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CHARLES CAUDRELIER took a surprise podium in the last Volvo Ocean Race with Dongfeng (a surprise to some)

Seahorse: Let’s talk a little about your experiences in the last race in 2014/15. You went into the Dongfeng Chinese-French programme off the back of winning the previous edition with Franck Cammas on Groupama 70. How much of that VO70 project could you take into a new campaign in smaller, less powerful VO65 one-designs?

Charles Caudrelier: Groupama was a winning team so of course you learn a lot in a programme like that. No team is ever perfect, though, so I tried to bring all the positive aspects from that campaign and change what I saw as weaknesses. But I obviously cannot do exactly the same – I don’t have the same sailors or the same project; now the boat is a one-design too so I try to find sailors who come from onedesign or dinghy backgrounds because it is all about how to make the boat go fast rather than how to design and mode it.

SH: In certain conditions you were definitely faster last time…

CC: We were strong at the beginning downwind and in light air. I think we had a different way of sailing and trimming sails initially, but afterwards everybody else started using our approach. At the end of the race we were actually not as fast, relatively, but people still thought of us as quick which was good for us! For sure, in light conditions we were always quite good, but equally in strong winds and above a certain boat speed we were a bit slower than some others.

The interesting thing of course is that at the time many people thought it was the boat making the difference, because when it is one-design people always blame the boat and not the crew. For us, it was about the way we trimmed the sails and to a lesser extent the boat itself.

SH: But were there conditions when you felt other boats did perform better…

CC: We had two big problems, one in the south and one at the end of the trans - atlantic leg into Lisbon. Other teams performed better than us – but we now know why and it is not a big issue. We have found the solution so we feel much stronger than two years ago.

SH: Where was race winner Abu Dhabi especially strong?

CC: They had a lot of previous Volvo experience. It was the third campaign for Ian Walker and the second with Abu Dhabi. They started training very early, with strong sailors with lots of experience – much more than us. They had good drivers, good trimmers and they managed their boat well. They did not take many risks, they kept out of trouble and let experience and practice do the job for them.

We spent a lot of time at the beginning teaching our Chinese sailors instead of working on speed. Even if the difference was not big at the start of the race and we were leading sometimes, Ian’s team always came out ahead because they never had any problems. We took more risks and sometimes that led to problems; but sometimes we had to. Abu Dhabi always had pressure on them but they stayed consistent.

SH: How much is VO65 speed about rig tune versus sail and hull trim?

CC: It’s complicated! Sail trimming, for sure, is number one as we all have the same boat and the same sails so this makes a big difference. The weight issue is less obvious; it’s difficult to know when to add weight for power or to sail light. It’s a call we have to make at the beginning of each leg depending on the forecast. But this is the only major choice to make before each leg – after that it’s just about the guys onboard.

This fleet stays closer but a lot still comes down to going the right way. The differences in speed by the end of the race were so small that the main decider was the route we chose, management of sail changes and of the boat. The decisions now are smaller but just as important.

SH: You and Pascal Bidégorry were always short of preparation time at the stopovers.

CC: For sure, last time it was a weakness. We did not have a lot of support – we didn’t have the budget. We had to make early choices on how to spend what we did have and maybe some of those choices were wrong. I know that it’s better to have someone ashore working with you, as Ian had with Marcel [Van Trieste, issue 448] – but then at the same time it is good when you don’t have support as it means you must look harder at the weather yourself.

If you compare us with Abu Dhabi, they had huge support from a big shoreside performance team. They were very good but maybe the sailors didn’t work as much as Pascal and me on the weather forecasts. But in the end I think we paid for it as it meant more pressure before each leg.

The two teams without support were us and Mapfre, I believe. And we were also the two crews who made mistakes with the TSS prohibited zones – the rules were changing every day and we passed inside.

We spent last week with Marcel Van Triest talking about the strongest points of Abu Dhabi and what was working well with them. For sure, we missed more support; this race is so long you can do it, but at the end you pay because you have less rest than the others… and always more pressure on the sailors.

SH: The loss of your rig was a big setback; what do you say to suggestions that it was in part due to the more aggressive way that you sometimes set up your boat?

CC: It is not about that. There were some problems with lines jamming when we needed to release them and this does not happen because of setting up too hard. I think people said that to put pressure on us. We have since been sailing with guys from other teams and we can see now that we loaded our boat up less than some crews – and we generally used less runner. So I don’t think it’s about that. When we broke the mast we were not overpowered but using quite small sails; the mistake was a Chinese gybe… that pushed everything a bit too far.

SH: Moving onto the next event, are you focusing on different areas from last time?

