Displaying items by tag: La Solitaire du Figaro
On 30th August in Saint Brieuc bay, France it is going to be a demanding and difficult start for the 51st edition of the Solitaire du Figaro for Ireland's solo sailor Tom Dolan and the rest of the foiling Figaro 3 fleet.
After achieving 25th place last year, Dolan is set to re-enter this three-week-long French marathon race.
It looks like being a fascinating programme with four legs to be raced, three of which are 500 miles long and more, which is the sort of racing the sailors love. They will then face a final 24-hour run to complete this marathon. Among the highlights, the Fastnet and Wolf Rock stand out in this racecourse with several Channel crossings, the need to deal with the shipping lanes and sandbanks all the way to Dunkirk, then the rocks and tidal currents all the way down to Loire-Atlantique.
Francis Le Goff, the Race Director, has once again decided to leave things very open with few marks along the way, in order to allow the solo skippers to find their own strategy. This looks like being a classic edition with an exciting finish in prospect at the mouth of the Loire…
With some keen newcomers aiming to discover the delights of the Figaro Beneteau circuit (Robin Follin, Erwan le Draoulec, Elodie Bonafous, Estelle Greck...), some who are used to the event (Xavier Macaire, Anthony Marchand, Alexis Loison...) and some previous winners, including the winner of the last Vendée Globe, Armel le Cleac’h, more than thirty competitors are expected to line up in Saint- Quay-Portrieux on 25th August. Aboard their Figaro Bénéteau 3 foilers, the skippers are going to have to remain determined and focused to try to win the Holy Grail of sailing in Loire-Atlantique at the finish of the third and final leg. This year, the Solitaire du Figaro will be returning to the Pays de la Loire region, which proved so popular during the fiftieth edition in 2019 with the start in Nantes.
Analysis of the racecourse by the Race Director:
Leg 1: a 642-mile voyage to the Fastnet and back
“The only waypoint in this first long leg will be the Fastnet Rock, which they will have to leave to starboard. It is going to be very open for the solo sailors from the start, with everyone attempting to find the right tactics and avoid the traps in the Channel and the Celtic Sea,” explained Francis Le Goff. Once they have left Saint-Brieuc Bay, the skippers will head for Ireland while avoiding the rocks around the Isles of Scilly and respecting the various shipping lanes (TSS) to the West of Cornwall on the way out and back. Anything is possible.
They can go inside or outside the islands, so we can look forward to an exciting tactical game…
Leg 2: 497 miles to Dunkirk via the English coast
They will have to watch out for all the shipping and sandbanks. “From Saint-Quay-Portrieux, the fleet will head for the Wolf Rock to the South West of Land’s End, and then make their way towards a waypoint close to Antifer light near Etretat before heading for the finish off Dunkirk. In this leg, they are going to have to make sure they are able to remain alert and focused over the final miles. “This is a leg, where keeping a clear head for the final few miles will be key to the outcome,” explained Francis Le Goff. In this second leg, it will all be very open between Wolf Rock and the Alabaster Coast of Normandy, but there will also be a lot of traps lying in store, such as the TSS, which means the room for manoeuvre will be limited all the way to Dunkirk. There is all the cross-Channel shipping between Calais and Dover, and then the tidal currents and sandbanks all the way to the finish. They will have to manage their sleep and that is going to be vital in this leg for them to be able to stay fresh for the final stretch…
Leg 3: a 504-mile coastal leg from Dunkirk to Saint-Nazaire
There are going to be some great sights along the way in this third leg with a wide range of backdrops. The Opal, Alabaster, Mother-of-pearl coasts of Normandy and the Pink Granite coast and craggy cliffs at the tip of Brittany, the Megalithic Coast of Southern Brittany, the Love Coast and Jade Coast of the Loire Estuary area. So many brilliant things to see, yet the leg is full of hurdles: tricky headlands and capes, tidal currents, islands and rocks, fishermen… 500 miles of high-tension sailing, with one eye on the charts, and the other on the sails with some sleepless nights ahead.
