There is no doubt, Dubois and OC Sport sound very serious about winning this edition of the Volvo Ocean Race and setting the long-term foundations for offshore sailing in China. Time will tell whether they achieve it but one thing is for sure. Team Dongfeng seems to be a genuine effort to leave a sailing legacy in the world’s most populous country and not a one-off, grab-the-money-and-run, scheme by a European or Kiwi sailor, the likes of which we have recently seen in the top international events of the sport.
Bruno Dubois is the Director of Team Dongfeng, the Chinese entry in the 2014-15 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race. We caught up with Dubois and talked about his team and the race [Clarification: We initially mentioned that Dubois was the CEO of North Sails France. We should clarify that he took a two-year break from North Sails France in order to join Team Dongfeng]:
VSail.info: Let’s start with some background questions. How did Team Dongfeng start?
Bruno Dubois: We got approached by the company Dongfeng to develop this project. Dongfeng has a corporate relation with various auto manufacturers and one of them is the truck part of Volvo. To them what Volvo was doing was interesting and as a result, wanted to be part of the race as well. On the one hand they want to win the race and on the other they want to leave a legacy in China, to create an offshore sailing academy there. They want to create something similar to what OC Sport is doing with the Artemis Offshore Academy.
There is a desire from Dongfeng and Volvo establish such an academy because there is a lot of very good one-design sailors in China, two gold Olympic medals. A country can’t have gold Olympic medals unless there is a machine behind, it’s not a question of luck. You need a lot of infrastructure behind it. When a Chinese sailor ends his Olympic career he will retire from the CYA (Chinese Yachting Association) and become a professional, mostly sailing in Asia. For Dongfeng, China is an extremely important market, so they thought the establishment of such an academy is part of their strategy. They are a demanding sponsor as they don’t simply want marketing and advertisement, they are serious about winning and they want to leave a legacy. It’s good to work with such a sponsor.
VSail.info: Give us an update on the team. At what stage are you right now?
Bruno Dubois: What Mark Turner and I wanted to do first, was to establish the foundations of the team. We signed up not long ago, so we wanted to establish the basic functions of the team, such as management, accounting, PR, sponsorship relations, the logistics team and the technical team. This is what we have done because without it, you can select all the sailors you want but you will have nothing to run the team and let them work. We have accomplished that, we have established our plan and we are currently recruiting the sailing crew.
We have received about 280 requests from people to work in our team and it has been a huge success so far, in just one month. The plan now is to do a pre-selection of the Chinese crew and we will run this in parallel in December and January, while at the same time we are talking to non-Chinese sailors.
VSail.info: How many Chinese sailors do you plan to have onboard the Team Dongfeng VO65?
Bruno Dubois: We could have between two and four but we aren’t sure about that. You know, it’s a huge project and time is very limited but at least we know what we do not want to do. We don’t want to grab one Chinese sailor and put him on the boat, do some PR, go to China, take the sponsor’s money and run. We will NOT do that. We want to include as many Chinese as we can in PR and Communications, we want to include them in logistics, in the preparation of the boat, in marketing, in the sailing crew and we are also interviewing a number of Chinese onboard reporters.
VSail.info: What about the non-Chinese sailors? Will the skipper and navigator be “westerners”?
Bruno Dubois: Maybe because I have a couple of Chinese sailors that proposed to be skippers. We will interview them the same way we do with westerners and we have a pretty good view of what we want. Don’t forget that crew size is limited this time, you only have eight sailors onboard. If you take the Chinese newcomers out, you are left with a “westerner” crew of four, five or maybe six. This means you will need sailors that can call tactics, steer the boat, trim the sails and be at the bow.
In this edition of the Volvo Ocean Race it will be very difficult to get sailors with a very focused specialization, such as starboard spinnaker trimmers, like we had in the 2007 America’s Cup in Valencia. This will be impossible this time, not just for Team Dongfeng but for all the teams. If you take the navigator and the skipper out of a watch you are left with a team of just three, one watch captain and two sailors. Those guys will have to be able to do pretty much everything on the boat.
The Dongfeng VO65 is ready to be launched
VSail.info: In what regards the boat, what is the schedule you have going forward? I see from your team’s tweets and photos that her launch is imminent.
Bruno Dubois: Yes, the boat is in Southampton, at Green Marine, and on Monday she will be put in the water while on Tuesday we will do the inclination test. According to the weather forecast there will hardly be any wind on that day and that will be perfect. The rest of the week will be dedicated to testing all the equipment on the boat and after that we will be sailing until Christmas on a daily basis. This will allow us to validate everything on the boat as well as talk with the westerner sailors.
In parallel we will be in Sanya to test the Chinese crew. We will do that the same way we did it with the Artemis Offshore Academy, which is ran by OC Sport in England. It’s not just about sailing. The Chinese sailors all have quite a good resumé. You have Finn sailors, Laser sailors, big-boat sailors from China, all of them professionals. It will also be difficult to find the time to do it because they are all leaving now for the Phuket race, they had match racing last week and although we believe there is nothing going on in Asia, they all have a busy schedule. As a result, we will have to fit that into that period. As I said, this process will be in parallel and I think in January we will have a clearer view.
Our VO65 boat will be shipped to Hong Kong around Christmas and is expected to arrive there between the 20th and 25th of January. Jeanneau is our supplier and will provide a couple of smaller boats to sail from Hong Kong to Sanya. They will also be our training boats in Sanya, together with a few J80′s. We also have an Extreme 40 and Sanya will be a very good base for us. As you know, they have a new marina for the Volvo Ocean Race where we have excellent facilities and infrastructure. The weather is also excellent for a winter base.
