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When solo star Tom Dolan was told last Saturday evening that the exceptionally calm condition of the inner Bay of Biscay meant that the proposed final fourth stage of the Solitaire du Figaro 2020 would not be sailed, among the first things he did was to phone his longtime sailing friend Gerry Jones back home in Ireland. For that cancellation of the final stage confirmed the leaderboard on the results of the first three stages, and it resulted in the Meath sailor finishing the 2020 event at fifth overall as the best-placed non-French skipper since 1997.

It says much that, in the instant wave of euphoria and the wild party mood which swept over the leading dozen or so skippers in St Nazaire, Dolan's almost immediate instinct was to contact the sailing friend and mentor whom he'd met many years ago through Glenans Ireland in Baltimore, where Gerry Jones had recognised the young Meath man's enormous natural sailing talent.

Tom Dolan at a Pre-Race briefing during his early days in FranceTom Dolan at a Pre-Race briefing during his early days in France

It certainly wasn't a talent which you would have expected to emerge from Tom Dolan's background as the son of a farmer in that hidden part of north county Meath beyond the Boyne and the Blackwater. But one day his father happened to glimpse - in a Buy & Sell magazine - a classified ad with photo of a Miracle dinghy. It was a sort of enlarged up-graded Mirror which lacked the magic of the original and had totally failed to catch on in Ireland. Thus the price was for nothing, so a deal was done and the boat collected from Boyle in County Roscommon, and that weekend, Dolan Senior and his young son Tom were fulfilling the father's long-held dream of a little bit of sailing on the nearest decent-sized lake to home, which happens to be rather a classy one, as it's Lough Ramor.

Tom's first command – the Miracle dinghy was a rarity in Ireland.Tom's first command – the Miracle dinghy was a rarity in Ireland

Where it all began – Lough Ramor in the middle of IrelandWhere it all began – Lough Ramor in the middle of Ireland

Knowing how much Irish farmers value the tradition of the family farm passing to the next generation, it's doubtful if that little boat would have ever seen Dolan family ownership if the father had foreseen its ultimate outcome. For young Tom was hooked by this first very experimental introduction to sailing, and instead of spending the key years of his life in his 20s and early 30s in learning the lore of working the land, his home place has become Concarneau in Brittany, and he has been learning the salty ways of the ocean and the coast in the pressure-cooker world of French solo and dual sailing at the top level of the MiniTransat and Figaro Solo circuses.

As a young Irish person from a non-sailing background, he was in one of the later cohorts to find their way into our oddly-inaccessible sport through the Glenans Ireland set up in Baltimore, rather than through the more established route of family and friends. The Glenans business model was ultimately based on the frugal conditions which existed in late 1940s France, which transferred very well to the austerity of Ireland in the 1970s and '80s. But the advent of the Celtic Tiger and the ready availability of package holidays to sunshine-guaranteed sailing schools greatly reduced the appeal of Glenans in Ireland.

However, by the time its Baltimore operations were moving towards a close, Tom Dolan had found this means of vibrant self-expression through sailing and tuition with Glenan Ireland and was ready to spread his wings in a broader setting. And in Gerry Jones, he had met someone with a true talent scout's eye for sailing ability, a generous-hearted man who had a foot in both the established sailing world and in Glenans, and someone moreover who recognized and understood the growing determination of the young Meathman to take this sailing game just as far as he could.

Concarneau in Brittany. Tom Dolan's new home port is a characterful old place with a highly-developed modern marine industry. Concarneau in Brittany. Tom Folan's new home port is a characterful old place with a highly-developed modern marine industry.

So by 2011 aged 24, Tom had taken the step of moving to France to make his way in the small and very specialised industry which has developed around solo and short-handed racing, eventually settling in one of its most congenial centres at Concarneau in Brittany. He knew that he was already significantly older than many of the young Turks under the age of 20 who were establishing their mark through various sailing academies and specialised bursary schemes. But equally any overview of the French sailing scene showed some continuing stars who were much older than himself. And anyway, this was what he wanted to do, his determination never faltered even if, for the first year or so, Brittany in the depth of winter could seem a lonely enough place.