Leg 4: a 24 hour and 183-mile sprint between the islands for the Grand Finale
After three hard, testing stages, the solo sailors will have to draw deeply on their reserves for 24 hours of racing, a loop which should take them between the Ile d'Yeu and Belle-Île via the Ile de Groix before seeing them return to the Loire-Atlantique to crown the big winner of this 51st edition which promises to be full of twists and turns.
From tomorrow, the publication of the Notice of Race will open entry registration for this 2020 edition.
Tom Dolan started the fourth and final leg of La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro this afternoon off Roscoff, looking to finish inside the top 10 on the stage, just as he did on the previous stage finishing into the Bay of Morlaix.
“The body is holding up but only just. It is like doing three Fastnet races one after the other. On your own!” cautioned the Irish skipper from County Meath with a smile as he left the dock in Roscoff’s Port Blocson. “This will be another mainly light winds leg with lots of tide, lots of transitions and lots of opportunities. I just want to make sure I finish with no regrets having given my best. For sure the pressure is off slightly after that last leg. I had been doubting myself and my ability and now I just want to go out and fight for another good result.”
"It is like doing three Fastnet races one after the other. On your own!”
The final leg start was delayed until the fitful SE’ly breeze filled in and remained settled enough to allow the 47 strong fleet to be sent on their way on a 500 miles finale to Dieppe via the Great Bass Portsall 40 miles to the west of Roscoff, to Wolf Rock at Lands End, to the South Owers mark by the Isle of Wight, St. Marcouf and Roche d'Ailly.
"It will be tricky along the south coast of England where we will be in a transition zone from Start Point to the Owers. And there will be different options emerging. Even the last miles to the finish will see some different options so there will be plenty going on and once again the chance for big splits to occur.” Explains the solo skipper of the Figaro Bénéteau 3 which is supported by Smurfit Kappa.
“ I do think the whole fleet will regroup between Start Point and the Isle of Wight but I am looking forward to the race across the Channel to Wolf Rock where we should finally get some downwind stuff in a nice 20-25 knots.” Says Dolan who is in 34th place overall. The leg should finish late Tuesday night or Wednesday.
“You need to be mentally strong for this type of sailing. You have to make tough decisions when you’re tired.”
“Being by yourself, sailing solo, depends very much on the person and how you use your own resources,”
The first of those comments was made to me by 32-year-old Tom Dolan, the second by 33-year-old Joan Mulloy.
"The Kinsale Figaro stop-over did achieve a deal of coverage for Joan and Tom"
They summed-up quite a bit about the tough world of professional solo sailing and trying to establish a reputation and career at it. Tom, from Meath and Joan from Westport in Count Mayo both impressed me when I talked to them at Kinsale during the Figaro race stop-over. They’d had a disappointing time in the first leg from Nantes in France.
Tom was philosophical. 39th place was not the finish he had intended. He’d been in the top six of the 47-boat fleet for a while as it raced 550 nautical miles to Kinsale:
“It was a bit tough on the old morale, but when the successful day comes it will be all that much better won’t it?”
Joan fared even worse, but remained determined: “You can’t really let one thing put you off, maybe lots and lots of things going wrong, if they all started going wrong might, but that’s the training, to be able to deal with the good and the bad. You have to have some structure in your head to deal with things when they go bad.”
As well as the sailing, there is the financial side of being able to race in major events, the need for support, so we also talked about the search for sponsorship and the response of Irish companies to those engaged in sailing, a sport which does not feature at the top level of national media interest, though the Kinsale Figaro stop-over did achieve a deal of coverage for Joan and Tom.
She told me of her focus on the Vendee Globe and they described sailing the new foiling Beneteau 3 Figaro yachts: “A bit wet, but more interesting,” said Tom.
I started the interview by asking Tom what started him sailing:
Leg Two Update from Roscoff
With the breeze off Roscoff shutting down to become very light yesterday evening and through the night, the later finishers on Stage 2 of La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro struggled against the tide and unfortunately saw big increases in the time differences behind the leaders and some of their rivals.
Such is the uncompromising nature of this race, the combination of missed tides and light winds, means hard earned minutes can very suddenly turn to hours.
Last night Tom Dolan (Smurfit Kappa) came in just around midnight local time to finish 29th. The Irish sailor was disappointed with his finish. He said he became stuck twice on the first under big clouds with no wind and watched the fleet sail away. He lies 38th overall. After finishing last night.
