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Volvo Ocean Race - Near collision with whale for Dongfeng

by Dongfeng Race Team on 4 Jun 2014
A variety of conditions onboard as Dongfeng Race Team prepare to race for China in the Volvo Ocean Race Dongfeng Race Team
When crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a Volvo Ocean 65, it’s relatively easy to imagine the challenges you might face. Dealing with storms, exhaustion, seasickness and feeling cold, wet and hungry 24/7 are a given, but few of us actually imagine some of the less obvious dangers that are out there in the depths of this unpredictable ocean, including other life forms…

From Skipper Charles Caudrelier: 'We had the scariest experience to date during the night when we came so close to hitting a whale, so close we could hear it breathing. You can smell whales in the air but in the pitch black you can’t tell where they are. You can’t sense them in the water because very often when whales are at the surface it’s because they’re sleeping, so it’s a nasty surprise for both the whale and us! I just held my breath knowing how close we were to potential danger but, thankfully, we didn’t hit it – we just had a near miss. The night was one of the darkest I’ve ever experienced with absolutely no moon at all, we had barley any visual. When the night is that black it’s hard for your eyes to adapt,' reported Charles.

'But all is well onboard. I’m very happy with how the Chinese guys appear to be coming into their own, they are showing true determination. I am especially pleased with how well Kong is doing considering he had less time to train than the other two. He has shown bravery and strength over the past 24 hours and I am very impressed. Onboard disappointment crept in as we realised that the high pressure in front of us had shifted, we tried to cross a front and it killed the wind from the west. We had light wind all day yesterday and as predicted at nightfall when the rain came we went from 10 to 40 knots in just a few minutes.'

Team Director Bruno Dubois had a similar experience when he participated in the Volvo Ocean Race (known as the Whitbread back then). 'When we were sailing from New Zealand to Punta del Este we hit a whale, we lost our rudder and lost the race at the same time,' said Bruno. 'Back then the ranking of the race was based on the accumulation of time for each leg and not points like it is today. When something as unpredictable as hitting a whale happens during the race it’s devastating.'

Hitting (or narrowly missing in our case!) a whale is one of the many lurking dangers of offshore sailing. 'The most challenging part of the transatlantic for the team is the weather and technical issues,' explains the team’s Technical Manager Neil Graham. 'The other night the team had 45 knots of wind but had they been in the centre of the depression they could have had up to 60 knots. This is something a Volvo Ocean 65 is equipped to handle but strong winds exacerbate problems, you only need a few things to go wrong and you’re in serious trouble.'

Four days into their transatlantic crossing, Dongfeng Race Team has covered around 700nm with 2,160nm to go to the finish. The latest routing predicts an estimated arrival on 10th June – a slower crossing than originally predicted, but the storm over the weekend and a problem with canting the keel today (likely to be an electronic gremlin) just goes to show life on the open ocean is never ‘plain sailing’!

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