But enthusiasm and energy soon provides its own company, and his willingness to work hard and get involved meant that at times he could get into a boat maintenance and preparation programme that sometimes resulted in the loan of the boat to compete as a skipper in his own right in one of the lower-profile events.

This was mostly being done in events in and around the MiniTransat programme, the race across the Atlantic every four years for highly-developed 6.5-metre boats which can often prove embarrassingly fast when set in competition with much larger more orthodox craft. Even when sailing a loaned Pogo 2 in a Mini event, Tom was making his mark, such that he soon acquired the moniker of L'Irlandais Volante - the Flying Irishman – and this was further emphasised when he finally bought his own new Pogo 3 in 2015.

The Flying Irishman - this vid shows Tom at his best, carving his way through the fleet with the new boat

It all looks very complete and well-resourced, but he acquired the boat in the most basic form possible using limited funds built around a small inheritance – "I bet the farm" he quipped at the time – and finished her himself while making income from a Sailing Academy he was running in Concarneau with his close sailing buddy Francois Jambou.

Life was acquiring a more stabilised form and a settled Concarneau base as Tom and Karen Charles Boiteux set up home together. But while the sailing fundamentals were there, with the countdown to the 2017 Mini-Transat underway, good results were coming in during various preliminary events, yet a really solid main sponsor was still needed.

Thus although the new boat appeared in races during 2016 with various sponsorship logos on the sails, they were for small amounts, and in the entry lists she was unequivocally-named as "Still Seeking Sponsor". But one of those sponsors was Irish-based packaging giant Smurfit Kappa, in a trial deal negotiated through its Paris unit, and by 2017 this had been firmed up to become a main sponsorship for the up-coming Mini Transat, while encouraging support was coming from another direction in the form of Jack Roy, the newly-elected President of Irish Sailing, who made a point of being in La Rochelle for the start of the race with its 50-plus fleet at the end of September.

Tom Dolan and Irish Sailing President Jack Roy in La Rochelle in September 2017 before the start of the Mini TransatTom Dolan and Irish Sailing President Jack Roy in La Rochelle in September 2017 before the start of the Mini Transat

Although by this stage Tom was building up a personal support team around himself, the mental stress was still enormous, and in the early stages of the race, he made some very unnecessary mistakes for which he continued to chide himself when a psychologically better-prepared sailor would have long since moved on. But as the race progressed his sheer talent began to show through, and by the time the final leg Transatlantic to St Lucia was well underway, he was on top form, very much in contention and well placed in the top ten such that in the final stages he looked like being fourth.

But when Smurfit Kappa came into port, she was sixth. It was an excellent placing, but where had she slipped from fourth? The skipper was in a thoughtful mood, but finally, he revealed that in driving flat out in a classic trade-wind squall, Smurfit Kappa had pitch-poled and Tom found himself in the ocean, looking up at the keel of his inverted boat.

If you're going to pitch-pole, you wouldn't expect a rig of this relative size to survive the experience, yet Tom Dolan showed it was possible in the Atlantic in 2017.If you're going to pitch-pole, you wouldn't expect a rig of this relative size to survive the experience, yet Tom Dolan showed it was possible in the Atlantic in 2017.

Never before had a Mini-Transat boat pitch-poled and come up with her rig intact. Yet The Flying Irishman established a first yet again. Everything was still there and more or less intact as the little boat shook herself upright like a dog emerging from a river, and Tom hauled himself back on board to get things back on track. Although a couple of places had been lost when the somewhat subdued skipper came into port, his name and the boat's name were fully established as serious contenders, and it was time to move on to the exalted heights of the Figaro Solo.

There was much Irish experience and precedent to draw on, as it was in the Figaro that Damian Foxall first took centre stage on the global offshore sailing scene, and since then Marcus Hutchinson had developed his "Figaro Academy" which provided an entrée to this quintessentially French event for young sailors from other countries who accepted that while it may indeed have been very French, it was the only show in town at that level anywhere in the world.

