VOLVO OCEAN RACE: Racing for China in the Volvo Ocean Race, Dongfeng Race Team is on a long-term sporting mission
by Julia Brandon
The tide is turning dramatically on China’s sailing history thanks to Dongfeng Race Team, a team fully backed by Chinese sponsors. It has the interests of the country’s sailing at its core, with a significant number of Chinese in both its on-water and support teams – racing for China, and for the future of Chinese sailing.
Managed by OC Sport, both the sailing and support members of the Dongfeng Race Team are on a long-term sporting mission, not only to deliver a competitive campaign for the 2014-15 event but also to create a legacy for offshore sailing in China by realizing the end goal of a 100% Chinese crew for the 2020-21 race. The team’s achievements are a major boost to the development of professional sailing in China. Their achievements are even more incredible in that the team started from scratch.
“We’ve basically compressed what takes on average 10 to 20 years into a few months, so it’s no easy challenge,” says Mark Turner, executive chairman of OC Sport. “But it’s the nature of this project – we’re trying to build a base for the race after this in 2020 as well as beyond.”
By mid-December, the seven teams in the race should have arrived in the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi on the second leg of the race from Cape Town in South Africa, having set sail from the Spanish port of Alicante on October 11. Towards the end of January 2015, the boats are due to reach Sanya, in southern China, with six more legs ahead of them before the finish in Gothenburg, Sweden, in June.
As the nine-month race gets under way, the task can only get harder for the Chinese sailors aboard Dongfeng. While other teams are sailing with seasoned veterans endowed with a mixed skill set, the Chinese crew started with very little knowledge of the Volvo Ocean 65 boats, and only a smattering of offshore sailing experience. Six professional non-Chinese sailors have been selected for their broader skill set to supplement the shortfall. As a result, there is a large proportion of Western professional sailors in the team, thanks to their experience of single-handed sailing which, by its very nature, requires experience, dexterity and aptitude. Skipper Charles Caudrelier and Swedish sailor Martin Strömberg are the only two sailors aboard Dongfeng to have participated in the race before. There are also six Chinese sailors in Dongfeng Race Team’s final race squad, who will rotate between two to three set positions on the boat and key positions in the shore team throughout the race.
As a nation, China has a rich maritime history, and – as of eight years ago – an Olympic sailing team, but neither compares with or can prepare for what is involved in offshore sailing.
“Racing in the Olympics means sailing a small boat fast for an hour or two,” says Turner. “There’s no element of seamanship or understanding of the ocean, no living on the boat, or personal discomfort.”
Dongfeng Race Team was the first team to officially qualify for the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race, following a successful 18-day Pacific training voyage. Backed by Dongfeng Trucks – a leading manufacturer of medium- and heavy-duty trucks in China, and title sponsor of the Dongfeng Race Team – the campaign has a number of key objectives. The first is to put Chinese offshore sailing on the map. The second is to further Dongfeng’s 10-year mission to gain global recognition within new key target markets, such as South Africa, Brazil, the Middle East and Europe, for which no other sporting event can offer a more sophisticated platform. Yet, much like offshore sailing, sponsorship and marketing on a global scale is a relatively new concept for China. So it is hoped that the amalgamation of two new initiatives will attract the world’s media, and garner support from the home crowd. It is fair to say then that for Dongfeng Race Team the pressure is on.
In the past, two partly sponsored Chinese teams have featured in the Volvo Ocean Race: Green Dragon 2008-09 and Team Sanya 2011-12. Both teams had only one Chinese team member aboard, yet in terms of a Chinese Volvo Ocean Race crew, they were first steps on the path Dongfeng Race Team is now taking.
This time, the recruitment process went a lot further. Starting with more than 200 applicants, the keen and hopeful were narrowed down to 20, then to 12. The team’s skipper, Frenchman Charles Caudrelier, had the final say over the choice of crew. The intense selection process prioritized language skills, physical fitness and sailing expertise. Chinese sailors Chen Jin Hao, Yang Jiru, Cheng Ying Kit, Liu Ming, Kong Chencheng and Liu Xue were chosen by Caudrelier to become part of the race crew to represent China.
“Basically, we didn’t let them sleep for 48 hours,” says Turner. “We threw loads of tasks at them on land and on water, from swimming and jumping in a life-raft to intelligence tests at 3am after no sleep, and teamwork tests. We were just trying to stretch them in every direction – mentally and physically – to see who was still smiling and functioning at the end of it,” he explains.
The challenges during training were huge, from insurmountable seasickness to unfathomable discomfort, and total exhaustion to time restrictions – “ideally, we would have had an extra year and kept a squad of 20 together”, says Turner – but none so hard as the element of surprise when they finally stepped foot aboard. “They were absolutely shocked,” he says. “They had no idea what they were getting into and there’s no way of really explaining it other than getting people to experience the real thing.”
The training journey has taken the team from China to the United States, to France and the United Kingdom and 10,000 nautical miles across two oceans – the Pacific and the Atlantic.
Upon making the team, Yang Jiru, nicknamed Wolf, said: “This is my dream and is the proudest day of my life,” adding: “Before Dongfeng Race Team I didn’t feel like my life had direction, but now it does. I know who I am and where I’m going. I’m going to represent my country in the Volvo Ocean Race.”
Of his Chinese crew, Caudrelier says Cheng Ying Kit, known as Kit, is the most experienced and technically competent and he and Wolf are considered great team players: “That is another reason they’re in the final race squad,” says Caudrelier. At 22 years old, Chen Jin Hao is the youngest member of the crew but has been described by Charles as having ‘great potential’.
The Dongfeng Race Team is a Chinese campaign with Chinese funding at its heart – Aeolus Tyres and the automobile city of Shiyan are also sponsors. Despite their clear disadvantages, the all-round enthusiasm and bravery emanating from both the onshore and offshore teams is inspiring. What they lack in ability and experience, they make up for in guts, ambition and commitment.
“Hopefully, this is the campaign that will open the door and give credibility to sailing and sponsorship in China, and in itself be quite fulfilling,” says Turner. “And it’s not just about the Chinese sailors – it’s about teaching the Chinese shore team how to effectively manage a campaign of this magnitude from a commercial, logistical, technical and communications perspective, since a future Chinese campaign must have all these skills, not just the sailors.”
Says Wolf: “China has come back and we’re at the turn of a new era in sailing,” adding: “I have come here not just for the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-2015, but also for the sailing future of China. I can promise you that once sailing becomes popular in China the whole world will be shocked by the huge potential.”