As Volvo Ocean Race Begins, Its Future Rides on Dongfeng

Aerial view of the fleet during the In-Port Race in Alicante, Spain on Oct. 4 Photograph by David Ramos/Volvo Ocean Race

When the starting gun went off in Alicante, Spain, on Oct. 4, a stiff breeze was blowing. Seven 66-foot sailboats approached the start line, fighting for the best angle as the wind shifted. Stays chimed. Men scrambled. A bright sun burnt silhouettes of sails across the horizon. Rather than fight for the line, one of the boats—the Dongfeng Race Team, the only Chinese boat ever to enter the event—broke with the rest, taking an opposite, port tack and starting from behind, but at closer to full speed.

It was a bold move, and, for most of the six-leg, 7.8 nautical mile race, Dongfeng’s skipper Charles Caudrelier kept the boat in the top three. A slow sail change in the final leg cost the team precious time, and Dongfeng ended up fifth. Still, it was a good finish considering that some of Dongfeng’s crew had never competed in an open water regatta, much less the Volvo Ocean Race, one of the sport’s capstone competitions.

HRH Prince Carl Philip of Sweden with skipper Charles Caudrelier at the helm of Dongfeng Race Team during the ProAm Race for the Volvo Ocean Race in Alicante, Spain on Oct. 5
Photograph by Marc Bow/Volvo Ocean Race via Getty Images

As the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race gets under way, all eyes are on the Dongfeng crew—and not merely because they’re new at it or because of Cauderelier, a Frenchman who crewed on the winning boat of the last Ocean Race three years ago. Last year, Volvo Group, the Volvo Race’s founding and primary sponsor, reached an agreement to purchase a 45 percent stake in Dongfeng Motor Group, a Chinese government-controlled company. The transaction made the Volvo Group the world’s largest manufacturer of heavy-duty trucks. (Volvo Group is the truck and construction equipment portion of the brand, not to be confused with the consumer car group, which was purchased by a Chinese company in 2010.)

The Volvo Ocean Race is one of the Volvo Group’s largest marketing expenditures, and for the race to remain worth the expense, it needs to build a Chinese following. At least that’s what the Volvo Group has determined. And “to work in China, they have to have a Chinese team, and not just a token one,” says Mark Turner. “There’s a lot of pressure riding on this. Making sailing a bigger deal in China is necessary to the future of the Volvo Ocean Race.”

To manage the Chinese entry, Dongfeng hired O.C. Sport, a global sports management company with offices in Europe and Singapore. Turner is O.C. Sport’s executive chairman. To select the Dongfeng crew, O.C. Sport weeded through more than 400 contestants, at times subjecting potential team members to such tests as being kept awake for 48 hours. The finalists were pushed through months of intensive sailing training. That’s how Liu Meng, whose previous race experience was limited to dinghies, ended up in Spain with five other Chinese teammates, the equivalent of moving to the Yankees after playing only in Little League.

Race village in Alicante, Spain
Courtesy Volvo Ocean Race

Over the next nine months, the teams will race to 11 ports around the world as well as sail in 10 in-port competitions like the one in Spain. During these 22 races, they’ll log 38,000 nautical miles, eating 6,000 calories a day, and not showering unless there’s rain. Not that there aren’t some perks: For their first off-shore leg, Dongfeng is bringing along 225 Chinese soups, two bottles of extra spicy Asian sauce, two containers of soya sauce, and two of sweet chili.

Fortunately for Volvo Group and the Dongfeng team, signs are that sailing is already catching on in China. In the past three or four years, there’s been an explosion of yacht clubs on the mainland—sailing has always been popular in Hong Kong—and Chinese sailors have recently gained international acclaim: In 2012, Xu Lijia won the Laser Class at the London Olympics, the second gold in the history of Chinese sailing. Jack Ma, the former chief executive of Alibaba and the richest man in China, “was out sailing at a recent Chinese regatta,” Turner notes.

The fleet at the start of Leg 1
Photograph by David Ramos/Volvo Ocean Race

Dongfeng is only the second Chinese company to have an athletic sponsorship in Western markets, after Yingli Solar, who sponsored the 2010 World Cup. In the West, sponsorship has ballooned over the past 30 years as businesses focus on connecting their brands with lifestyles and values. Now, as Chinese companies venture into global markets, they’re trying to raise their brand equity, too. Naturally, Turner sees this as a great opportunity for the sport. “Sailing is a good association for brands that need to be considered premium,” he says.

For now, the Dongfeng team faces nine months of hard sailing with a little hope and a lot of grit. The team started out on the first open ocean leg, from Alicante to Cape Town, on Oct. 11, and as a Chinese proverb puts it, “Everything is ready, and all that we need is an east wind.”