Minutes after crossing the line and taking an impressive and well deserved win, Dongfeng Racing’s skipper Charles Caudrelier described the leg as the most stressful he had ever done in his life. Yet unlike the more familiar Volvo tales of big breezes, huge waves and wild wipe outs, this leg had been a quiet affair when it came to the weather.
On the face of it Caudrelier’s Franco/Chinese team had owned the race since they took the lead on the second day out of Abu Dhabi, never dropping off pole position for more than 5,000 miles, yet the reality was that the chasing pack had been breathing down their necks all along. During the leg their lead had ranged from 106nm to 9nm.
But eventually, after weeks of tense racing, Dongfeng crossed the finish line in first place as the sun rose over Sanya (23:31:38 UTC) after 23 days, 13 hours, 31 minutes and 38 seconds. Caudrelier’s crew of experienced French sailors mixed with rookie Chinese Cheng Ying Kit (‘Kit’) and Liu Xue (‘Black’) plus young Australian Jack Bouttell, had stuck to their game plan and marked the first time a Chinese team (or any Chinese sailor) has won a leg in the Volvo Ocean Race’s 41-year history.
As an indication of just how close this leg had been, all bar one of the fleet finished in just under five hours after 23 days of racing. In steady tradewind conditions, with a fleet of closely matched one designs you might expect this kind of intense competition, but on this leg where much of the racing was conducted close to the fickle breezes of the equator there were plenty of potholes along the way. From windless holes, to fishing nets, unmarked boats, tidal issues, islands and headlands to negotiate, there were plenty of opportunities to trip up and drop off the back of the pack. Yet still the fleet refused to split up.
“It’s an interesting fact that because the boats are all the same and everyone gets the same weather, everyone is thinking along the same lines,” said Team Alvimedica skipper Charlie Enright who had finished third. “Breaking away from the pack is a very risky move and could see you losing touch with the fleet for good. As a result the pack stays together a lot. You would think that this makes us all faster as a result as the pace increases, which often it does. But there are times when it actually slows the pack down because no one wants to break free.”
Enright’s team had also delivered an impressive performance, hauling themselves into the frame after two disappointing previous legs. What had changed?
“Our boat speed is improving, particularly in the breezier conditions. We’re still a new team, we’re developing efficiencies and things are starting to click,” he said. “We’ve improved in a lot of different areas and luckily for us they all came together for this race.
“We started this event with our eyes wide open, having never competed in this event or on this level before, so Leg 1 was always going to be tough. The Vestas issue meant that Leg 2 was interrupted and we lost touch with the pack, so this is our first ‘normal’ leg since the start and we enjoyed being up with the group.”
While he is quick to acknowledge Dongfeng’s speed, he also has no hesitation in confirming his respect for Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi who came in second on this leg.
“For me, Abu Dhabi are definitely the most consistent performers out there,” he said. “I’ve always believed that this race will be won by the team that makes the least mistakes. Ian Walker and his team sail conservatively and avoid high risk tactics.”
“I’m very pleased with this one,” said Walker. “I wasn’t even comfortable last night. Although common sense said we were fine, we were pointing at the finishing line, I still had a pretty sleepless night. We never really knew.”
Despite missing out on the glory, Walker was relieved that his team managed to hold off the threat of their opponents, after three weeks of neck and neck sailing.
“It feels like we’ve just been having our own race, the four of us back here,” Ian admits.
“We were never going to catch Dongfeng, they weren’t in the same race. We sort of feel like we’ve won our own mini race.”
Among those pleased with their performance this time around after a lacklustre two previous legs was Mapfre who finished fourth. This, along with Alvimedica’s performance provides more evidence that despite the early showings from three teams in the opening two legs, the racing is going to get tighter as the event develops and as teams find new gears and modes.
But not everyone was smiling in China.
“A fifth place is really bad,” said Team Brunel skipper Bouwe Bekking who’s team had previously been one of the top three.
Meanwhile as the teams and the shore crews prepared for their short two week stopover and started the planning for their long haul south to New Zealand on Leg 4, the news of this leg was of an impressive Chinese win onto Chinese soil leaving Caudrelier to reflect on his team’s perfect timing.
“We took the lead on the first day and we had to keep it because we had to arrive first here because it was very important for me and for the project, so we are so proud,” said Caudrelier. “One year ago we were here and we were discovering the Chinese sailors who were rookies and now they win the leg – it’s just fantastic. Maybe it is the first time in offshore sailing something like this has happened – in just one year these guys have become great sailors. I am so proud, this is everything I wanted but I didn’t dare think about. It’s a team job and you cannot win a leg without a strong team.”