In the 2014 – 2015 race, the seasoned competition wasn’t worried about the new kid on the block. The Volvo Ocean Race is the most prestigious offshore sailing title, and world-class competition experience is a standard qualifier — nobody was losing sleep over the team from China, some of whose crew members had never spent the night on a sailboat before.
Nonetheless, Dongfeng managed to leave the world and their competition both in shock with a podium finish, smashing expectations and securing third place overall. Financed by Dongfeng Motor Corporation in Hubei province, the team from nowhere pulled off a feel-good ending, ahead of top-ranked teams in the world’s most advanced race. A lot of this they owe to the more experienced French sailors who worked with them to get things running smoothly after a disjointed start to the season, especially veteran skipper Charles Caudrelier.
Volvo Ocean Race — Caudrelier aboard Dongfeng
“The win in China legitimized what we were doing for our sponsors,” Mark Turner — then a team manager, who would later become the race’s CEO — told the New York Times, referring to a minor victory in their home port of Sanya. “The Chinese, culturally, want to win. But they also wanted Chinese sailors aboard. That was at odds with setting up a winning program.”
The Volvo Ocean Race is the Formula 1 of sailing, where minute differences in skill level and experience are magnified to become crucial differentiators. Despite a far-reaching cultural history of sailing expertise, China stands at a serious distance from the core world of modern competitive sailing, when compared to major players like France and the Netherlands. The stipulated inclusion of less-experienced Chinese sailors was seen as a handicap, which made the team’s upset success all the more exciting.
This year however, the Dongfeng sailing team seems to feature only one Chinese sailor front and center. Chen Jinhao, English name Horace, is a holdover from the team’s debut season, and an experienced sailor in his own right. He grew up by the sea in Shenzhen, and has already competed in the America’s World Cup Series and the Extreme Sailing Series. He’s also founder of Unione Sailing Club in his hometown, educating and bringing curious young people into the world of sailing.
Dongfeng Race Team — Chen Jinhao helping a young sailor aboard
The team’s debut race in 2014 had stronger numbers. The original contract required three out of the eight team members for each leg to be Chinese, but that demand was squashed by Caudrelier the skipper.
“He said it was just plain unsafe,” Mark Turner said of Caudrelier. “These boats are sailed with around three people on deck at any one time. There would have been scenarios where two of the crew had to be Chinese and very inexperienced, and Charles couldn’t handle that.”
Nonetheless, that season saw the team with four total Chinese sailors, rotating into two spots per leg aboard Dongfeng. In comparison, this year’s team seems to have been whitewashed to a degree. Despite the official website mentioning that “Caudrelier’s mixed crew will again include Chinese sailors,” Chen Jinhao is the only one listed and pictured with the other crew members. The other Chinese sailors seem to have slipped into the background, to make room for more experienced and competitive western imports.
It’s a phenomenon that’s not new in China. European soccer players and American basketball stars are hot commodities in Chinese leagues, with the athletes pulling in much heftier salaries than their Chinese teammates. Stephon Marbury is the most recent sensation to cross over from the NBA to the CBA, winning several championships with the Beijing Ducks, and now playing with the Beijing Fly Dragons. Brazilian footballer Oscar recently made the transfer from Chelsea to Shanghai SIPG, for a record-breaking $74 million.
Oscar on the field with Shanghai SIPG
The dynamic is a tricky one for China’s sports industry, and the government bodies who oversee it. Local institutions recognize the value of overseas imports, both in short and long term. In the short term, a single first tier player is enough to completely dominate the opposition. In the long term, the influx of new talent and the subsequent jump in playing standards is good for the overall development of the sport domestically.
China isn’t shy about swinging its weight around to make things happen — just last year the government unrolled The General Plan of Chinese Football Reform and Development, a 30-year plan aiming to elevate themselves to a world soccer superpower by 2050. In the wave of changes that followed, the number of foreign players allotted each team per game fell to three, and a tax rule was announced stating that every time a club in debt spent on an import, they would have to pay the same amount to a fund for developing the local game. The heavy-handed taxes and quotas are all part of an effort to create a nurturing environment for Chinese footballers. It’s a line to walk, requiring Chinese sports institutions to balance the technical advantages of having foreign players, with the reality that the entire Chinese league can’t be made up of Brazilians and Americans.
Volvo Ocean Race — Alicante welcomes Dongfeng at the first leg of this year’s race
In the Volvo Ocean Race, that territory is still untread. Sailing functions in a more spread out and disjointed way than geographically centralized basketball and soccer leagues. The Dongfeng team is the first mainland Chinese team to compete in the sport’s highest level, and there’s no real universal standard in place to dictate how much Chinese presence there needs to be. The Dongfeng Motor Corporation is a state-backed company, but the spending capabilities of a leading corporate sponsor seem to outweigh the state’s national pride at this point, if a decreased visibility of Chinese sailors is any way to judge.
Team Director Bruno Dubois spoke directly on the focus of their campaign, back in 2013 ahead of the Dongfeng debut:
“Our priority is the recruitment and training of the Chinese sailors. This is very clearly the biggest challenge we have – to condense many years of experience of the average Volvo Ocean Race crew into just 10 months. But equally this process is at the heart of the project; we want to leave a real legacy that will both motivate the Chinese to want to embrace the sport of sailing, and be able to develop the talent so that, ultimately, a future campaign could be 100% Chinese.”