Volvo Ocean Race – Today is 26th February. Today is Charles Caudrelier’s 41st birthday. Today marks Charles’ one-year anniversary as Skipper for Dongfeng Race Team.
Today we’d like to let you into the world of a man that everybody yet at the same time, nobody knows. We don’t pretend to understand him but we hope that by reading this you will appreciate him just as much as we do.
I didn’t know Charles back then. I’m not sure I know him much now either, he doesn’t speak for the sake of it. But I’m not sure we have to speak much to understand each other. – Bruno Dubois.
Sailing is a technical sport. No doubt it’s easy to appreciate sailing as a competition but understanding the ins and outs of the sport, that’s a whole different story. Few people understand the technical side of sailing but once you do, you live it, breathe it and it never stops.
People make flippant remarks that sailors are boring. Only bothered about the ocean, only bothered about sailing. Chatting amongst themselves about things people can barely understand making them outsiders. In a way it’s like a secret language that only a handful of people can speak and those who speak it best create bonds that run deeper than most. Take Charles and Pascal for example, a mutual respect and understanding for what they do and in many ways what they live for.
It defines them.
Plucked from Port La Forêt (a place in Brittany, France that just seems to generate great sailors) Charles has had a spectacular sailing career in France. Winning the Volvo Ocean Race with Skipper Franck Cammas onboard Groupama in 2012 was just one of the many highlights. We could give you a list of many impressive achievements but it would take too long. Plus, it’s nothing Wikipedia won’t tell you.
Instead we want to take you a little deeper into how Charles has made this project what it is today and perhaps some behind the scenes situations that have shown a side to him that wouldn’t otherwise be shared.
Bruno Dubois approached Charles with the offer of skipper knowing that Charles was searching for a new challenge. He also knew that no already established Skippers would take on the responsibility of finding and training Chinese sailors. In fact, that’s not entirely correct – perhaps Bruno could have found an established Skipper to do it. The problem was finding someone who would truly embrace the Chinese element of the project. Back then, having multiple inexperienced Chinese crew was considered a hindrance on performance. Bruno is a smart man and wasn’t about to be fooled by men that agreed to run the project but for a certain price. He wanted to find someone who was fully engaged and who respected him enough to not do a half-hearted job.
A man of few words and a wicked sense of humour, at the beginning of the project Charles came across as quiet, reserved. But as the western sailors arrived one-by-one it soon became clear that Charles might have been silent but he was strong. Uncountable times where tempers could have flared Charles was always the first stepping into situations to cool them down. Standing his ground on certain situations he soon gained the respect of everyone around him. Even those who couldn’t understand what he was saying.
For example, one year ago the crew were getting ready to go sailing and one of the Chinese sailors was asked to release a halyard (rope) for one of the sails, but he didn’t understand which one. Instead of checking, he released the wrong rope and the 75kg boom crashed onto the deck breaking and causing damage to the €4.5 million boat. It was clear that the Chinese recruits may nod in acknowledgement, but actually they did not understand. It kept Charles awake at night. But no one was blamed, in fact, he made sure it was barely mentioned again.
A few months later the team had relocated to the UK and during Cowes Week, the UK’s premier sailing regatta, the team were subject to ridicule as they ran aground in front of the entire sailing community. It could have affected the team spirit, the shore crew could have resented the sailing team for the extra hours they would have to work but this didn’t happen. What did happen is that Charles made a speech about the importance of friendship; he looked around the room and said to the shore team, ‘You could be angry about what happened, you could have said something to me but you didn’t. You worked hard to repair my mistake and for that I thank you.’ Then he turned to the Chinese sailors helping on the shore crew and smiles, ‘At least you’re learning how to repair the boat, just in case!
His approach to the project and the team has been personal, it’s not just a job and he doesn’t do it for the glory. Even crossing the finish line in Sanya in first place, there weren’t any over the top celebrations – just a small fist pump for the cameras. He then immediately joked we could all go home because arriving first in China was our dream come true.
Charles was once described by a key figure in the sailing industry as ‘a man with a lot of responsibility that doesn’t necessarily want it.’ Maybe it appeared that way but in a private meeting with the western crew his first words were, ‘I know you want to perform and so do I. But you need to know that if we want to perform, the first thing we have to do is teach the Chinese.’ Charles was fast stepping up to his role and the fact his team is now leading the race overall and leading the fleet to Auckland – it just makes us smile and think he must be doing something right.
In typical Breton style Charles is praising his team for the unbelievable progress:
‘We’ve had really hard moments, phases of total exhaustion, and moments of real frustration and anger but onboard there is always someone ready to re-motivate the others, someone with a positive outlook. I am so lucky to be surrounded by a magic team. At the start of this race I was really feeling the pressure. The crew selection is the key to success on this race. You don’t need the best sailors, you need the best team – it’s not the same thing.
The race is still very long, this leg also, everything can still happen, but those that know me well know that I am never satisfied. However, exceptionally, I can say that I am very happy with the choices I’ve made, and if I had to choose again, I would change nothing. As a team we are managing to be competitive whilst fully respecting our commitment to train, develop and sail alongside our Chinese sailors. I am proud.
This project would not be what it is without him. So we’d just like to take this opportunity to say thank you Charles and Happy Birthday.
by Dongfeng Race Team