We go behind the scenes at the Volvo Ocean Race with Dongfeng Race Team to find how the team is preparing for the longest, furthest Volvo Ocean Race yet

The first race that ‘counts’ for the Volvo Ocean Race, the Alicante in-port race, takes place tomorrow. The seven teams are in their final countdown to the start of the nine-month round the world race, and we’ve joined Dongfeng Race Team to find out how the squad are preparing for the longest, furthest Volvo Ocean Race yet.

Watch Jack Bouttell talk about how the sailors are feeling ahead of the Volvo Ocean Race start and the short first leg to Lisbon:

When Dongfeng Race Team unveiled their squad back in May, they also revealed their ambitions for this edition of the race. At a glamorous announcement in Paris, team director Bruno Dubois, compared Dongfeng team’s return to the Volvo Ocean Race to a ‘difficult second album’. After surpassing so many expectations last time around, when they went into the race with a half-Chinese, near-rookie crew and emerged with two leg wins and a third place overall, they set out that they want to go at least one better.

“The 1989 win by Steinlager: this is the style I want to win this bloody race in!” Dubois commented at the time.

Things started well, with a solid win in the Rolex Fastnet Race, finishing 24 minutes ahead of the nearest VO65. They also joined up with their nearest leading contender, the Spanish team Mapfre for some two-boat testing, an experience Caudrelier says was valuable – if not without its risks.

Information is valuable – today Brunel’s support RIB was spotted stalking several competitor teams before the practice race. Often with Peter Burling onboard, (America’s Cup habits obviously die hard) the Dutch team were apparently looking for any marginal differences in set up on the identical one-designs. Caudrelier says that they trusted Mapfre to ‘play the game’, and they came away with useful information.

Watch Charles Caudrelier talk about the gains of two-boat testing here:

But in the final ‘Prologue’ race (a non-scoring pre-race from Lisbon to Alicante) Dongfeng Race Team were over the line early, and then when a high pressure system near becalmed the fleet off Portugal, eventual winner Mapfre along with Brunel sailing went inshore, where they picked up sea breezes. Dongfeng wallowed in the light and finished sixth of the seven teams when the race was eventually finished early.

Many in Alicante this week have marked Mapfre as favourites – with the Spanish boat showing pace to take today’s practice in-port race also. But who would have fancied Dongfeng to achieve what they did last time around? The only thing that is truly certain about this race is that it will be very, very close

Diverse talents

Dongfeng’s team sheet is impressive, whilst diverse. Alongside skipper Charles Caudrelier are the two hugely experienced New Zealand offshore sailors, Stu Ballantyne and Daryl Wislang. At the squad in May announcement Caudrelier joked: “I like statistics and every winner has a Kiwi on board,” adding, “Every 10 years Stu wins a Volvo, and I think this is maybe his last time.”

Ballantyne won the event three times. Wislang, meanwhile, was part of the winning Abu Dhabi crew last time around. He also keeps up the Kiwi quota, “In case I break one, I have a spare,” quipped Caudrelier.

Dongfeng Race Team was the first to announce that they had a mixed crew, with Carolijn Brouwer and Marie Riou. Three Chinese crew also continue with the team, sailing under their English names of Horace, Black and Wolf.

Leg Zero, Prologue, day 01. Start on-board Dongfeng. Photo by Jeremie Lecaudey. 08 October, 2017

British-Australian former Figaro sailor Jack Bouttell has moved to the bow. Two of Caudrelier’s key right-hand men, Kevin Escoffier and navigator Pascal Bidegorry, have also returned, joined by IMOCA solo sailor Jeremie Beyou.

In what is undoubtedly the most mixed Volvo Ocean Race ever, Dongfeng’s team is perhaps even more diverse than most, balancing a core group of talented French offshore sailors with Olympians, vastly experienced Kiwi team members with relative newcomers in the Chinese crew, and solo IMOCA and Figaro sailors.

When I joined the team in Lorient in spring there was an ease among the squad, with Caudrelier and navigator Bidegorry teasing each other like an old married couple. There is a tension now: the hunger to start. Dongfeng have the rare advantage of a two race programme, and a lengthy build up to this race, they are prepared. Talking to any of the sailors they give the same answer, they are ready to go. Now.