Then in the spring, between the middle and end of March, we will sail on the VO65 to Brazil, with a stop in New Zealand. We still haven’t decided whether we will sail from Brazil to Europe or ship the VO65. It isn’t clear yet but once in Europe, we will do the boat refit and train there, probably in Lorient, France. We will do the Round-Britain Race and afterwards, the start of the race. We really don’t have a lot of time. The plan is to work inshore on the VO65 as much as we can, in order to develop the team in Sanya for two months, then nearly half a round-the-world race and after that I think the team will have a good understanding of the boat.
Summer schedule will be lighter and by the 8th of September all participating teams must be assembled in Alicante. We will then all do a preliminary race which starts on the 12th of September. The route is still unclear and there are ongoing discussions.
VSail.info: So far, there is one team, SCA, that have their VO65 and already thousands of sailing and training miles under their belt. Do you think you will have a disadvantage over them?
Bruno Dubois: In a one-design environment, the more you sail the better it is. Of course, my favorite dream would be that we would have purchased our boat, put all the team together back in September and started sailing every available day somewhere in France or the UK. The reality is that we will not start training in Sanya before the end of January. Again, in a one-design program, the more you sail, the more you learn and the better it is. SCA also have two boats, a VO65 and a VO70, and can keep the team training all the time. If there is an issue with the VO65, they can always take the VO70 and vice versa. It’s like the America’s Cup; the earlier you start, the better it is.
VSail.info: One of Knut Frostad’s main goals in this edition was to cut costs. However, does the example of Team SCA contradict that? As you say, they have two boats, even if the second one is different.
Bruno Dubois: I don’t know. I can’t answer because I don’t know what budget Team SCA has. They are doing everything they can to be the best and prepare their female team the best they can. You can’t reproach them for that. They are lucky to have a good budget and they are doing things the right way. I know some of the girls onboard, I know they are very good and they will certainly give their best to win.
VSail.info: When are you going to make the first announcements regarding the sailing crew?
Bruno Dubois: Not before the end of January.
VSail.info: Would have Team Dongfeng existed without the move by organizers to a one-design boat?
Bruno Dubois: This solution was the only way for a Chinese entry to exist. I also think, nobody would have been ready by next year if we had again a custom boat. We would have needed an additional year to finish the design, build the boat and prepare it. Right now, I have Multiplast next door. They build the deck and it’s like a factory chain. They have the tooling, they know the boat and they build it very well. It was the only solution to make it on time but not just the one-design boat. It’s what I call the one-design service. We have a centralized maintenance team that will be fine-tuned over the next 12 months and that idea is fantastic. They will take care of sailmaking, the mast, electronics, the boat, everything in a centralized way, using a common group of people to do the job. That is very good and requires a MUCH smaller budget on our side.
I think there will be seven teams on the starting line and the concept has been thought for eight teams. I’m extremely confident there will be at least six teams, more than last time, and without that concept we wouldn’t have more than two or maybe three. The lack of time and, especially, the lack of budget would have been impossible to overcome.
Bruno Dubois is leading Team Dongfeng, a team that will try to leave a lasting legacy in the sport of sailing in China
VSail.info: So, in your opinion, this new formula allows you to be competitive with a considerably smaller budget.
Bruno Dubois: Yes, absolutely, because the boats are all the same. They are like the MOD70′s or the Extreme 40′s, strictly one-design. The sails are one-design, the masts are one-design, everything is one-design, so we don’t have to hire a lot of people to do all that development. The development has already been done when you receive the boat. You don’t have to do anything at all on top of that. What you have to do though, is learn about the boat the best way you can and hire the best people to push the boat.
VSail.info: Sam Davies of Team SCA told me at their base in Puerto Calero that for them, most probably, the toughest leg of the race will be the first one as it will also be the first time they race properly as a team. Do you share that view?
Bruno Dubois: Maybe but I think we’ll know earlier than that as we will test against the others. We will know how we perform compared to the rest of the fleet. Otherwise, I don’t see what could be the most difficult leg although the one from Auckland to Itajaì will certainly be tough.
VSail.info: For you personally, the Team Director, what is the most crucial task you have until the boat crosses the starting line in Alicante.
Bruno Dubois: Creating a team. Finding the sailors will not be a big problem. Creating a team though will be much more important because in a one-design fleet, the mental part is critical. I think, there won’t be a huge difference in speed since the boats are similar. If you take any one-design fleet there will always be a speed difference but it will be very small. It will take a lot of work to find that small advantage in terms of speed. The way you trim the boat, the way you use the sails, the sail configuration, all that will be very important. My job and biggest challenge will be to build a team that goes beyond the performance but also works under pressure. You can’t blame the boat designer if you are slower.
If you fall behind, you didn’t do your job correctly and I will take the blame. My job is to find the right people to push the boat and you need some time to do that. It will be very tough for the teams that arrive in July, June or even May 2014. They will get their boat in the last minute and will try to find the best way to use it. However, I think that most teams, with of course the exception of Team SCA, will start sailing at more or less the same time, at the beginning of 2014. The first five boats will be sailing by March 2014.
VSail.info: You stated earlier you wanted to have as many Chinese as possible throughout the team. Have you been able to find qualified personnel for the remaining departments of the team or are they still all westerners?
Bruno Dubois: I what regards the technical team we have people that worked with the AC45. Mitch Booth is working with us and he’s currently taking care of the recruitment in China. As you might remember, he sailed in some events with the AC45 with a purely Chinese crew, so he has good local knowledge. We have the media part also covered with two people, with have the sponsorship account management as well as other functions. Honestly, it isn’t difficult to find there qualified people. I don’t have any problem in that aspect.