The rise of Dongfeng a Volvo Ocean Race fairytale

Osman Samuiddin spends some time with the joint-leaders of the Volvo Ocean Race and discovers why Dongfeng are proving to be a revelation.

The Dongfeng Race Team out on the Abu Dhabi waters on December 31 ahead of the in-port race. Ainhoe Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race
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The Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) loves talking about the multiculturalism of its boats.

There is the boat sponsored by a Turkish company with an American skipper and five nationalities on-board. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam has six different nationalities and seven if you include the on-board reporter.

Team Brunel is a little United Nations island by itself, with seven different nationalities among eight crew.

Sometimes it can sound a little disingenuous though, because the vast majority of sailors are from Europe or, more broadly, the English-speaking world. It is multinationalism, not so much multiculturalism.

Azzam is an exception, with the only Arab sailor in the race, Adil Khaled.

The one boat where there is an authentic and substantial meshing of cultures is the Chinese entry, Race Team Dongfeng, where, other than one Swede, the crew is either French or Chinese.

There are six Chinese sailors in the squad. Three have sailed at least one of the two legs. A fourth will do the third leg to Sanya, which is a homecoming leg for the boat. By the end the plan is for all six to have done at least one leg.

As meshing cultures go, it is easy to see it go wrong.

For a start, there is the language. The situation could easily be the start of one of those jokes – a bunch of Frenchmen and a bunch of Chinese get together on a 65-foot yacht ... and so on.

What do they speak on board? “We speak in English because this is the sailing language, it is the language of the VOR,” said the French skipper Charles Caudrelier.

“If you cannot speak English you cannot play the game. All its words are in ­English.

“We could’ve learnt Chinese but that was not a good option for the Chinese guys because they want to become sailors and for sailing everywhere in the world, they have to learn ­English.”

That has proved to be some feat. A couple of the Hong Kong-based Chinese sailors were fluent in English but the rest had to learn the language from scratch, which, given that they have also been learning about sailing, made it doubly difficult.

“Chinese is so different from a western language that they really did a fantastic job and learnt very quickly,” said Caudrelier, who said he had not picked up much Chinese himself in ­return.

“I would like to but it is so complicated. That is why I recognise how amazing it is what they have done. Sometimes they try to teach me Chinese and it’s very difficult.”

Two legs in, both of which Dongfeng could have won but finished second, it does not appear to have been a problem.

In many ways, as Dongfeng head off on a homecoming leg to Sanya, Caudrelier and his men represent the most remarkable story of the race.

When the world talks of the coming of China as a global behemoth, this is the kind of story that can be used as an example.

China has a deep and ancient tradition on the seas, which has not quite sustained itself through to the modern day ­republic.

There has been success at Olympic sailing level but little activity out on the oceans, meaning Dongfeng started the project with effectively zilch to go on.

That was just a year ago and yet, almost from thin air, they have produced six sailors for the world’s toughest ocean race.

In the true tradition of Chinese success stories, not only have they just appeared, they are in joint first place as well.

An impressive performance by one of the least fancied of the seven boats pre-race.

It has not been entirely smooth, even if the direction of their progress is clear.

The father of one of the Chinese sailors disapproved of his son taking up sailing. A respectable “desk job” he said was preferred to a sporting career as outre as sailing.

Yang Jiru – or Wolf as he is usually addressed – spoke touchingly of how, after his first practice sail on the waters, he returned swearing never to do it again.

“But I went back home and straightaway realised this was not my life,” he said. “My life was out on the seas.”

It is even more remarkable given that they are still learning. Caudrelier, who won the VOR in 2011/12 with Groupama, is not just skippering the boat, he also has a role as teacher.

“Manoeuvring and things like that, you have to instruct them of course, so sometimes I will tell one of them to come and watch what we’re doing,” he said. “Now they are better and better.

“But the instinct is something you cannot teach. For that you have to spend some time on the water, watching us as we sail.

“That is how I learnt. It is the best way. It’s like playing piano. You can learn the basics in six months but after that it is time and experience, and, for sure, VOR is a high-speed school.”

This next leg is likelier to provide a truer indicator of the durability of their rise. As with Azzam in the latest leg, this is the one they really want to win. There will be pressure and that will be as much an obstacle.

“Yes there will be,” admitted Caudrelier. “It will be sad to have a bad result when you are in China, especially after we have done so well in the two first legs.”

Caudrelier also knows from the last race that this is not about the start as much as the finish.

“What I learnt is that the team that wins is not the best team at the start. It is the team that improves that will never fail,” he said.

“It is a very long race. You get tired, you get upset, so you have to all stick together, you have to stay strong.”

That is the other thing about China though. It endures. It always has done and it would be folly to doubt it will not ­continue.

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