Minutes after crossing the line in their home port of Sanya to take an impressive win for Leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race, Dongfeng Race Team’s skipper Charles Caudrelier described the previous 23 days as the most stressful he had ever done in his life. Yet unlike the more familiar Volvo race tales of big breezes, huge waves and wild wipe outs, this leg had been a quiet affair when it came to the weather with the fleet spending days ghosting along in sub 10 knot winds. Perhaps this was always to be expected on a 5,000nm leg from Abu Dhabi to China that ran close to the equator.

What had not been anticipated before the event started back in November was the Franco/Chinese team’s consistently potent performance. Second into Cape Town on the opening leg, second into Abu Dhabi and now first into Sanya, Cuadrelier’s team had posted a string of results that put them in the lead overall, ahead of race favourites Abu Dhabi by one point.

Winning into their home port was good cause for celebration, particularly for a team that includes a squad of Chinese rookies, many of whom had barely sailed a year ago let alone having raced offshore, hitting the podium three out of three times was a dream result. Of the eight crew aboard the VO65, Caudrelier’s crew has included two Chinese sailors on each of the legs so far from their squad of six. This leg saw Cheng Ying Kit (‘Kit’) and Liu Xue (‘Black’) join the crew.

“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.”

But while the media focused on the incredible achievement in creating a competitive team from so little previous experience, for Dongfeng’s Volvo competitors the bigger issue is figuring out how Caudrelier’s team is achieving such speed from a boat that is identical to the others in the fleet.

“The got past us in 2 knots of wind and then, once out in front they seemed to always be getting into better weather ahead of us,” said Abu Dhabi skipper Ian Walker. “Don’t get me wrong, they sailed well and they could easily have won all three legs, but this time they had a charmed leg. We simply couldn’t get to them and stopped watching them.”

So why are they so quick? From the start in Alicante they showed pace sufficient pace to catch up even after breaking a rudder. On the same leg they had to repair a broken pad eye for the code zero sheet lead and steer using just one wheel. In the leg to China they broke a tack strop on their code zero and still they didn’t slow down.

“They are fast in light airs downwind,” said Walker, “That’s their strength. We haven’t seen much breeze in this race yet and the leg to Auckland should provide some stronger upwind conditions which we haven’t seen them in yet. There are so many variations in the way that you can set these boats up from sail trim, to boat trim, ballast position, heel angle, daggerboard settings and so on that we’re only just starting to see what strengths various teams have.”

But even with their ability to squeeze more performance out of an identical boat with a team that has less Volvo experience than some of the other big guns, the bigger picture for Chinese sailing could be even more impressive.

Ian Walker’s Green Dragon campaign in the 2008/09 Volvo and Mike Sanderson’s Team Sanya last time around each had had just one Chinese crew member. As it stands at present Dongfeng consists of 10 Chinese personnel with six sailing team members of which so far there have always been two aboard for each leg, all of which makes it clear that the Chinese element of the campaign is no token gesture.

Away from the Volvo it was the 32nd America’s Cup that had the highest profile international campaign with China Team. Such exposure was hoped to introduce the world’s most populated country to sailing, yet despite hanging in and making it to the Challenger trials, the team only had a handful of Chinese sailors and barely made it onto the points board. For the 35th AC China team were once again looking to make it through to the Louis Vuitton series at least and started with an AC45 but this was as far as their Cup campaign went.

Setting the Dongfeng team’s achievement against such a backdrop helps to explain why this campaign is drawing such attention. It is however early days and as Walker points out, most of the race from Alicante to China has been in light airs.

“The most breeze we’ve seen from Spain to here was 32 knots at the beginning of Leg 2 and on Leg 3 I only put my foul weather trousers on for one night!”

The punchy conditions that are more usually associated with this race have yet to set in and could shuffle the pack once again. But even so, Dongfeng are no strangers to heavy weather having completed last year’s breezy Round Britain and Ireland race.

Getting onto the podium on a regular basis is the key to winning the Volvo and so far Dongfeng have hit this target 3 out of 3 times as well as producing enough extra to lead overall by one point. And it is this that makes this Chinese team stand out more than any before.