Tom Dolan IRL (Smurfit Kappa): “ It was a bit difficult from the first night. I got stuck under two different clouds on the first night and I found myself deserted by the fleet, I was pretty much last at Bishop Rock. Then again I got stuck at The Needles with no wind again. And then again at the finish. So, apart from that it was good. I found a pigeon at the Scilly Isles and he came and sat on the boom. He stayed with me even in the strong winds, reaching in 30-35knots, doing 18-19knots. The boat just lifted and sat on the water and it was so nice to have some strong winds for a while. But the race for me has been difficult. It has not been good for me so far. It has been difficult. It can only get better. I look at that way. I’ll nit be taking the pigeon on the next legs.”
Joan Mulloy IRL (BusinessPost.ie/Believe In Grace) just beat the time cut off in 38th position: “ It was really hard. It was a very difficult race. Last night was very hard as I had no wind and thought I was not going to finish before the cut off. It was really tough to be three miles from the finish and see it is going to take you 15 hours. It was tough. On the second leg there was a bigger range of conditions. Coming back to France and in to the Channel it feels like the open ocean stages are over. I made the finish by an hour.”
Delighted with the warmth of welcome in Kinsale and the interest shown in La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro and his project Tom Dolan, solo skipper of Smurfit Kappa, put to sea this afternoon on the 545 miles course to Roscoff.
See Bob Bateman's report of the Kinsale Figaro race departure here
A last minute course change did not concern Dolan any more than it did the 44 other solo racers. The decision not to take the La Solitaire racers north to the Isle of Man in potentially difficult 35-40 knots winds which were predicted for Tuesday was only announced at 1130hrs this Sunday morning. Dolan immediately fell in step with his team's new weather and strategy briefings for a stage which will now take the fleet into the English Channel where much more sedate, even light winds are promised.
As he left the dock in Kinsale Dolan smiled, "The stop has been short, intense and with a lot of things to do, seeing old friends and so on, which has been lovely. But it has been so great to be here and be able to be doing something which should gain a bit of interest in the sport in Ireland. It is nice and there has been such enthusiasm in Kinsale it has been lovely."
The 530-mile course goes from Kinsale to Bishop Rock at the Scilly Isles then up the Channel to the Needles by the west point of the Isle of Wight before racing back down the Channel to Roscoff. Winds along the southern English coast are set to be light to moderate, dropping for the rounding of The Needles in strong tides.
" This last-minute change is because of the tough weather forecast over the next few days in the Irish Sea. It would have been a bit rock and roll with more than 25 knots of wind, especially in the St. George channel where we also had to deal with the traffic separation schemes, sandbanks, and ferries and that would require us to do more gybes. We know that the seas can get big and messy in the channel in the strong currents. I understand the decision of Race Direction even if all the homework and preparation we have done here in the last two days goes in the bin. We have to start all over again! Dolan adds " And the last 24 hours I had really got into my head the course, thinking about the long upwind and looking forwards to the downwind. But there you have it. You have to adapt, roll with it."
The Irish skipper admits he is as unfamiliar with the Channel as he would have been racing up around the Isle of Man, as planned,
"It will be quite new to me, I do not know the South coast of England that well at all. Now we are expecting a lot of reaching in 10, 12, 13 knots of wind and then we sail into this low-pressure system which is off England, so it could be quite chaotic going across the Channel. I would say it will be one after the other and then at the end it will be light, like the end of the last one, tide, wind all over the place. I am grand. After the result I got in the first leg I just want to be back out there with the counter set to zero and going again. I took a bit of a kicking on the first leg and so I want to get out and do better."
The second stage started in perfect conditions off Kinsale, 12-13kts of westerly wind and sunshine. Smurfit Kappa was in the middle of the 45 boat fleet as they headed towards Bishop Rock after a characteristic conservative, safe start. Two boats collided on the start line. Alain Gautier, a previous winner, was heading directly to Roscoff with damage to his boat. That's part of the game, however, and it's the same for everyone, "
The northern latitudes of the Isle of Man once again will remain unconquered by the solo sailors of La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro, after the planned course for stage 2 of the 50th-anniversary edition was radically altered to avoid strong northerly winds in the Irish Sea.
