Dongfeng Race Team became the first Chinese-flagged campaign to win the Volvo Ocean Race when it took the title after winning a tense and exciting final leg from Gothenburg in Sweden to The Hague in The Netherlands.
Three teams had started the last stage of what is regarded as the world championship of fully-crewed offshore ocean racing tied on points – the other two were the Spanish entry MAPFRE and the Dutch crew on Team Brunel – but Dongfeng Race Team took the honours.
In the closing stages, skipper Charles Caudrelier and navigator Pascal Bidegorry followed the pre-race advice of the team’s shore-based meteorologist Marcel Van Triest and chose an inshore route to the finish line along the German and Dutch coasts which paid handsome dividends.
Dongfeng’s victory into The Hague was its first leg win of the 11-stage race that set sail from Alicante in Spain last October and has visited Portugal, South Africa, Australia, China, New Zealand, Brazil, the US, Great Britain, Sweden and finally Holland.
However the Chinese-flagged crew was always in the fight for stage wins and scored seven podium finishes on its way to overall victory. It was also the fastest boat of the seven-strong fleet in terms of total elapsed time around the world.
Daryl Wislang, watch captain on Dong Feng said it was a “calculated gamble” to split and take the coastal route. They lost ground initially but found speed when it mattered most and had a straight run to the finish line while MAPFREand Team Brunel lost time in a gybing duel coming in from the west.
“We’d done a fair bit of research down that area. There’s a lot of shallow stuff and you had to be careful … a few guys had written it off. But the situation we were in, we felt it was best. We were leeward of MAPRE and decided to go for it. There was no going back, the cards had been dealt,” Wislang recounted.
Skipper Caudrelier said he was both delighted and relieved by the historic victory.
“I cannot believe it,” he admitted. “Even until the last 10 minutes I was saying something was going to happen. We have had so much frustration over the last nine months, never winning a leg. We were always in a good position at the start and then failing and failing and, as a skipper, it was really tough.”
Caudrelier paid tribute to his crew, made up of men and women from seven nations including Australia.
“Our fantastic team is not only about the sailors – we were the strongest team because of everybody we had working behind us,” he said. “Each time we started a leg we knew the shore team had done everything for us and so I would like to offer them this victory – thank you to everybody in Dongfeng Race Team.”
Carolijn Brouwer, who lives on the NSW Central Coast with partner and multiple world sailing champion Darren Bundock and son Kyle, was one of three female sailors aboard Dongfeng. Brouwer, a two race Volvo veteran, France’s Marie Riou, and Swiss sailor Justine Mettraux, become the first women to win what must be professional sport’s most gruelling event.
“It’s crazy. It has been an insane race; it has been an insane leg,” said Brouwer, who also represented Belgium during her Olympic Tornado career.
“We always said that we were going to win a leg and there’s no better leg to win than the last one – and here we are and we have won the race.”
Aussie sailor and Dongfeng bowman Jack Bouttell, from Sydney, is also celebrating the team’s success – underpinned by their consistency which saw them notch up four second places over the race’s eleven legs.
It’s a big moment for sailing in China and Chinese sailors Chen Jinhao ‘Horace’ and Xue Liu ‘Black’, who were on board Dong Feng for its third place overall in the last Volvo Ocean Race in 2014-15.
Bruno Dubois, Team Director of Dongfeng Race Team, paid tribute to the way his crew handled a tense and difficult final leg. “We sailed our own race and stuck to our guns in the final stages,” he said. “Charles and everyone on board can be extremely proud of their performance in this race. Although we never won a leg until today we were always there or thereabouts and we never gave up.”