The Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18 is tough, extremely long and a huge test of stamina and staying power for the sailors who take part in it. In order to win you need to perform at close to optimum output for eight months over 11 legs.
So far the sailors on Dongfeng Race Team – who lie second overall - have acquitted themselves exceptionally well in the Atlantic, the southern Indian Ocean and the western Pacific in an opening series of six legs that have also seen them tackle the Doldrums in the Tropics three times.
But the toughest challenge of this Volvo Ocean Race is what they are about to do – Leg 7 which sets sail from Auckland this Sunday and takes the seven-strong fleet from New Zealand to Itajai in Brazil via Cape Horn.
At 7,600 nautical miles, this is the longest leg, the hardest leg on the sailors and it is the second of three so-called “double-pointer” legs which means its results can have a dramatic impact on the overall scoreboard. Not only is it a double-pointer it also includes an extra bonus point for the first boat to round Cape Horn, the most feared headland in global sailing.
Neil Maclean-Martin is the human performance manager for Dongfeng Race Team and he identified this leg months ago as the biggest challenge facing Charles Caudrelier and his multinational mixed male and female crew sponsored by Dongfeng Motor Corporation.
“Out of all the legs, this is the one that from the very beginning we highlighted as being the toughest one,” said Maclean-Martin during a break from helping to prepare the sailors for the challenge ahead.
“We know that it is going to be very cold. We know that the sea-state is going to be tough. We know that this not just for a couple of days or even a week, but for a large part of this leg which could last up to 20 days.
“As a result of all that the sailors’ calories expenditure is very high,” he added, “their bodies will be working so hard just to maintain their core temperature and working hard because they will be moving around in quite heavy offshore gear for days on end.”
Maclean-Martin says that because of the extra rigours of this voyage through the Southern Ocean, which will feature big winds and huge rolling seas on the so-called Westerly Storm Track that rumbles around Antarctica, the Dongfeng crew will consume more calories than normal.
“We are sending them out into the most extreme conditions offshore sailors will ever sail in and so we allow an extra 20% just to keep them in balance,” he explained. “A guy who is consuming 5,500-6,000 calories-a-day will be boosted to up to 7,500-8,000 calories, with the option of even taking on more should there be days and periods within the leg when the crew is simply just working and working in a non-stop fashion,” he said.
Maclean-Martin, who is based in Chamonix in the French Alps but is traveling the world from one stopover to the next with Dongfeng Race Team, helps the sailors optimize their fitness and performance in the race through physiotherapy, physiology and nutrition. The wider support team is also made up of sailing performance analysts and a sports psychologist to help ensure the sailors can reach their full potential.
Maclean-Martin says that in the past teams have assumed that it is inevitable that sailors in the Volvo Ocean Race finish every leg in a depleted state, both physically and mentally, and that by the end of the race they are utterly exhausted.
But his goal, through continued measurement, assessment and tailored nutrition and treatment, is to prove that this need not be the case and the evidence from Dongfeng Race Team suggests he is on the right track.
“We want the sailors to arrive at the end of every leg in the best physical condition they can be and not have their sailing performance compromised by physical deterioration,” he said.
“And certainly from a baseline physiological point of view, it is really nice to see that our sailors are maintaining all of their core values that they had at the start of the race in Alicante in October,” he added. “We are not seeing a lot of the same disruptions (injuries or mental or physical deterioration) that we saw during the last race.”
Summing up his contribution at this key moment in the race, Maclean-Martin says it is all part of a package of inputs that helps ensure that the Dongfeng crew sets sail for the Southern Ocean able to concentrate with full confidence on one thing – racing hard for three long weeks.
“With human performance our goal is to contribute confidence in the human body to our sailors,” he said. “We can show that their physiology is good, that they can trust their training and, along with the work of the shore team that prepares the boat in such an excellent manner, they know that everything has been put together for them to go into the Southern Ocean with confidence in themselves, their bodies and their boat.”
Leg seven sets sail on Sunday. Dongfeng lies in second place on 34 points, five points behind overall race leader, the Spanish team on MAPFRE skippered by Xabi Fernandez. Team Sun Hung Kai Scallywag, skippered by David Witt, is third eight points behind Dongfeng on 26 points.
This is Dongfeng Race Team’s second Volvo Ocean Race campaign. In 2014-15 it finished third overall, also under Caudrelier’s leadership. Apart from challenging for overall honours in the race, Dongfeng Race Team is committed to helping to grow the sport of offshore ocean racing in China.