Instead of the scheduled 250 miles windward leg to turn at the Isle of Man and a downwind to the finish in Roscoff, the 535 miles course which started off Kinsale at 1700hrs local time today, Sunday 9 June, in beautiful sunshine and 12-15 knot westerly winds, will return the 45 boat fleet to their more usual hunting grounds of the Channel.
Rather then taking the fleet of brand new, relatively unproven Beneteau Figaro 3s into the Irish Sea and the strong tides of the St Georges Channel in winds forecast to gust to 35 or 40 knots on Tuesday, Race Direction chose prudence, sending the second stage direct to Bishop Rock, west of the Scilly Isles, then up into the relative shelter of the Channel to the Needles fairway buoy to the west of the Isle of Wight where the race turns to head to Roscoff.
If the course now becomes a classic Channel skirmish along the English or French coasts, chasing tidal gates and transitions, headland effects and local eddies, there was scarcely time for the sailors to complain, not that they wanted to. Due to dock out of Kinsale mid afternoon, the new course was given at 1130hrs this morning.
Hours, or even days, of pre-planning had to be scrubbed and a scramble to learn the pinch points, the transitions and tides, on a course area which is more familiar to most of the skippers and now renders three of the four courses on this landmark edition.
Top British skipper Alan Roberts tweeted his pleasure that the new course takes him to ‘home waters’ but the reality is there is never any real home advantage other than any feeling of confidence and familiarity on a coastline where he has won dinghy championships on many of the successive bays and estuaries from Cornwall to the Solent.
“All the guys here have sailed the south coast quite a lot,” smiled the solo skipper of Sea Cat Services who is looking to close a deficit of one hour and 49 minutes on race leader Yoann Richomme. “But I have done quite well on the south coast before. As for the late change, I think this changes the game a lot to see who can adapt quicker, who can read the weather and who can mentally deal with the change.”
The new course is some 100 miles shorter than the original planned. From Kinsale it is 125 miles to Bishop Rock, then 190 miles from Land’s End to The Needles and the strong tidal currents in The Solent. From the Isle of Wight there are 180 miles to Portsall off the Point of Brittany before turning 40 miles back in to the finish in Roscoff which should be taken by the leaders during the night of Wednesday in to Thursday. By the Scillies tomorrow evening the winds will be light before a reach in 12-13 knot northerlies which will die as the fleet gets closer to the Isle of Wight
Seeking to become the only skipper to win La Solitaire four times on this remarkable edition, Yann Eliès (Saint Michel) spoke in Kinsale about how he has had to refocus his overall target after finishing 22nd in stage 1 - three hours and 54 minutes after the leader. “I will need to go out and win a leg,” said the 44-year-old who was one of the nine different leaders during the first stage.
After a wonderful, hugely popular stopover in the picturesque Kinsale, which welcomed La Solitaire for the 20th time, Eliès set off like a man possessed this afternoon, and led at the first buoy after a three-mile upwind leg in perfect racing conditions. Roberts also made an excellent start and was mid fleet on the eight-mile sprint across the bay to the Radio France Buoy, Daunt Rock which is midway to the entrance to Cork Harbour.
A collision in the early minutes of the opening 15-mile prologue sees race veteran and past winner Alan Gautier (Merci pour ces 30 ans) heading directly to Roscoff with damage to his foil and rookie Benjamin Schwarz returned to Kinsale to evaluate damage to his yacht.
Yoann Richomme (HelloWork-Telegram Group), who arrived first in Kinsale
"The change of course is good news. Last night I was a bit worried. It is the first time I have been concerned after my personal briefing because on the course there were a lot of different obstacles, wind farms, oil and gas platforms and not many harbours to go into if there was a problem. Add in the shipping traffic and the fact we don’t know the boats that well in strong winds and I think this will be a good course, a good decision.”
Michel Desjoyeaux (Lumibird) 8th into Kinsale:
“We knew for a few days that the northerlies would be strong all the way for a run from the Isle of Man to Lands End and it would have been a good downhill but Frances Le Goff saw the new weather files this morning and has decided it is not reasonable in this first season of the Figaro Benetau 3, so we must not waste any time, we just need to get on with the new course. We are back on familiar ground but the course is not too restricted because the legs are still long and there are the Traffic Separation Schemes to consider and there will be more strategy and breakaways on this course. So we stop ruminating and get on with it.”