Thus the Hutchinson clientele came from several countries, and young David Kenefick from Cork was among them for a couple of successful years. But with Hutchinson's involvement in the French offshore scene expanding to include the management of IMOCA 60s for events like the Vendee Globe, it was getting quite crowded up there for Irish sailors on the peak of top-level professional offshore racing.

Yet in this fast-moving world, Tom Dolan and Smurfit Kappa got themselves a Figaro 2 for that marque's last main series in 2018, and the Dolan career stayed well on track with the first prize for top rookie, with the awards due to be handed out at the Paris Boat Show in December, when the new foiling Beneteau Figaro 3 would be unveiled.

For now, the main target had become the Golden Jubilee of the Figaro Solitaire in June 2019, when the fleet would take in Ireland with a gala visit to Kinsale. So there was a very definite buzz in the air when the new-look foiling Beneteau 3s were unveiled at that Paris Show, with Irish Sailing's Jack and Rosemary Roy's reassuring presence in evidence to back up Figaro aspirants Tom Dolan and Joan Mulloy.

Joan Mulloy, Jack Roy and Tom Dolan and the Paris Boat Show, December 2018. Photo: Rosemary RoyJoan Mulloy, Jack Roy and Tom Dolan and the Paris Boat Show, December 2018. Photo: Rosemary Roy

But while Mulloy was very much a Figaro beginner at that time, and has since stood down from front-line competition after starting a family, Tom Dolan was seen as the developing force of proven achievement and significant potential, something which was underlined with his award of the 2018 Rookie Prize at the ceremony in the show.

Awards for Tom Dolan in the 2018 Figaro Solo at the Paris Boat ShowAwards for Tom Dolan in the 2018 Figaro Solo at the Paris Boat Show

Yet everything in 2019 seemed to conspire against more Dolan success in that season. For sure, there some events of high achievement, but the pressure of getting the fleet of brand new Figaros race-ready for the big event provided a host of manufacturing teething problems to which Tom's boat seemed even more prone than most. And though, when everything was in place and functioning properly, in steady sailing conditions he was clearly back to his old self as l'Irlandais Volant, it was a disappointing Figaro Solitaire, and he finished 25th overall.

But being Tom Dolan, he bounced back, albeit after some coruscating self-analysis which was published in July 2019 in in response to the question: What was your own debrief after La Solitaire, and how does that affect your strategy for next year?

"When I was ahead I seemed to be as good as the best, and when I was behind I was terrible, as bad as the worst. So I want to get my head sorted out a bit. I am planning to work with a very good sports psychologist in Dublin who works with the Irish Olympic team. I saw her a bit last year, but this year time ran away with work on the boat and training and everything. The psychological side of it fell by the wayside. I did not put that side of it high enough on my list of priorities. I imagine the things I need to work are basic: Decision making, and how I can look after and manage myself better.

How to break the pattern of doing badly when you are losing. That's in the head, isn't it? I maybe concentrated too much on finding speed, and I did find it. And that's great if you are going fast in the right direction. But if you are going fast in the wrong direction……"

In due course, 2020 was approached in a much better frame of mind. But as the New Year turned, it became increasingly clear that the pandemic-facing world might have bigger problems to deal with than the state of mind of professional athletes. Yet in the end, it all does revert to the personal, and for Tom Dolan as for others in his situation, it was a matter of maintaining the healthiest possible attitude as the French sailing authorities grappled with ways of providing some sort of sport while complying with regulations, no easy matter in a country in which the shoreside aspect of major sailing events is often on an even bigger scale that the event itself.

New boat, full sponsorship – Tom Dolan gets to grips with the foiling Figaro 3 New boat, full sponsorship – Tom Dolan gets to grips with the foiling Figaro 3

With the Figaro put back to September, in July the Drheam Cup starting 18th July from Cherbourg and going round Brittany to La Trinite sur Mer offered an interesting challenge for standard offshore racers and the Figaro fleet racing both solo and double-handed. Apart from learning how to handle COVID-19 compliance ashore and afloat, it was very educational for the large mixed fleet in that the clear overall winner on the water was Figaro solo sailor Sam Goodchild racing Leyton which - for those who hadn't previously experienced it - was a very telling introduction to the stratospherically high standard of modern Figaro racing.