CC: Now I am focused on performance whereas before that was only 40-50 per cent of our effort. I have chosen my crew, we can start early and we are sailing other kinds of boats, small boats to get used to racing. You can’t race a lot with a V065. I also have a strong performance team and strong sailors who have experienced a winning project. Daryl [Wislang], Stu [Bannatyne] and myself have the experience and we have great new sailors like Jérémie Beyou who is known for going fast on one-design boats. I think we’re in a very different place from last time.

Charles Caudrelier (below) was first to get afloat with testing and start crew selection on Dongfeng. Caudrelier’s previous Dongfeng team finished 3rd in the 2014/15 race – a dismasting on Leg 5 costing them the runner-up spot. But 3rd was still way ahead of where the pundits expected a relatively inexperienced crew to end up. Caudrelier himself has a fierce track record, having won the 2011/12 Volvo with Groupama, plus the 2004 Figaro Solitaire, and twice winning the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre. Backed up by his trusty ‘first-mate’ Pascal Bidégorry, he’s clearly also one hell of a good sailing instructor…

SH: Crewing demands on the VO65s compared with the VO70s…

CC: The boat is smaller and a bit easier to handle. Which is good because we are only eight now compared to 11. The main difference is the navigator and skipper are now in the watch system, whereas on Groupama they floated; there we usually had four on deck, but now with a skipper and navigator on watch they need to spend a lot of time at the chart table so there are only three on deck most of the time.

That is why we need people who can fill a lot of jobs – because three people are racing a 65ft boat. You have a bowman and a pitman and a watch captain. The pitman and bowman have to be able to trim and drive, everything. Each person will drive more during a watch and trim more so it is more difficult, but the VO65 itself is a little easier.

SH: You have considerable shorthanded experience in your crew. Is that a deliberate choice because of the relative inexperience of some of your other sailors?

CC: I have chosen Jérémie, for example, because I know him well and he is a great sailor. I think it is good to have a solo sailor because we are only eight on the boat now, so as I said it is good to have people who do everything.

Plus it is always good having someone on deck who understands the whole picture. We are not like a lot of sailors I know in France who are specialists – very good in one specific area. It’s important to me to have people who understand where we are going, what we are doing and so on. This is why solo sailors are strong. I think I have a good mix of specialists and people who can do everything; this is how I want to build the team.

SH: Does all this solo experience make a difference to the watch system…

CC: No, it’s still the same watch system. But what we do have is a nice mixture, with Australians, Kiwis, British, Dutch, Chinese… and of course some French!

SH: You are likely to begin this race as the clear favourite.

CC: If that is the case then it will make no difference to how we sail. What it will mean is we have more pressure because last time no one expected us to do well; if we had a bad result everyone would have said it was normal and that we had rookies onboard. This time, for sure, we have more pressure but I do not think we are the favourites. In my view, the favourites could be the Spanish because they have done five Volvos together. They are great sailors and they are building a big team with people like Neal McDonald who coached Abu Dhabi last time. They are taking good sailors from other teams; I know them all well and respect them a lot.

SH: And your crew…

CC: The selection is finished. We have a few extra sailors to rotate because this time we have the budget – it is good because they will stay fresh. We work hard on the boat but because we have time we do not have to do too much and then be exhausted when we arrive at the start – that is what I want to avoid.

The last campaign we were exhausted by the start. In fact, restarts felt like going on holiday… like a rest between crazy stopovers. You have to arrive fresh and motivated and not fed up and tired.

SH: Will everyone follow your lead with a crew of seven men and two women…

CC: I don’t know what other teams will do but we have some idea. I am yet to confirm our combinations for each leg – 7, 8 or 9 – but I have the option to do everything. If I want to sail 8 or 9 then I need girls who have practised with us a lot and are a full part of the team; we have great sailors and I am very happy about my choice.

I do not see someone like Carolijn Brouwer as a ‘woman’, I see her as a crewmember. The same for Marie Riou. Carolijn has a lot of experience and is famous for being a strong driver so I am not worried about anything. Even today I can say that if I had to choose anyone then I would pick Carolijn ahead of a lot of guys for her spirit, motivation… and racing skill.

SH: Finally, Dongfeng is now seen as a fully international campaign – but is your following in France still growing?

CC: Sailing is very popular in France so it is natural there is still a lot of interest in us. The Volvo Ocean Race is not as popular as the Vendée Globe, but since Groupama I think it is becoming more famous and it is our job to help with this too. The French follow people like Jérémie, Marie and me (I hope!) – so, yes, we will see more interest in France. But this is about creating a legacy for sailing in China; it was great to get such a big following there last time and I hope that continues, especially with three Chinese sailors in the team. People want to follow their stories. But for China it is also about winning and the interest there will still depend on how well we go.

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