With the closest Volvo Ocean Race finish in the event’s history, it was a delighted Charles Caudrelier and his Dongfeng Race Team who ultimately came out on top. Rob Kothe has been talking to winning Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) skipper and navigator Pascal Bidégorry both nursing hangovers in The Hague.

Leg 11, from Gothenburg to The Hague, day 02. 22 June, 2018.


It’s been a long race, Xabi Fernandez and his MAPFRE crew had been dominant in the early legs, with a second and two wins. Then eight times VOR veteran Bouwe Bekking’s Brunel from Auckland onwards sailed out of their skins with a win, then a second and two more victories, while Dongfeng was thereabouts from the race beginning.

Caudrelier and Bidégorry both have impeccable shorthanded and multihull credentials with wins in the Solitaire du Figaro and Transat Jacques Vabre. Caudrelier started racing the VOR in 2011-12 as part of Frank Cammas winning Groupama crew, while Bidégorry’s second VOR was in the 2014-15 race on Dongfeng. His first was with SEB in 2001-2.

Caudrelier says: “We have been campaigning since 2013, but a lot of our time before the last race was spent teaching the Chinese sailors and this time we did not need to do that. We were able to start our serious training early, then did a big one-on-one training block with MAPFRE and we knew we had a significant advantage by the time the race started.

“We knew we were fast, but we made a few mistakes. However, we almost always on the podium. We were very disappointed to have been leading into Newport with 15 miles to go and then to finish fifth, but we stayed in the hunt.”

And hunt it was, with just the final leg to be sailed, Dongfeng, MAPFRE and Brunel were on level-pegging, the winner of Leg 11 was going to be the overall race winner, as the scriptwriters’ dream race unfolded.

A complicated leg, 970 nautical miles adjusted with a virtual mark to make sure the fleet finished on Sunday afternoon in the Hague. There were regular lead changes from Denmark up to Norway, back down to Aarhus and back up north again, with light weather compression then south towards Germany and the Netherlands.

Dongfeng and MAPFRE were close together on the Danish coast, then came the most important decision of the entire 45,000 nautical mile race. Bidégorry explained: “The Traffic Separation Scheme decision, whether to go east or west was critical because you could not cross back. We were very well prepared this leg, and for us, it was a big decision because we knew we would lose a lot early and would only catch up at the end, at the last moment.”

Earlier in the race Bidgegorry had talked half-jokingly about nav station decision making saying “sometimes I think, when we’ve had a bad sked, after breaking away from the fleet, they will be saying on the rail, I just want to THROW him into the sea.”

After the decision to take the coastal route saw Dongfeng drop a long way behind their rivals, he no doubt felt like that again.

“It was part of our pre-start discussions,” explains Caudrelier. “Our shore-side navigator said we should take the inshore route. He pushed a lot because I had ignored his recommendation in the Lisbon to Cape Town leg and that probably cost us the leg win.

“Pascal pushed a lot too and said, ‘we must go there’, and I said OK, having learnt we must back ourselves.”

Meanwhile, MAPFRE had initially stayed with Dongfeng, while AkzoNobel and Brunel had sailed wide lining up for the outside track. Late in the game, the MAPFRE afterguard decided they should sail the westerly course also and to do that from close on the Danish coast, they had an unfavourable angle and lost some significant miles and looking back that probably cost them the leg and the race.

“We knew by taking the inshore route, we would be far behind for a long time but on the last skeds we were 27 miles behind, then 20 miles and we thought we had lost,” the French skipper recalls.

“But then in the morning after the sked, I ran some routing, and it showed we could be a mile of ahead of the western boats the end. With that, I woke everyone up and explained we had to push and we did. And we won!”

The Leg 11 finishing order was Dongfeng, AkzoNobel, MAPFRE, Brunel, Turn the Tide on Plastic, Sun Hai Scallywag and Vestas 11th Hour racing.
Dongfeng won the 2017-18 race, from MAPFRE and Brunel.

“One decision in this last race, that’s what it took,” say Bidgegorry. “This has been our second campaign, and we have been working very hard for the last five years. We have been thinking about every minute, every day, thinking about how we can win this race. That has been our focus all the time.

“During the first ten legs, many many times we led the fleet but never at the end. I said in Cardiff if we want to win the race we have to win one of the two legs. Winning the last one is almost unbelievable.

“I am happy how we finished because we won backing our judgment and the result is completely amazing.”

Caudrelier was reflective “My early focus was single handed sailing; my dream was to win the Vendee Globe, but then I discovered this race and I love it so much. It has become my life. We have all made so many sacrifices, to be here, which was our dream and now we have won.”

Winners are grinners, and there was obvious jubilation in the Chinese camp. Before the last leg, Caudrelier and Bidégorry told Yachts and Yachting that if they won the race, the whole crew would go out and get drunk.

Looking at the tired and exhausted faces amongst the champagne-soaked crew you’d guess that probably would not have taken very long.

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