Covid-proofed…..Tom Dolan (right) and Francois Jambou racing to second in class in the big-fleet Drheam Cup from Cherbourg to La Trinite in JulyCovid-proofed…..Tom Dolan (right) and Francois Jambou racing to second in class in the big-fleet Drheam Cup from Cherbourg to La Trinite in July.

Tom Dolan for his part had teamed up with old shipmate Francois Jambou to race double-handed, and they took second in division, but now the challenge was to stay in tune and keep fit through times of uncertainty and frustration until the Figaro Solitaire got underway from St Brieuc in the middle of the North Brittany coast at the end of August, with the first stage 642 miles round the Fastnet Rock and back to St Brieuc.

Every stage was covered in detail on here so now we can take the broader view of noting that while Tom Dolan was once again showing that he could be one of the fastest boats in the fleet, in 2020's edition he was spending more time making that speed in the right place and in the right direction.

In other words, he was a serious contender throughout, and it was hugely reassuring to note that when in subsequent stages he might find himself down the fleet, there was something remorseless about the way Smurfit Kappa chose the right tactical options and steadily milled her way into the leading group.

The four stages of the Figaro Solitaire, September 2020.The four stages of the Figaro Solitaire, September 2020

The most difficult stage was what proved to be the final one, 512 miles from Dunkerque down the English Channel and round west Brittany through the many islands inside Ushant and on to St Nazaire in Loire-Atlantique. Anyone who has cruised in that tide-riven maze of rocks and islands inside Ushant will wonder how on earth a fleet of 35 solo sailors could seriously race in light airs and misty conditions in such waters. Yet they did it, some did it very well indeed, and Tom Dolan was one of them, confirming himself into a good fifth overall when the first three stages were tallied in St Nazaire.

And that's where it ended. Difficult and all as it is to believe with the weather Western Europe has been experiencing since then, a week ago in St Nazaire the Figaro Solitaire organisers were looking at 36 hours of total calm right over the period they hoped to stage their final 183-mile "sprint". At first, they proposed a shortened course, but as the freakish weather became even flatter, it would have been a lottery if they'd managed a finish, and everything pointed to the decision last Saturday night, which led to that euphoric phone call to Dublin and the good news for Gerry Jones.

A solo skipper in harmony with his boat – Tom Dolan finished the 2020 Figaro in tune with ship and seaA solo skipper in harmony with his boat – Tom Dolan finished the 2020 Figaro in tune with ship and sea

So now the show is on the road more firmly than ever, with a delighted Smurfit Kappa looking forward to continuing with the Dolan campaign through 2021's Figaro Solitaire. And who knows what lies beyond that, with a crew of mixed gender in an offshore racing boat scheduled for inclusion in the 2024 Olympics, and Tom Dolan demonstrably an Irish offshore sailor of proven standard.

Certainly, it was something for thought when Sailing on Saturday was talking with Tom on Thursday, and he has already had some approaches from potential co-skippers. He was acutely aware that decisions made in the next few months could affect his sailing for years. But even so, the top item this week has been sleep and more sleep. Tom Dolan has been sleeping for Ireland since Monday. And he sure has earned it after more than a year of frustration, rounded out by three weeks of intense concentration and ferocious sleep deprivation.

But before hitting the scratcher, there was the prize-giving, and as Marcus and Meagan Hutchinson presented the Vivi Cup (named after their vintage 30 Square Metre) a couple of years ago as the prize for the top non-French contender in the Figaro Solitaire, this provided the opportunity for the Man from Meath to do his thing, and here it is:

Marcus & Meagan Hutchinson's classic 30 Square Metre Vivi gives her name to the trophy for the top non-French performer in the FigaroA boat about as different from a Figaro 3 as you can get – Marcus & Meagan Hutchinson's classic 30 Square Metre Vivi gives her name to the trophy for the top non-French performer in the Figaro – in 2019 it was Alan Roberts, in 2020 the winner is Tom Dolan

Published in Tom Dolan

Armel Le Cléac’h (Banque Populaire) lifted the overall title for the 51st La Solitaire du Figaro at the end of race prizegiving in Saint Nazaire, France today. It is Le Cléach’s third time of winning after successes in 2003 and 2010. With the fourth leg cancelled before starting on Saturday night due to the complete absence of wind, Le Cléac’h’s winning margin is 10 minutes and 43 seconds over Fred Duthil (Techniques Voiles/Cabinet Bourhis Generali) who took second after winning the third stage. And third overall is young French ace Tom Laperche (Bretagne CMB Espoir). At just 23 years old Laperche is on just his second ever La Solitaire after debuting in 11th last year.

