Dongfeng racing was the talk of the town well before they nailed a superb victory into their home port of Sanya, China. Having hit the podium on all three opening legs of the Volvo Ocean Race the Franco Chinese team was delivering a typical winning one design regatta strategy to stay in the frame at all costs.
When combined with the mixture of crew including rookie Chinese sailors, their story has justifiably drawn plenty of attention.
Having met him for the first time in Cape Town at the end of Leg 1 skipper Charles Caudrelier struck me not only a talented a sailor, but as someone who understands the dynamics of building a team and how to pull together a wide range of different characters and abilities.
So the news today that there would be a new crew line up for the long leg south to New Zealand that starts on Sunday was of little surprise. At the very least, with just eight crew per leg and short stopovers in which there is precious little time to recover, crew rotation throughout the event is a part of every team’s plans.
But to leave Dongfeng’s star navigator Pascal Bidégorry on the dock will surely raise a few eyebrows.
Dongfeng’s success so far has relied on two key features, boat speed and solid tactics. Leg 3 and the fickle breezes that dominiated that leg made their performance particularly impressive. As anyone who’s led a race in light weather knows, it’s usually easier to lose your lead than to gain it. Yet, through smart defensive tactics Dongfeng held their lead for 23 days from the first day of the leg to the last. Such performance was surely down to a winning combination between Caudrelier and his navigator Bidégorry.
“There is still a very long way to go and next we’re going to take on the hardest part, the high ‘mountain’ stages. The next three legs will without doubt cause some damage in the fleet, but we are in good shape to take them on,” said Caudrelier. “It will be very difficult to always be at the front but if we get a bad result, we’ll be able to remember what we’ve done since the start and keep it together, hopefully nothing can destroy our spirit.”
In fact, leaving Bidégorry out of Leg 4 was always the plan. At the beginning of the race it was decided that after what would be three (very) long legs, Bidégorry would take a break to prepare for the tough Southern Ocean leg 5. Even so, remaining ashore still doesn’t come naturally to him.
“Everyday since we docked in Sanya I walk past the boat and realise I’m not going to be onboard for the next leg. It’s all I think about,” he said.
Instead fellow Frenchman Erwan Israel will take the navigator’s seat for this 5,264nm leg from Sanya to Auckland.
But for those who still remain to be convinced that changing such a winning formula is the right way to go, there is one other key detail to consider.
Erwan raced the last Volvo Ocean Race with Charles onboard the winning team Groupama, the team that won the last Volvo.
With three impressive legs under their belts it is clear Caudrelier’s Dongfeng team is not only prepared to shake things up, but has become one of the most exciting teams to watch as a result.
Another podium finish would do far more than simply add another few points on the board.
Dongfeng crew list – Leg 4
Charles Caudrelier (FRA)
Erwan Israel (FRA)
Martin Strömberg (SWE)
Eric Peron (FRA)
Kevin Escoffier (FRA)
Thomas Rouxel (FRA)
Yang Jiru (CHN)
Chen Jin Hao (CHN)
Onboard Reporter: Sam Greenfield (USA)