Location: The eastern approaches to the Solent
Weather: 20 knots from the west, southwest, sunny
Who else was there? Commercial traffic, ferries, container ships plus Team AkzoNobel and Scallywag
The mood on Charles Caudrelier’s sleek and powerful red and white Volvo Open 65 Dongfeng is business-like and focused as we head out of Portsmouth harbour ready for a session of work just two days before the start of the Rolex Fastnet classic.
Working with racing coach Bertrand Pacé – who accompanies Dongfeng in the rib and keeps in touch with us via VHF radio – Caudrelier is keen to look at headsail shapes off the wind and the set-up for the outriggers which support the clew of the headsails.
In addition to Caudrelier, the crew includes navigator Pascal Bidégorry, watch captain Daryl Wislang, bowman Jack Bouttell – who does much of the driving during the day – and Dongfeng Race Team’s two female stars, Carolijn Brouwer and Marie Riou who both worked the session in the pit.
“Easing the runner sounds like the last moment of a huge tree being felled by chainsaw as the carbon hull groans with the change in tension on the rig. Dongfeng is a brute of a boat with raw, unvarnished power. In moderate winds and cracked off, we hit almost 20 knots of boatspeed effortlessly (in 20 knots of True Wind) and she is light on the helm. At this rate of progress water occasionally showers over the bow but sailing gear with neck and wrist seals is not required.
Charles and his team are constantly at work – trying out different sail configurations and different ways of setting up the outriggers. He wants the most robust and fastest combination and the conversations on the radio with Bertrand are continuous as the boat heats up for speed for a few thrilling moments and then drops off while the set-up is changed.
For ordinary sailors whose boats do not have swing keels or water ballast, there is a lot more to think about each time the boats tacks or gybes and down below the sound of the motor driving the keel reminds you that it is not entirely the power of the wind that controls Dongfeng. The softly-spoken Caudrelier is here, there and everywhere, looking at this, discussing that, intervening to tie a fastening or perhaps jumping off the boat into the rib to get a better look at how the boat is sailing.
There is a buzz in the team, now that the months of training have finished, the Leg Zero series of races has begun and the Volvo Ocean Race is at last beginning to draw near. But the Dongfeng crew is calm and professional working in three languages that constantly interchange. Pitman Jang Jiru (Wolf) and bowman Chen Jinhao (Horace) occasionally share thoughts in Chinese; Caudrelier discusses his concerns with Bertrand or with Pascal in French; Carolijn talks through changes to the latest manoeuvres with Daryl and with pitman Jérémie Beyou in English.
Toward the end of the session the crew practices three race start sequences between a cardinal mark in the eastern Solent off Ryde and a virtual mark set up by Bidégorry. Caudrelier wants the team to be in perfect harmony for the Fastnet start.
This is where the choreography of the team in action is at its most impressive. With Charles on the wheel, Dongfeng twists and turns against her imaginary opponents and the tide as Horace, on the middle winch pedestal, calls out the countdown to start time. It is virtually the only time on board I hear a raised voice. ‘One thirty, one twenty, one 10’ he intones as the rest of the crew work the grinders, easing sails and sheeting them in as Dongfeng tacks and bears away.
‘Five, four, three, two, one, GO…’ calls Horace and the frantic pace of co-ordinated physical effort by the men and women in the red team sailing gear suddenly comes to an end as Dongfeng sets off to windward. Then there is a post-mortem between Charles, Pascal and the team in the coach boat to see how it went before the whole routine begins again.”