Top rookie this year is Kevin Bloch of the Team Vendée Formation group, finishing 12th overall.

And in fifth place, overall Ireland’s Tom Dolan received the VIVI Trophy for the best racer from outside of France.

“ I am delighted to see Tom win and delighted to see that in just the second year since the trophy was donated it really has become established as something that the sailors want to fight for and at the same time they are now getting some well-deserved recognition. ” Said Marcus Hutchinson, who with his wife Megan, donated the trophy last year.

“ And I am pleased to see it go to a fellow Irishman in Tom and he wins if not for being tenth or twelfth but for a great fifth place. He has been consistent this year and that is what La Solitaire is all about. This race so challenging and so complicated and he has worked hard. And it is nice, in a way, that he does not come from Dublin or Cork or one of the Irish sailing centres, his success says anyone can come and do this if they have the will and the determination, anything is possible. Tom has shown that. ”

Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) finished in tenth place overall (+2hrs 11mins behind the winner), pledging to come back next year to do better and to fight even harder.

“ I am happy with my top ten, that is always a good result in La Solitaire, I know I can do better and I know I can be better and so I am going to come back stronger and harder. I think our approach over the last couple of weeks has been spot on. I did not feel so quick early on in the season but I made the right moves towards the end. I am happy for Tom Dolan he has had an amazing race, he was solid. Tom did a brilliant job. ”

On his first La Solitaire du Figaro since his one and only experience in 2011 when he was 18th, Phil Sharp (OceansLab) finished up 13th overall (+2hrs 41mins) “ Mostly I am happy I have been improving on every leg, and improving a lot. It is amazing to be in the Top 13. I think overall the result on this race goes down to preparation. But for me the improvement is noticeable and there is a huge satisfaction in just learning to do it better, and some of that comes from just being out there seeing boats around you and picking up the pace with them. I have come on a long way.”
For a programme which only started just three weeks before the race started Jack Bouttell can be pleased which his 15th on Fromagerie Gillot (2hrs 43 mins). “ You always finish thinking you could have done a bit better but overall I am happy with where I finished, there are some good guys behind me and some good guys just ahead. I lacked a bit of speed at times. Would I come back? Yes and No. It is addictive. Look at leg 3 it was so long and hard, four days of hell, but you finish disappointed and cant wait to get out and improve. The sponsors Fromagerie Gillot have never been involved in sailing and they have really enjoyed it and got something good from it. ”

Having sailed so brilliantly until the latter stages of Stage 3 Britain’s Sam Goodchild (Leyton) deserved much better than the 17th place he finished in. To have been third going into what proved the last leg and not had a fourth leg to fight back on was doubly cruel to Goodchild who nonetheless established himself as one of the best Figaro sailors of the moment, sailing well across the wind range.

They said:
8th, Yann Eliès (Queguiner Materiaux-Leucémie Espoir):

When you finish a Solitaire, do you say never again or bring on the next one?
Mostly there is a kind of hangover, because the race is over. It is something that is so good, that we get so addicted to that in the end, we kind of have the feeling of the kid who had a great weekend and has to come home Sunday evening because there is school the next day. It’s the same and it’s very hard.

At 50, is this La Solitaire still as great?
Yes, I think it is doing pretty well, thanks in particular to people like Francis Le Goff (the race director) who is there to watch over it and preserve the spirit. We have to continue to make stages of at least three nights at sea, especially as we have great support that allows us to make progress and to go well. The first stage we did more than 600 miles, it went quick. So don't lets go on without doing the 600 to 800 miles, the boat is made for that.

