by Jonno Turner
The Volvo Ocean Race crew onboard Team Dongfeng is in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, a charming little enclave that sits a million miles from the harsh realities of the Southern Ocean.
Team Dongfeng, skippered by Frenchman Charles Caudrelier
The clock has barely chimed nine, yet the foreheads of this 10-strong Dongfeng Race Team crew glisten and glimmer like the sharp, wet edges of the proud grass below their feet.
For 15 minutes, this Franco-Chinese (with a sprinkle of Swedish) team has been bending and bounding around, trainers squelching and squeaking on the damp and dewy turf of this English garden.
It’s 9.10am now, and as the sailors jump hot-hamstringed leaps from east to west, it’s clear that this is a team making great strides – both literally and figuratively.
The mission? To revolutionise sailing in China. The man tasked with it? Charles Caudrelier.
Having won the last edition of this race on board Groupama, the Frenchman has been there and done it – so what brought him back to the race for a second time?
'I like the Chinese challenge,' he smiles, taking deep, heavy breaths. 'Also, I’m 40 years old now, and I like to transmit. It’s a dream to be a skipper - I’m so lucky as there are a lot of guys who deserve this chance.'
'It’s important for the sport to become more international – and the Chinese want to become a major player in it.'
Since February this year, Charles has been patiently and purposely creating what is probably the most diverse team in the history of the race.
But with new territory, comes new pressures. 'I have a responsibility to the project,' he says. 'We need a good result – not just in terms of the race, but from the Chinese aspect.'
Half of his crew might be a little raw when it comes to offshore racing, but this team does have a strong core. A daily 9.20am dose of sit-ups and crunches sees to that.
Charles’ Swedish Groupama team mate, Martin Stromberg, and navigator Pascal Bidégorry, a Volvo Ocean Race rookie - but a decorated one, who has crossed the Atlantic over 30 times - both boast thousands of nautical miles under their belts.
The influence and experience of those seasoned and salty round the world sailors can be felt throughout the crew – but is there a danger that they will have to babysit their Chinese colleagues, who are greener than the lawn they’re currently wrestling upon?
Yep, it’s now 9.30am, and the session has now moved on to what can only be described as a hopping Royal Rumble – every man for himself, bouncing around on one leg and charging each other out of the square.
'No, each guy has to be his own responsibility,' Pascal says, answering my question. 'If you spend too much time watching what they do, you will make mistakes yourself. I too have to learn to be a good sailor on board.'
'There is a really simple, good spirit in this team,' he adds. 'It’s easy to work with the Chinese guys – they have progressed a lot.'
Shoulder to shoulder with their teammates. Pushing one and other to the limits.
'I know that I can learn a lot from these guys,' smiles Black, one of the Chinese crew candidates, looking on at the play fighting.
'The older guys like Charles and Pascal feel a little bit like a brother, and a little bit like a father.'
Charles chuckles. 'I feel like a big brother,' he says. 'Some of these guys are 20, and I can remember how I was when I was that age.'
'They are very lucky to have this chance, and we have to take care of them, to teach them. But they want to learn - and they learn very quickly.'
There’s no time to rest. It’s 9.40am, and it’s time for strength training. Sailors are split into pairs – and begin a lung-busting piggyback relay race.
Lifting their brothers. Carrying them. Taking the strain, and the pain, leg after leg after leg - all the way to the finish line.
These are all skills that will prove vital as the crew embarks on the adventure of a lifetime in October.
It’s all about strength, balance, flexibility and teamwork as the team's South African fitness guru, Julian Calefato barks at the tired troops. The training, yes – but also the nine month, round the world slog that lies ahead.
'Ocean sailing isn’t very advanced in terms of sports science,' Julian explains, without for a moment taking an eye off his breathless charges.
'But it is getting better. There’s a lot more to developing these elite athletes, and the physical conditioning of their bodies.'
At first glance, these activities don’t pay much resemblance to sailing – but as the laughs echo around the garden, it’s also clear to see that they’re about much more than fitness.
'It’s no longer a technology race, it’s now a human performance race,' adds Julian.
'It’s all about how these guys can perform together, and how well they can bond.'
Out of breath and drenched in sweat, the sailors relax into some stretching and flexibility exercises as the clock strikes 10 to 10.
'For me, the most painful time last campaign was before the race,' grimaces Charles. 'You don’t see the other boats, and you’re training alone.'
'The level of the team when we get to Alicante will be low in comparison to what it will be at the end of the race,' he adds. 'The best team will be the one which is ready to improve quickly – and that improvement starts now.'
As the session comes to an end, and the team dry off, the final race is to the kitchen. Breakfast is served.
'So what’s so special about the Volvo Ocean Race?' I ask.
'I like the human aspect, it's very rich, and last time it opened my eyes,' replies Charles. 'With the Chinese aspect, the level is even higher. It's a really different culture, and really interesting.'
Pascal adds, 'By the end of this race, we will have shared one and a half years of our lives together. That’s meaningful.'
I pose the same question to Black, as he carefully selects a croissant from the table. He’s quick to answer. 'Training together, eating together, sailing together. I’m at home with this team.'
You know what? Maybe this lot aren’t so different after all.
Volvo Ocean Race