Official Rankings at Radio France/Daunt Rock, 9th June:
1-Michel Desjoyeaux (Lumibird)
2-Lois Berrehar (Bretagne CMB Performance)
3-Adrien Hardy (Sans nature, pas de futur)
4-Loïck Peyron (Action Enfance)
5-Arthur Le Vaillant (Leyton)
6-Pierre Quiroga (Skipper Macif 2019)
7-Gildas Mahé (Breizh Cola Equi’Thé)
8-Fabien Delahaye (Loubsol)
9-Yann Éliès (St Michel)
10-Yoann Richomme (HelloWork-Groupe Télégramme)
From the highs of a top ten position earlier this week hopes have faded for a strong home waters finish for either Irish entry in the opening leg of the 50th La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro into Kinsale. Tonight Tom Dolan lies 39th and Joan Mulloy 44th in a fleet of 47 with approximately 40 miles to sail to the finish.
Meanwhile, the three-way battle to stage one deliverance at the Old Head of Kinsale was won by overall winner in 2016, Yoann Richomme who was doing all he could to hold on to a lead of just under half a mile late this afternoon, seeking to close out what would be a well-deserved victory on the first stage of the Figaro.
"Richomme, 35 from Lorient, was being chased by talented, hard driving 21 year old rookie, Tom Laperche"
First around the Fastnet Rock at 1229hrs local time, Richomme, 35 from Lorient, was being chased by talented, hard driving 21 year old rookie, Tom Laperche (Bretagne CMB Espoir) and Pierre Leboucher (Guyot Environement) as they race towards the finish line of the course which is to be shortened by 11 miles at the Old Head of Kinsale. There was nothing between the three as they traded gybes and a stage which has lasted four nights and four days since starting from the bay of La Baule near Nantes, hangs in the balance.
Deliverance from one of the longest and most challenging Solitaire legs of recent years will doubtless feel magical for the top trio who were 15 minutes clear of the fourth placed solo skipper when they rounded the mythical rock in very light winds. But since the turn they have made decent speeds under spinnaker and should cross the line at around 1900hrs local time this evening.
Richomme, outstanding winner of the Route du Rhum in Class 40 last November, has come into this race feeling none of the pressure heaped on some of his rivals. After Volvo Ocean Race winning skipper Charles Caudrelier seized an opportunity to become co-skipper of the Gitana Ultime, Richomme was drafted in as a late replacement for Caudrelier for whom he started out in the Figaro as preparateur.
He and Leboucher led a group who took a middle course off Ushant and then stuck with it across the approaches to the Channel and over the Celtic Sea. Their choice allowed them to gain relative to a strong pack who went offshore to the west, which ultimately suffered last night when the wind swung more to the north.
Around three miles behind Richomme, veteran Loïck Peyron, the elder statesman of the course at 59 years old will be happy to hold on to the sixth place he was in during this afternoon's sunny slide east along the Irish coast to the finish line. Peyron is returning to La Solitaire for the first time since he was sixth overall in 2003. He had his 'roaring 50s' rivals Michel Desjoyeaux, 53, less than a mile behind in ninth place and Alain Gautier, 57, in 12th. Peyron said at the Fastnet: "I'm 30 miles from the finish. It's not bad to avoid the last vagaries of the wind on this coast to get finished tonight "
Highly fancied favourite Armel Le Cléac'h (Banque Populaire) may have rescued some of his chances of a good finish overall by recovering from being among the back markers on Tuesday to be 13th on the reach in this afternoon, but the same might not hold true for the group of top seeds who went west, led by three times winner Yann Eliès (Saint Michel). Eliès - who led during the second day of racing - was nearly three and a half hours behind at the Fastnet Rock.
Admirable recoveries appear to have been achieved by international skippers Justine Mettraux of Switzerland on course for 14th and Brit Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) who was 16th, both around one hour behind the leaders.
