CARDIFF, Wales (Reuters) - Ambling across his vast Volvo Ocean 65 racing yacht, Dongfeng Race Team’s French skipper Charles Caudrelier carries Chinese expectations on his shoulders.
With his crew of nine leading the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race with only two short “sprint” legs to go to the finish line in The Hague, Caudrelier is in relaxed mood as they practice in the Severn Estuary.
The next leg of the gruelling nine-month contest, which began in Alicante in Spain last October, starts from Cardiff on Sunday. The Dongfeng crew of seven men and two women are watching their opponents closely in a short warm-up race, keen to avoid mistakes or damage to their 65-foot boat or its sails.
“You have some highs, but you have some big lows and it’s hard to stay together,” Caudrelier said when asked about the biggest challenges of the competition, adding that it was tough for sailors to be away from their families for long stretches.
A win for Dongfeng in the race, which began in the 1970s and is regarded as one of the toughest in sailing because much of it is crossing the remote and hazardous Southern Ocean, would be a first for China, which has been keen to develop offshore racing.
“I’ve tried to build this team as a family and we have had some success, it was really important that the Chinese sailors felt included in the team and the performance,” Caudrelier told Reuters this week on board Dongfeng, which is sponsored by China’s Dongfeng Motor Corporation.
Chinese sailors Yang Jiru “Wolf”, Chen Jinhao “Horace” and Xue Liu “Black” are all back in the 12-member squad for their second Volvo Ocean Race with Dongfeng after securing a podium finish at their first attempt, alongside race veterans from France, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia.
Black, 25, who is back sailing after an injury kept him ashore, springs into action as Caudrelier puts the sleek red yacht through its paces, with a quiet but firm instruction of “Three, two, one ... tack” to let the crew know it is turning.
The practice race does not go Dongfeng’s way and they end up in the middle of the seven boat fleet, behind their nearest rivals MAPFRE from Spain and Dutch crew Team Brunel. But Caudrelier, 44, has his sights set on winning the next two legs and feels China’s backing for the campaign.
“We have incredible support from the public and from Dongfeng, it is the best sponsor I have had. They didn’t know about sailing before, but they trust us 100 percent,” he said.
Caudrelier, whose team joke that he is a dead ringer for Prince Harry, is focused on a yet-elusive leg win in the next one to Gothenburg in Sweden in order to build on a single point lead over MAPFRE and a three-point advantage over Brunel.
“I hope the highlights of the race are coming in the next two legs,” Caudrelier added with a rare laugh.
Editing by Andrew Roche