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Dongfeng Volvo Ocean Race team getting a lesson in patience

By Chris Davis | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-01-11 16:12
Surrounded by the still, glassy, becalmed Pacific, Dongfeng bowman “Horace” waits for a puff of wind. PROVIDED BY DONGFENG RACE TEAM

Few things are more frustrating than hitting the doldrums in a transoceanic speed race. The wind abandons your sails, you're left adrift at the mercy of currents, and the wait for the slightest wisp of breeze can seem interminable.

The temptation is to break out the paddles or clench a bowline in your teeth, and dive in the water to pull the boat with a mighty breaststroke.

The only saving grace about the predicament is that the rest of the field, all of your competitors, are stuck in the same fix too.

So we find the Dongfeng Race Team on what's turning out to be a very tough Leg Four of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race - seven teams and built-for-speed ocean racers battling to escape the doldrums of the western Pacific, having departed Melbourne Dec 10 and now trying to coax any hull speed out of the boat to reach Hong Kong 3,300 miles to the northwest.

In the Atlantic, the doldrums are nicknamed the Horse Latitudes because it was there that vessels stocked with colonists, livestock and supplies bound for the New World would become becalmed, run out of food and to avoid starvation (or mutiny) would have to slaughter the horses to eat.

Luckily, the Dongfeng red and white Volvo Ocean 65, sponsored by the Chinese truck and car manufacturer Dongfeng Motor Corporation, is well enough fitted out that nothing so dire would ever happen. But they do stand second overall in the round-the-world race and in fifth place in this stalled heat.

As one crew member put it, they are 10 miles behind the front leader and a multi-thousand-mile race has come down to one of inches.

"The competition is intense," crew member Carolijn Brouwer of the Netherlands said in a written message from onboard on Monday. "Every time I come on watch, I can see four other boats around me. We are all lined up next to each other about four miles apart, trying to be the first boat to reach the new northeasterly trade winds. And we are fighting for every inch."

The heat is intense and the challenge, she said, is to stay focused. "One little gust of wind missed that our rivals have not missed is another inch lost, or, if we do it right, another inch won."

With the Philippines 2,800 miles away, one favorable cloud for one boat could change everything.

"You need to keep your cool to get through the doldrums," crewman Martin Keruzore said. "We've been trying to make headway though this burning, becalmed hell for the past 24 hours."

On board is bowman Chen Jinhao, 26, who adopted the nickname of "Horace" and hails from Shenzhen. He started out as a windsurfer and said it was always his dream to sail around the world on a Volvo team. He also founded the Union Sailing Club to promote sailing in China. His passion, he said, is to teach sailing to kids.

Sailing with a team of seasoned professionals, he said he learns something and gets great advice every day.

"Most of the things I do are totally new for me, and I want to learn quickly and do the job well," he said, adding that the only thing that makes him angry is when he makes silly mistakes with things he knows how to do.

The lesson for now, it seems, is that even for the hardest-working crews, fortunes can change dramatically from just being a few hundred yards to the lee or windward of a rival.

In a situation when any other oceangoing yacht would switch on the "iron horse" or engine, these racers can't even jump in the water for a moment to escape the heat. They have to be ready for that elusive gust of wind.

This is the Dongfeng Race Team's second Volvo Ocean Race campaign. In 2014-15, also under the leadership of French sailing legend Charles Caudrelier, it finished third overall. Apart from going for the gold and winning, the team is committed to helping to grow the sport of offshore ocean racing in China.

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