Volvo Ocean Race -The longer you stay front, the harder it becomes to convince yourself you can stay there
From Ed Gorman, former Sailing Correspondent, The Times (UK)
Leg 3: Abu Dhabi to Sanya (4,670 nautical miles)
Days at sea: 16
Boat speed: 5 knots
Position in the fleet: (Still) out in front
Lead over second-placed boat MAPFRE: 60.8 nautical miles
Distance to the finish: 1,446 nautical miles
Quote of the moment: “It’s going to be such a shame if everything comes down to a Malaccan Strait lottery.”
The Chinese entry in the Volvo Ocean Race, Dongfeng Race Team, has been leading the marathon leg from Abu Dhabi to Sanya for almost every hour of the last 16 days and the pressure on them to complete this breakaway performance on one of the trickiest legs of the race, is mounting all the time.
You can compare them to a fox running ahead of the hounds, a cyclist trying a solo breakaway in the Tour de France, a bank robber being chased by the police or you can think of them as they are – a crew of elite and some novice sailors on a (relatively) slow boat to China trying to pull off what could be a stunning win.
Remember for the determined men on Dongfeng, their shore team and all their supporters and families, this is the leg to win. With a unique team mission to not only do as well in the race as possible but also help to establish the sport of offshore sailing in China, getting to the finish of this leg first has potentially far-reaching consequences. The Chinese love a winner and the impact of arriving first into Dongfeng’s home port would be inestimable. For the Chinese sailors on board this leg, Liu Xue (aka Black), and Cheng Ying Kit, it would be the fulfilment of a dream.
But no–one, least of all the crew, is getting ahead of themselves. There is a massive amount of work still to do before Sanya comes into view. The numbers tell their own awe-inspiring story. The Dongfeng crew have been at sea for 16 days already in hot and humid temperatures and generally light and fickle winds – but they still have as many as 10 more days to go. They have sailed over 3,000 nautical miles already – from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean – but they still have 1,500 to go and they include potentially the riskiest waters of the lot.
Why? Because the next 500 miles cover the southern part of the Malacca Strait as Dongfeng passes Kuala Lumpur to port and then heads into the narrow section of the waters between Sumatera and the Malaysian peninsula. Their goal is to thread the needle at the bottom of the Strait, the ship-strewn waters of the Strait of Singapore, while still ahead of the chasing pack and then escape into the South China Sea. But the winds are almost impossible to predict in this region and leading is almost a disadvantage because the navigators on the boats behind can watch what happens to the boat in front and then pick their lane to go past.
No wonder the Dongfeng skipper Charles Caudrelier has used the word “torture” to describe the anxious minutes that he and his crew countdown to each six-hourly position schedule that shows the gains and losses in the fleet. And no wonder too that crewman Kevin Escoffier was warning today that the apparently healthy lead Dongfeng is currently enjoying could evaporate in just a few hours.
“The rate at which we are doing manoeuvres is intensifying,” he said. “According to the routing (software), we’re going to suffer a severe loss to our positioning in the next 24 hours. The other boats could get to within 10 miles of us, even though we’re 100 miles ahead of them right now. This has been a long and monotonous leg and it’s going to be such a shame if everything comes down to a Malaccan Strait lottery.”
Escoffier added that the crew have been spotting tons of rubbish in the water, bits of debris and plastic and even tree trunks as they pick their way south-east in light north-easterly winds. Fortunately they have bumped into things but not into anything hard enough to cause damage to the hull. “Let’s keep it that way,” urged Escoffier.
He, by the way, has once again demonstrated his remarkable versatility as an all-rounder by leading the repairs to the pad-eye fixing on Dongfeng’s starboard quarter that earlier in the leg showed signs of movement for the second time in the race.
Among the other crew Liu Xue, or “Black”, has been running his rule over his fellow sailors. Here is his thumbnail sketch of Caudrelier – the boss. “Charles is very sloppy to be honest. But he’s got lots of clothes and he keeps changing. He’s also a very serious person. You can tell how much he cares about the race from lots of details. He gets worried when there’s no wind or there’s no good position…and then he talks to himself. Sometimes he slaps the deck to express his worries. Then he goes back to work right after that. In summery, he’s a very serious guy.”
Tomorrow Black’s assessment of Caudrelier’s righthand man, the Dongfeng navigator Pascal Bidegorry.