As stage one of the 50th La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro completed its first 24 hours at sea, racing 553 nautical miles from Pornichet to Kinsale, Ireland, leaders Adrien Hardy (Sans Nature Pas de Future) and Michel Desjoyeaux (Lumibird) were fighting hard to contain a pack of pursuers who were threatening to pass on both sides to their west and to their east.
Ireland’s Tom Dolan (Smurfit Kappa) read the breeze at the island light winds crossroads better and, at one point, had got himself up to ninth. This afternoon he was 12th, less than 2 miles from the leaders, and racing closely with three times La Solitaire winner Yann Eliès (Saint Michel). And by 8pm the County Meath man was as high as sixth place,
Dolan, who is racing just his second La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro, reported today: "It has been a long day with a lot of time spent pulling on ropes and driving under the blistering sunshine, but it looks like we are just about out. In general, we are a bit late. I have eaten but at the moment I am trying not to sleep, you can drop off and then suddenly all your little mates are gone.”
Hardy, who is from Nantes – the official start city for this historic edition - is a former French 420 dinghy champion and Mini class racer. As the skipper who won this passage to Ireland when it was last sailed in 2010 – when the fleet raced from Brest to Kinsale - he knows this course from the west of France well.
Since he first raced La Solitaire in 2008, Hardy has won stages in 2010, 2013, 2015 and 2017 and was runner up last year to Sébastien Simon. Accompanied by the wily silver fox Desjoyeaux, who has won the multi-stage solo offshore race overall three times, the duo largely survived a big slow-down this morning and early afternoon in light winds at the Ile de Yeu, NW of Les Sables d’Olonne, as a messy ridge of high pressure engulfed the fleet. Speeds among the 47-strong fleet were less than one knot at times.
But during late afternoon on Monday, almost exactly 24 hours after the stage started in a blaze of glory under gennakers on the bay of La Baule, a group lead by the tenacious, talented Mediterranean rookie, Achille Nebou (Le Grand Reservoir) had made gains inshore in a more settled breeze and favourable current and cut the leaders’ margin from nearly one mile to just a few tenths of a mile. And on the other side, to the west, Pierre Quiroga – also a former top French dinghy racer from the Mediterranean – was posing an equal threat to the two pacemakers.
The first 24 hours have seen a real mix of fortunes for the international, non French sailors in the fleet. The biggest disappointment is the highly fancied Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) who seemed to get stuck off the bottom of the island in the very light winds, dropping right to the back of the fleet. Roberts, who holds the record for the highest overall finish by a British sailor with his ninth place in 2015, was fighting back on that easterly, inshore flank this afternoon but was 11 miles behind the leaders.
Also on just his second La Solitaire, England’s Will Harris (Hive Energy) is mid fleet in 25th, with several top seeds around him. Harris reported this afternoon that he has lost the use of his wind instruments at the top of his mast.
“It has been a really complicated start for me. Last night my wind instruments completely crashed and broke I think there is some water damage up at the top of the rig and so now I have no wind instruments that makes it a but more challenging to race as I now only have compass, so it is hard work to keep up with the others. But I am happy to be out racing and I am enjoying being back on La Solitaire. It has been really close from the start of the race and I got a bit preoccupied trying to fix the boat, but it was an amazing start, so many boats around, a really cool place to start a boat race from. It has been tricky because I did not have the best of starts, then I caught up a bit and now lost a bit again so I think it will be like that over the next three days. Let us see what the rest of the day brings."
Battling to escape a ridge of high pressure, there could be a big gain for those who can wriggle free first. The general strategy is to get out to the northwest to meet a new breeze first. The balancing act is whether to push out west earlier to find the wind but sailing extra miles, or to wait for the new wind to fill in and sail a more direct course.
A new depression is deepening off the south of Ireland, bringing a SW’ly wind. Tail enders may struggle to get free of the light zone and there is a risk of them being left behind. Tonight and in to early Tuesday morning the wind will swing back to the SSW and so there will be better downwind sailing conditions from Tuesday.
That new breeze is forecast to build, according to the race meteorologists MeteoConsult, with gusts over 25knots as a cold front passes on Tuesday bringing crossed seas. The choice of passing to the west or east of the infamous Ushant traffic separation zone may prove critical. And inshore the tidal currents are stronger. As usual the winds behind the front will be unsettled in strength and direction but the long term objective seems to be to get west.