Now you are six triple winners, is the new lad up to the task?
Yes all things considered Armel is arguably the most talented of us. We must not forget that he was second in his first La Solitaire du Figaro (in 2002) and he has won the Vendée Globe on his third attempt and having been second twice before. He fully deserves this third win

What are the surprises for you on this 51st edition?
It's only half a surprise, but I like Tom Laperche, I think he's a future great champion, really. He is gold, to be so mature at that age and after two Solitaries to be third is rarely seen. I also want to talk about girls, these two kids (Elodie Bonafous and Violette Dorange) who dared to come to La Solitaire and who did not let themselves down. I hope they will make other girls want to come because we are going to need it in the years to come. And I want to see Robin Follin again, I found him good, nice, he was happy to dare as you saw with his passage on the other side of Ushant, to take this kind of option at his age, that means he has guts. I would like him to have his chance again with the opportunity to do some real preparation, because he has really struggled this year.

Published in Tom Dolan

With not enough wind to run Stage 4 of La Solitaire du Figaro Ireland’s Tom Dolan secured an excellent fifth place overall on Smurfit Kappa. It is the best international overall placing in the historic French multi-stage offshore race series since 1997 when Switzerland’s Dominique Wavre placed second, and a remarkable result considering it is just Dolan’s third challenge and last year he was 33rd.

The 33-year-old who has lived in Concarneau, Brittany since 2009 but grew up on a farm in rural County Meath came into the gruelling four-stage race aiming to get into the top half of the fleet and to underline his potential to Irish sailing administrators considering the selection process for the 2024 Olympic Mixed Double Offshore category which comes in for the Paris games.

Having worked hard on his mental approach in the early season, Dolan made an excellent start by leading the 624 miles first stage across the Celtic Sea before Fastnet Rock. He lost four places on the approach to the light and more on the long run and reach to the finish, but the 10th place finish was a foundation to build on. He followed up with a solid 11th in the second stage and his career-best seventh on the last stage ensured he was fifth going into the last leg which could not be sailed.

“Right now I am so happy with the result. I came here with hopes of finishing in the top 15. I really wanted to do better than last year when I was 33rd, so to be able to come here and finish in fifth place is amazing. I am delighted.” Grinned Dolan on the dock, “ “To be honest the best thing that happened in terms of preparation was doing so badly in the Solo Maitre Coq race early in the season. I got a bit of a kicking and I realised the problem was in my head and did something about it.”

It is all in the head. I never put enough importance on mental preparation. It is a bit mad this sport. You can have nice sails and the smoothest hull, nice rudders and a fast boat but the head is the most important thing. I think.”

He explained, “I saw a psychologist and we worked on my confidence, making sure that I felt confident in the hard work I have done to get here and not being overawed by the world class sailors I am sailing against. Before when things went wrong I would fall apart. This time I just stuck to what I knew from my preparation and ran with what I thought myself not what other good guys were doing. And so this time my head was much clearer. I have always understood the weather and I feel like I have a good feel for it. And I worked hard at preparing and knowing what might happen and then trusting myself, at the same time not taking too many risks.”

“I hope people at home in Ireland that others can do this. I have worked hard and I hope also this might help give me a fair crack at selection for 2024.”

Dolan added, “ The best moments of the race were going towards the Fastnet Rock in first place or in the lead group anyway, that was fairly incredible. And then this evening when the leg was cancelled, it was all a bit strange to hope that there would be no wind. And so coming back in under engine realising I had done it was brilliant.

“ I have to say that I am here as the best ‘foreigner’ but really Sam Goodchild I have to say was better than me and just got unlucky on one stupid transition at Belle Ile. I should say the VIVI Trophy should be his. But, yes, in La Solitaire you have to be lucky too. I am going to get lots of sleep now and then take my girlfriend on holiday, but then I hear that I am sixth in the French offshore championship so that might have to wait!”

Published in Tom Dolan

County Meath's Tom Dolan will have his chance to seal Ireland's best ever La Solitaire du Figaro this evening after completing three stand-out legs to be in striking distance of a podium result.

The final, deciding stage of the La Solitaire du Figaro is usually billed as a 24-hour sprint, quite literally designed to test who still can best draw on the remaining reserves of energy for one last day-long no holds barred battle to the final finish line but this evening it may well be a drifting match according to the weather forecasts.

