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I am intrigued by the Dongfeng sailing team in the Volvo Ocean Race. They are now 70 miles ahead of their next competitor and at the top of the leaderboard for the race. All other participants did an extensive selection program to bring together the best nine sailors in the world, each outperforming in a certain area (trimming, steering, navigating). The Dutch Brunel boat even decided not to select a top performer at the last Olympics (okay, fourth place, but still) and work with a mental coach. They used all the ‘scientific’ theories around high performance teams and put it into practice. They won the race to Abu Dhabi but the Dutch skipper confessed they had been a little lucky during the last stretch: out of nowhere they got a little wind while the Chinese boat was parked in a wind hole. The Dutch overtook them and won the race.

But then the Chinese sponsored boat Dongfeng. They put together several great French sailors who usually sail alone around the world and added Chinese ambitious young people, or tourists as they were called. Chinese who don’t have any background in offshore sailing. One of their mums keeps telling them over the telephone that they should put on their seat belts. A year ago the boys didn’t speak any English and when the going gets tough (or when they make jokes) the French speak French to the annoyance of the Chinese.  But to everybody’s surprise they are leading the pack. In the past the best boat won (meaning the one with the largest budget) but this race the boats are all the same and build by the race organizers. So it is about the humans occupying the yacht. And this team is outperforming the rest. This leg they took -next to the Chinese- a rookie from Australia who turned 24 yesterday, the skipper Charles Caudrelier shares that he felt this guy was good, although he only sailed a few days with him.

So it looks like we need to dive a little deeper into the essence of high performance teams. Strangely enough I have the feeling that I am sailing better myself with my 17 year old son who never showed any interest in sailing the first 16 years of his life. Last year we started regatta sailing and I am sailing better than I did for years. Starting to win a few races again and enjoying it more than I did in a long time. The skipper of Dongfeng keeps stressing that he likes the idea that with his initiative of sailing with Chinese, in the near future China could become a sailing nation. His objective is beyond winning the race. There is something larger waiting for them. Is that the trick of a high performance team? Striving for something bigger than the obvious? Having a goal beyond the one in front of you (and the rest)? In the blogs that they are writing everyday, they seem to have more fun as well. Lighthearted but desperate to win. Follow them: http://www.dongfengraceteam.cn and http://www.volvooceanrace.com

  • “It’s difficult to find a guy under 30 who are able to sail on this kind of boat. I sailed a few days with him and I could see he was really good. It was just a feeling, but one that was shared by Pascal and the guys,” said Charles.

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Hein says:

    This is what the skipper says today about his team:

    Jan 22, 2015
    Leg 3: Abu Dhabi to Sanya (4,670 nautical miles)

    Days at sea: 19
    Boat speed: 12 knots
    Distance to finish: 972 nautical miles
    Position in fleet: Still leading the way, 46 miles ahead of the chasing pack

    “I’ve been silent these past few days.
    The high stress passage of the Malacca Straits has totally absorbed us all.
    Not much wind but lots of manoeuvres, not much sleep, and very hot.
    The results is good, despite from very scary moments, we have managed to rebuild our lead. Beyond that I’ve been able to measure the progression of our team during this phase of the race. When I started this project, of course the Groupama team was the benchmark. We were a huge team with a lot of experience and talent. On paper we were very strong, and despite the success of that project, it didn’t always function perfectly because we weren’t always working in the same direction, with diverse opinions and different ideas. It was the strength of that team, but also its weak point.

    Onboard Dongfeng, everyone has his place, his role, and focuses his efforts to execute it to perfection.
    It is this harmony that has created the strength of our team, and makes up for our overall lack of experience onboard the boat. As Bouwe Bekking said, this race is all about team.
    We are justifying very well right now our name – Dongfeng Race TEAM”

  • Hein says:

    So the question seems to be: how much experience and capacities are needed in a team to fulfill the job at hand? Too much experience and skills work detrimental. That is opposite to my teaching where I thought that it is best to select always the best skilled people available (and yes they need to glue as a team of course). Sometimes it might be better to consciously select not the best people to give room for the ‘leaders’. Interesting. To be continued…

  • Hein says:

    Here you read what sailing is about for me, the boat whisperers: http://www.dongfengraceteam.cn/news/view/leg-3-day-20-the-boat-whisperers

    They describe beautifully ‘Presence’ while sailing:

    Eric explains that even when the sailors are sleeping they can feel the boat. Offshore and onboard, their minds are always dialed in.

    “The noises on the boat can let me know, from my bunk, if the conditions outside,” explains Eric.

