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China's pioneers: Around the world with no sleep and a new language

By Ollie Williams, for CNN
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 2339 GMT (0739 HKT)
Nine months racing at sea, with one change of clothes and barely any sleep. Could you join these sailors? Here's how life would look... Nine months racing at sea, with one change of clothes and barely any sleep. Could you join these sailors? Here's how life would look...
Could you cope?
The boat
The boss
Dangerous game
A tight ship
Sailing south
Race against time
Legacy voyage
Olympic gold
Beijing boost
Non-stop hero
Telling stories
Boat launch
Next steps
  • Chinese team led by French sailors entering the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race
  • Applicants from China deprived of sleep for up to 40 hours during selection trials
  • Crewmates must overcome language barrier with safety paramount in race which can kill
  • Team leaders hope to establish lasting sailing legacy in China when race begins on October 4

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(CNN) -- Are these the worst working hours in world sport?

Twenty days at a time working four hours on and four hours off, crammed onto a boat with seven crewmates, some freeze-dried food and one change of clothes each.

Repeat for nine months, until you have crossed the globe.

"My family didn't want me to join this team," admits Liu Ming, who goes by the English name Leo on the boat.

His teammate, Cheng Ying Kit, confides: "Actually, I haven't told my family yet. They don't know I'm going to do offshore sailing."

Leo and Kit are fighting to join an experimental boat for one of sport's toughest events: the Volvo Ocean Race.

When the race begins, in October, the Dongfeng Race Team will be China's first meaningful attempt at offshore sailing.

Volvo Ocean Race route - the race takes nine months
Dongfeng Race Team

The route will take the crew from Spain around Africa to the southern coast of Asia, on to New Zealand, beneath South America to Brazil, then back across the Atlantic to Sweden.

There are only seven places available on the boat, manned by French skipper Charles Caudrelier, and Chinese hopefuls have endured months of testing and training.

Hundreds initially applied — most had some sailing knowledge but none had the experience expected of an ocean race competitor.

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Even so, 20 applicants were selected. Twelve reached the second phase and now a handful remain.

Selectors kept the top applicants awake for 40 hours at a time, giving them task after task, replicating the demands they may face as a small crew, alone in a storm.

Some left after that experience. Some walked away once the real sailing began.

Novelty segments

"We did a big, real test offshore and one of our best guys decided to stop. He said it's too hard, too long," recalls Caudrelier.

The 40-year-old was part of the team which won the last Volvo Ocean Race and is now making his debut as skipper.

He faces a race against time to prepare crew members from a country where sailing is barely known.

In China, the big sports include football, basketball, table tennis and badminton. A fishing nation? Yes. Sailing as a sport? No.

Chinese companies have sponsored boats in the past and, recently, individual Chinese sailors have won an Olympic title and crossed the globe, yet the sport remains in its infancy.

"They had a few novelty segments on Chinese TV, where they would stick a reporter on a boat for a day. And China has one Olympic sailing champion in Xu Lijia," explains Mark Dreyer, founder of the China Sports Insider blog.

"But no-one would recognize her on the street. Very, very few people would know her name."

Caudrelier's Chinese recruits hope to make their names in one of the world's most treacherous sporting endeavors. The team manager, Bruno Dubois, has personal experience of the worst the race can offer.

Dubois, 54, skippered a boat in the 1989-90 ocean race. In just one leg of that race, rival boats had seven crew members swept overboard: one died. As racing progressed, some boats hit whales and others capsized.

Earlier in June, as the Dongfeng crew crossed the Atlantic for the first time, they themselves almost struck a whale. "So close, we could hear it breathing," reported Caudrelier from the boat.

"I have that in my mind all the time," says Dubois, "knowing we are bringing the Chinese along.

"I know it's going to be hard and I don't want to finish the race with something dramatic like what happened in 1989."

Communication problems

Though the Chinese hopefuls all have some sailing experience, they are offshore novices and will be paired with experienced team-mates, mostly French, for the race itself.

Safety is paramount, but tricky: language is proving a barrier. All of the crew, French and Chinese, must speak English as their common tongue, and one or two are struggling.

"Communication is a big problem," admits Caudrelier. "Two of the Chinese sailors don't speak English. They are having English lessons, every day we try to improve their English."

Dubois adds: "We have decided that when all the Chinese are together, if there is one non-Chinese person at the table, they have to change to English. Same with the French, which is really hard for them, too.

"Each time you fail, you have to put 50 cents in a box. We'll use the money for a big party."

Caudrelier warns: "Everything is in English -- the rules, everything. If they want to play the game, they have to speak English. For Dongfeng racing it will be a problem of safety if we don't manage to solve this."

Could you survive on this for nine months?
PSI/Volvo Ocean Race

So why do it? Why take a group featuring inexperienced sailors, some of whom have trouble communicating, on such a daunting feat of endurance?

"Chinese Dongfeng, Global Dongfeng," reads the slogan of the boat's backer, a commercial vehicle manufacturer. For them, the chance to send a Chinese crew to the Volvo Ocean Race is a matter of global prestige.

"Twitter and Facebook are blocked in China, yet they are on the team's website," notes Dreyer. "It's definitely very western.

"A lot of Chinese companies, from a business perspective, are trying to go global.

"Look at Huawei [the Chinese telecoms company]. They have sponsored a ton of different football teams across Europe, to make them look impressive in the eyes of the Chinese public because they were involved in international sport."

More challenges

For the sailors, both French and Chinese, the motivation is a rare chance to bring their sport to a new frontier.

We know it's tough, we know it's dangerous, we know we'll have to take risks
Cheng Ying Kit, Dongfeng Race Team member

"I feel more than just a responsibility," says Dubois. "It wakes me up sometimes at night, and I know Charles Caudrelier is the same. Because we have, in 10 months, tried to do what people have done in 10 years and it's not easy.

"If we can show the public that 40% or 50% of our team is from China, the next time it will probably be 80%. They will learn more and more. The challenge for us is to bring some legacy in China for offshore sailing."

Leo says, through a Chinese interpreter: "The sport of sailing has just started in China. As Chinese, what we need to do is to take more challenges, and to participate in more this kind of race.

"I think there will be lots of Chinese sailing teams joining international sailing in the future, so we must find the best way to do it at the beginning."

Leo will find out if he has made the team on June 26, while the race begins in Alicante on October 4.

"My big fear is not being good. Not being competitive," admits Caudrelier, who won aboard the Groupama boat in 2012.

"I hope we win some legs at least. For sure, it's more complicated because we have the Chinese aspect and we have to teach them.

"But I think, if we want to win, the story will not finish at the end of this race. Dongfeng want to do the next three Volvos and have more Chinese on board, maybe a Chinese skipper in three years' time. We have to continue the job."

Kit says: "It's not scary. We really want to take the challenge.

"We know it's tough, we know it's dangerous, we know we'll have to take risks. But that's the game."

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