The introduction of the new foil-assisted Figaro Bénéteau 3 has proven to have had a particularly magnetic attraction to past winners of the famous annual La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro. When the 47-strong fleet of solo racers start from Saint Nazaire, by Nantes, on Sunday 2nd June and head for Kinsale, there will be no less than six previous champions competing.
All of them have returned to solo ocean racing’s month long, multi stage, foundation discipline, the uncompromising school of hard knocks, which remains an essential proving ground. Three went on to win the Vendée Globe.
All of this year’s real podium contenders, as well as the hard bitten year-in year-out French pros, and the incoming new generation of rookies or ‘Bizuths’, all know that in France, success on La Solitaire opens doors to a future Vendée Globe campaign. The stakes are high.
The new 10.85m, 2900kgs VPLP one-designs are much more physically demanding and exacting to sail with a slender keel and rudders, foils in place of water ballast, a more powerful sailplan including asymmetric spinnakers and Code Zero. Since the first batch of boats were handed over in late January it has been a race against time for the solo skippers and their teams to learn how to get the best performance at every different wind strength and angle.
This 50th edition of the race will span four very different stages, something of a voyage of discovery for the solo racers on this new generation boat. It is a race without equal. There are sailors who by default have become experts in only this race. Gildas Morvan, for example, starts his 22nd participation. There are past Olympic classes and dinghy champions, Mini Transat sailors, some amateurs and the rookies, who are the rising stars of the future.
There are three past triple winners in Michel Desjoyeaux, Jérémie Béyou and Yann Éliès; a double winner (Armel Le Cléac'h); and two one-time winners (Alain Gautier, Yoann Richomme). And there are many who have won at least one stage including Yann Éliès (10), Alain Gautier (9), Jérémie Béyou (8), Michel Desjoyeaux (7), Armel Le Cléac'h (6), Gildas Morvan (6), Adrien Hardy (4), Anthony Marchand (2), Loïck Peyron (1), Corentin Douguet (1), Fabien Delahaye (1), Morgan Lagravière (1), Alexis Loison (1), Gildas Mahé (1) and Yoann Richomme (1).
This first stage will give an immediate insight to who is competitive for the overall standings. And so also it opens the competition for the top Bizuth or Rookie prize and for the new Vivi Trophy which will be presented for the first time to the top ranked skipper from outside of France.
Over the course of the race’s 50-year history some 53 foreigners have entered. In this fiftieth edition there are seven competitors from outside of France. From Switzerland Justine Mettraux finished 11th last year and has shown well in the early season races. There are two Irish competitors (Joan Mulloy and Tom Dolan), two Englishmen (Will Harris and Alan Roberts), an Italian (Alberto Bona) and a New Zealander (Conrad Colman) all form the non-French Foreign Legion.
Among the dozen rookies who will take on their first La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro, the top contenders include the hotly tipped Benjamin Schwartz who was top rookie in the Solo Maitre CoQ and fourth overall. His CV is mainly in big boat racing including being part of the Spindrift Jules Verne attempt this year, as well as sailing on the SFS Volvo 70. New Zealander Conrad Colman has raced three times around the world, completing the Vendée Globe and the Barcelona World Race but has never competed in this foundation class.
The 36-year old Kiwi says: “It does feel a little disingenuous being described as a rookie or bizuth when you have raced round the world but the Figaro is its own beast and requires its own skills and so in terms of my skillsets and experience of what I have done, in this class I am very much a rookie.
“This whole season is about new targets and new learning and eating a lot of humble pie to develop these new skills. Over the last ten years it has been about going fast solo on heavy, fast and powerful big boats. This is much more about keeping a small, fast boat going fast 100% of the time. My goal is definitely to win the bizuth division but there are some very impressive sailors in this division too.”
The first stage of this landmark edition, appropriately, heads to the race’s most popular destination, Kinsale in the south of Ireland. Over the 50-year history of the solo race it has gone across the Celtic Sea to Kinsale 19 times. The only sailors in this fleet to have won into Kinsale are Adrien Hardy (2010), Alain Gautier (1997 and 1988), and Loïck Peyron (1986).