    It’s especially the case for the single-handed sailors onboard, like Charles, who are known for sleeping on the floors of their Figaro’s without a mattress so that they can feel the boat that much better.

    “I can hear the winches working and how hard they’re trimming. From the water on the hull I can hear the conditions of the sea and if we’re fast or if it’s choppy. I can hear if the the wind is dropping.”

    They also listen to one another.

    “You’re always listening for louder voices.. If it’s a maneuver that’ll happen soon they always talk louder.”

    “If the guys are talking differently it’s because a boat is arriving or the wind is changing or we need to do a maneuver.”

  • Hein says:

    and the Chinese sailors are sharing that they miss their family so much. Since they ended up in a windhole earlier, they will be late to meet their family members. They might even be gone…

  • Hein says:

    Leg 3 Abu Dhabi to Sanya (4,670nm, although many more miles raced)

    Finish position: 1st place
    Time of finish: 23:31:38 UTC
    Duration of leg: 23 days, 13 hours, 31 minutes, 38 seconds

    Overall result after three legs: 1st place overall

    It was an unbelievable end to a magnificent leg for Dongfeng Race Team. After leading the fleet virtually all the way from Abu Dhabi to Sanya in China, over more than 5,000 miles of intense ocean racing, Dongfeng finally crossed the finish line in first place as the sun rose over Sanya (23:31:38 UTC) in a time of 23 days, 13 hours, 31 minutes and 38 seconds.

    This is the first time in history a Chinese team (or any Chinese sailor) has won a leg in the Volvo Ocean Race’s 41-year history. And what a leg to win supported by its Chinese partners – Dong Feng meaning wind from the east, Aeolus (Fong Shen) meaning the Wind Guardian and the City of Shiyan.

    The reality is that it couldn’t have been scripted better. The Chinese team with two Chinese rookie sailors onboard – Liu Xue (Black) and Cheng Ying Kit – showed unparalleled grit and determination and led the entire fleet of some of the world’s best offshore sailors to their home country China. With the ambition to ‘bring offshore sailing to China’ nobody could have predicted the impact this team would have.

    Arriving at the pontoon in Serenity Marina, Charles Caudrelier said: “It was the most stressful race of my life. We take the lead on the first day and we had to keep it because we had to arrive first here because it was very important for me and for the project, so we are so proud. One year ago we were here and we were discovering the Chinese sailors who were rookies and now they win the leg – it’s just fantastic. Maybe in the first time in offshore sailing something like this has happened – in just one year these guys have become great sailors. I am so proud, this is everything I wanted but I didn’t dare think about. It’s a team job and you cannot win a leg without a strong team.”

  • Hein says:

    And for the next leg they try to rectify the saying: ‘Never change a winning team.’ They changed half of the crew (including the navigator) and are leading again after a few hours racing. But it’s still 20 plus days to go…

  • Hein says:

    And the past 48 hours they went from DFL (Dead Fucking Last) to first place. It’s really interesting what’s happening there. Time to interview them and inquire into what’s making the difference. For sure they don’t deal ‘professionally’ with emotions. There are huge highs and lows visible on all the video material coming from the boat. It must be love 😉

  • Hein says:

    It’s going to be a close finish for Donfeng. They were first, a cloud came in their way and it had them drop back to third. Still a little more than one day to go and everything is possible. For me they have proven that the saying ‘never change a winning team’ is incorrect.

    More of a concern now is what Brunel should do. They underperform Big Time. They’ve put emphasis on the best team, have a mental coach, selected the best sailors but can’t even keep up with the rookies of Alvimedica. They don’t live up to their potential. To me it’s clear that they need to be shaken up, get out of their personal comfort zone. They are in a downward spiral. I’ve had that myself quite a few times while sailing. Everything you do is wrong. You don’t believe anymore that you can sail and start hoping for windshifts that will never come. The question is how to get out of such a state. ‘The winning mind’ describes that you need to get small wins to raise your confidence and to get back into that winning mentality. But how to do that when you are in the middle of a race? They can’t step out to win races from lesser competitors.

    I started to sail better again when I gave myself the assignment to learn every time that I went on the water. After every race I forced myself to write down what I had learned that day. I wasn’t focussed anymore on winning and my voices of judgment (you should do better than this), cynicism (It can’t be that I lose from these guys) and fear (can I still sail?) were shut down.

    Not sure if it would help them. Some changes in the crew will be needed. Not that one of them underperforms but they need a new energy and break the negative pattern they are in. I feel already sorry for the ones who need to leave…

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