Looking at this light winds all or nothing scenario does not fill Ireland’s Tom Dolan (Smurfit Kappa) with too much joy. The 33-year-old racer, on just his third La Solitaire, lies in an excellent fifth place overall, ready to challenge for the podium. He is within 28 minutes and 22 seconds of third-placed Tom Laperche (Bretagne CMB Espoir) but resolves to carry on with his same low-risk approach and to not get overwrought by the challenge that faces him.

“I feel grand, my back is a bit sore but then I am sure everyone’s is at this stage. It looks like a very complicated stage, light winds, strong tides. I am a bit worried to be honest because you could lose everything you have done good on this last stage. But I will just do as much as I can in terms of the prep. I have a couple of ideas in terms of strategy but I will work like I have these first three legs and see how I go. It would be a dream to hold on to fifth. I am definitely so much more confident in the way I am approaching things and sailing well enough.” Said Dolan, “But I have not really looked to closely at the standings, I am not sure I will. I think better to go out and sail own race as best I can.”

According to the weather gurus who advise the solo skippers on the fine detail strategies and the sailors themselves, the decisive Stage 4 of the 51st La Solitaire du Figaro looks set to be a drifting match for the most part of the proposed 83 nautical miles passage out from Saint Nazaire to round the Ile de Yeu. In winds predicted to be between one and just over six knots use of the tidal currents (coeff 113) could decide the race.

"It's a short course, because there is no wind," says Francis Le Goff, the race director bluntly. In terms of contingencies there will be a buoy set 12 miles north of the island to allow intermediate times to be taken in case they cannot finish. And, after the 1915hrs Saturday evening start time, if the leaders have not yet passed the south of the Island by 1000hrs Sunday morning the race will be abandoned. The stage must be at least 50 miles long.

Le Goff asserts “La Solitaire du Figaro is not a coastal race, this stage must be at least 50 miles long to uphold the ethos of racing on the open sea. And similarly, if there is not sufficient wind on the water by 2030hrs the race will be cancelled as the rules do not allow a start in the dark.”

Having been postponed by more than 24 hours to allow the skippers enough rest because Stage 3 overran on time, the schedule requires the race to be decided by Sunday afternoon.

It is perhaps not the ideal scenario to settle the destination of this year’s La Solitaire title. But the tension between leader Armel Le Cléac’h (Banque Populaire) and nearest challenger Fred Duthil (Technique Voile/Cabinet Bourhis Generali) was notable at today’s – virtual- weather briefing. Both in turn queried the finer details of the race planning.

Le Cléac’h is 10 minutes 43 seconds up on Duthil and victory in this edition was the sole focus of this year for the 44 year old two times overall winner whose La Solitaire career includes wins in 2003 and 2010 and is neatly punctuated by three consecutive Vendée Globe podiums, second in 2008 and 2012 and winning in 2016.

In contrast Duthil, at 46 the oldest sailor in the fleet, with three La Solitaire top threes to his name, came into this La Solitaire for the sheer fun of it, not having raced the Beneteau Figaro 3 before and having only sailed his borrowed boat four times before the start.

But his cheeky victory on Stage 3, allied to a solid 14th on the first leg at 14 minutes behind Le Cléac’h and eighth on Stage 2 48 minutes behind Le Cléac’h gives Duthil a fighting chance of lifting the overall title.

“Of course, this is the most complicated scenario for me, with very uncertain weather, little wind and a lot of current, I hope that this last stage can be contested under normal racing conditions”, confirms Armel Le Cléac'h who knows how small the winning overall margins can be having beaten Alain Gautier by just 13 seconds in 2003.