It will be essential to find a steady rhythm from the start on this 553 nautical mile leg. From the start off Pornichet on Sunday the fleet should have a wind flow of W-SW of around 10kts, ideal for the first opening 11-mile circuit. Then they head to a turn for a mark at Port Bourgenay before leaving Noirmoutier to port (57 miles after the start) as the wind veers west and eases.
From there it is 435 miles to reach the famous Fastnet light, probably racing through the Raz de Sein, and here there might be some chances for the weather experts to find the best of a Westerly flow.
Monday night, the wind seems to move to the South West around 12 knots or so to climb out to the Scilly Isles, the milestone leading to the Celtic Sea crossing out to the rock and then 50 miles back along the Irish coasts where the tidal coefficient is 89 in a Northerly offshore breeze.
Reaching Kinsale in touch with the leading peloton, the top overall group, will be essential. On such long stages – the second stage is 630nms, the third 450nms and the last 500nms – any initial big gaps are only likely to increase. So the first leg might be key.
Preparations continue in Kinsale, County Cork to welcome the 50th Figaro Race race when the solo race returns to Ireland on June 6th.
As added interest for Irish race followers, the huge entry for this 50th-anniversary edition of La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro will have Irish participation too. Joan Mulloy and Tom Dolan will compete in the event that for the first time features a new foiler one-design boat. Full details were announced on Afloat in February by Jack Roy, President of Irish Sailing.
The transition to the new foil assisted VPLP designed Figaro Beneteau 3 has seen the return to the race of Beyou, Yann Eliès, Michel Desjoyeaux, Yoann Richomme, Loick Peyron, Alain Gautier and Armel Le Cleac'h, creating a sporting level which is unprecedented.
The upcoming four-stage race which starts on Sunday in Nantes and finishes at the end of the month in Dieppe after stages to Kinsale, Ireland, to Roscoff, a loop off Roscoff and a final leg to the finish.
The Figaro has been described as the “ Tour de France” on the ocean. In Kinsale, it is organised by a locally based voluntary committee, chaired by Tony Small assisted by EnCircle Na Farraige, an event management company.
Unfortunately, Stage 1 of his La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro only lasted about 90 minutes for the Irish solo racer Tom Dolan yesterday. He has been forced to retire in to Le Havre because of a damaged starboard spreader. Dolan informed the race organisers that he was returning to the race start port where he is expected to repair and head directly to Saint-Brieuc to be ready for Stage 2. Abandoning the leg means his elapsed time is calculated at that of the last skipper to finish plus an additional two hours.
Listen into Tom Dolan speaking about the spreader failure on podcast here.
The first stage of this 49th edition, La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro, is the longest of the four legs and it will be something of a baptism of fire for the 36 solo racers. They may have a relatively straightforward first afternoon after the start Sunday at 1300hrs but there will be a fast crossing of the Channel under spinnaker as a fast moving and active front passes over the fleet at the start of this evening.
It will be a pretty tough, challenging first night at sea with little chance to rest. But by Monday afternoon it there will be a big change in the weather as the anticyclone re-establishes itself and with that comes a measure of uncertainty, bringing light and unsteady winds. To get to Wolf Rock off the tip of Cornwall first and then across to the Portsall mark off the Breton peninsula in good shape, up to Guernsey and in to the finish in Saint Brieuc, it looks like a long, hard and very open game.
Only six and a half hours after leaving the La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro start line in Le Havre the leaders have already turned west, upwind at the Pullar mark, to the west of Owers. Anthony Marchand (Groupe Royer-Secours Populaire) lead at South Pullar at 1930h French time (1830 BST) being chased hard by Gildas Mahe (Breizh Cola), Tanguy le Turquais (Everial), Sebastien Simon (Bregagne Credit Mutuel Performance), Eric Peron (Finistere Mer Vent), Xavier Macaire (Groupe SNEF )and Vincent Biarnes (Baie de Saint-Brieuc). Brit Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) is tenth at 1.3nm behind leader. The fleet now race upwind leaving the Isle of Wight to starboard. Low water at Saint Catherine's point was around 1720 BST/1820 French time and so they will be sailing against the building flood tide.