the Spanish team at the head of the fleet, having previously been five points adrift.
However, if MAPFRE is able to overtake Turn the Tide on Plastic – currently 85 miles in front of them in fourth pace – then MAPFRE will retain the lead by one point.
Caudrelier hailed what he called a “fantastic result” for Dongfeng. “Of course we dreamed about taking first place when we saw Brunel ahead of us,” he said. “But Brunel did a fantastic leg and I think they deserved the first place. They were the leaders in the South and this leg is about the South.
“But it is a fantastic result for us – we have managed to come back to MAPFRE after a lot of frustrations on the previous legs when each time we lost some points through stupid mistakes. But this time we managed to keep them back and they are far away. And we have a chance to take the lead, so for us that is amazing.”
Like everyone else on board the red and white Volvo Ocean 65, Caudrelier again paid tribute to John Fisher, the British sailor lost overboard on this leg from Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag. “Of course I am thinking about what happened to Scallywag,” he said. “This is what happens to sailors – we know about that and we are all scared about it. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it’s dramatic to lose a life in those conditions.”
Caudrelier is clearly delighted to be disputing the lead with MAPFRE but he cautions that there is still a long way to go. “Everybody is exhausted,” he said. “This leg was very tough and the race is far from finished. We have two long legs coming and then two more small legs. So four more legs and a lot of points up for grabs, especially when we are already exhausted by what we have done so far.”
Dutch sailor Carolijn Brouwer, who is on her third Volvo Ocean Race, said Caudrelier had done a good job striking the balance between speed and safety on a very tough voyage from New Zealand.
“We managed to balance really well between pushing the boat hard and staying safe,” she said. “I think Charles was really clear about it beforehand and knew how he wanted to approach it and he did really well which made us feel comfortable.”
Brouwer spent 12 years growing up in Brazil so she was especially pleased to arrive in Itajai. But she admitted the loss of John Fisher had hit her hard. “It is tragic and it definitely left me out of whack a little bit,” she said. “It makes you emotional and a little unsure, so that was definitely a low-point. We will always remember him for who he was. A life lost at sea makes it hard for us to celebrate our second place,” she added.
Chinese sailor Chen Jinhao, also known as Horace, said passing Cape Horn was a huge personal milestone. “Not many Chinese sailors have passed Cape Horn or have passed this area so this is probably the best and proudest moment of my life,” he said.
“The day before we passed Cape Horn I had many messages of support and a family video which gave me great strength. I was crying because it was a tough moment, but it gave me such strength. We would obviously have loved first place but second place is not bad for the overall position. But we are looking forward to that special moment when we finally win a leg,” he added.
Watch captain Daryl Wislang said the leg was full-on from the moment they left his native New Zealand and then there were days of what he called “amazing downwind sailing.”
“We are happy with the result,” he said, as he stepped ashore in Brazil. “There are a lot of ‘what-ifs’ as always. But we had a pretty amazing comeback from the Horn as Brunel were a long way ahead but we did well – we sailed fast which was really good and the team sprit was really good throughout.”
Wislang said he will be urging Dee Caffari and her crew on Turn the Tide on Plastic to hold onto their fourth position. “It’s not only because it would help us with the overall result but because I think those guys deserve to stay ahead,” he said.
Dongfeng Race Team is sponsored by the Chinese car and truck manufacturer, Dongfeng Motor Corporation of Wuhan. It is competing in the Volvo Ocean Race for the second successive time. In 2014-15 it finished in third place overall, also under the leadership of Caudrelier. As before, the team is committed to trying to win this race but also to help the sport of sailing grow in China.
Ranking Leg 7 at 16:30 (UTC)
1 – Team Brunel (B.Bekking), à 14h45’18’’UTC, 16j 13h 45min 18s, 16 points
2 – Dongfeng Race Team (C.Caudrelier), 15h00’08’’utc, delta 14min 50sec, 12 points
3 – Team Akzo Nobel (S.Tienpont), 252 miles de l’arrivée
4 – Turn The Tide of Plastic (D.Caffari), 683 milles
5 – MAPFRE (X.Fernandez), 780 milles
Vestas 11th Hour (C.Enright), RET
Team Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag, RET
Scoreboard after Team Brunel and Dongfeng arrivals
1 – MAPFRE, 39pts, racing
2 – Dongfeng Race Team, 46pts, in Itajai
3 – Brunel Sailing, 36pts, In Itajai
4 – team AkzoNobel, 23pts, racing
5 – Scallywag, 26pts, retire
6 – Vestas 11th Hour, 23pts, retire
7 – Turn The Tide, 12pts, racing
Leg 8, Itajai - Newport, starts 22 April