"I won’t be losing sleep, I have seen races like this before. As long as it stays as sport and we are all in the same boat, we will have to be good right until the end to get this victory. "

Frédéric Duthil is determined to mount a strong challenge. “Second, third, fourth, fifth, tenth in the standings, for me, that's not going to change my life. I have already made three podiums on La Solitaire, once second, twice third, a fourth would be great, but the past has taught me that you only want to be the winner. What interests me is trying to make up for those ten minutes and fight Armel. "

He continues, “Entering the last stage ten minutes behind the leader means that I'm no longer in a position to just tell myself that I'm going to sail for fun. I'm still going to sail for fun, but also to sail to win. I see that my speed is fine and so is the way I've been sailing from the start, so I am saying to myself: why not? I'm really leaving with a frame of mind to try to catch up.”

Britain’s Sam Goodchild (Leyton) is ready to fight to finish on a high note after the huge disappointment of being in the top three for most of Stage 3, leading into the final 30 miles before being caught in a calm which saw him drop from third to 17th overall.

He said “It is so annoying to come so close to getting a really good result and then falling at the last hurdle. But that is sailing. That is La Solitaire and why you come back to La Solitaire again and again. You come back to do better than last time.” Said Goodchild, “I have been on good form generally so hopefully I can re-find that form for this last leg. “There is such a small window to get this leg in. The positive side is if you are trying to protect a position then it could be quite stressful. Unfortunately, now I am not doing trying to do that. I might sail a little more freely than on the last leg where I knew the weather was unstable and light and so I did not take too many risks and go into corners.”

Like others, Goodchild found the last leg extremely tiring and that may have affected his decision making towards the end. “I don’t think I have been that tired before. And them with the frustration and the adrenalin mix of the final 24 hours of that leg, there was not much sleep. But right now when I look back with hindsight I can’t see or say what I would have done differently. We were going straight for the finish line and the plan was not to get too close to the island. But we sailed into a hole and everyone sailed round us. I hung on for a bit too long when Yann chose to cut his losses earlier. But basically everyone sailed round us. But it is history. I will just have to do the Figaro again. It is great racing, there is nothing like it, in one design like this there is no hiding place and no excuses.”

Stage 4 is due to start 1915hrs local time Saturday.


Published in Tom Dolan

Ireland's Tom Dolan has finished the third leg of the La Solitaire du Figaro race in seventh overall, a result that will almost guarantee him a top five overall going into the final leg of the French solo marathon.

Dolan sailed back from as low as 21st place a day ago on the leg from Dunkirk and sailed into Saint-Nazaire this evening in fifth overall. For a time it looked like he may drop back as rivals such as Goodchild and Macaire finished but it looks certain now that Dolan will hold fifth overall with one leg left to race.

It's a deserved result for the Meath man who has kept to his promise of delivering a top result with some consistent sailing in this, his third Figaro Race.

32 miles away from his arrival in Saint-Nazaire after plenty of rebounds and surprises, the Flying Irishman, as he is is known among competitors, was as high as fifth on the most technical stage of La Solitaire du Figaro but the snakes and ladders continued and he dropped two places on his route to the line.

Dolan (Smurfit Kappa) kept his head through the final hours crossing seventh, the best finish of his La Solitaire du Figaro career. Tenth on the first stage, 11th on the second, Dolan is up to fifth overall, just reward for his good all-round speed, tenacity and consistent, minimal risk choices. Dolan wins the VIVI Trophy award for the best overseas, non-French skipper to finish.

Dolan said: “ To be honest with you I am a bit surprised because I really have not been doing anything different in the way I sail the boat, I trim the sails the same way and everything else but I really have made an effort to get my head sorted and so I don’t lose the plot a bit the way I may be used to. And I really don’t focus on the other boats I just concentrate on my speed and trim and don’t get wound up where I am. But fifth overall, I better get some sleep before the last leg! ”

Published in Tom Dolan

Irish solo sailor Tom Dolan is delivering on his pre-race promise of consistent sailing and is now up to 13th place and less than four miles behind the leader. It's an impressive performance from the County Meath sailor to add to his 10th and 11th places scored in the first two legs of La Solitaire du Figaro, making it the best offshore result so far from any Irish Figaro competitor.

Dublin Rookie Kenny Rumball in his first edition of the French marathon race lies 27th in the 33-boat fleet. Tracker here

Approaching the Chaussée de Sein mark late this Tuesday afternoon, with some 125 nautical miles still to sail to the finish line off Saint Nazaire, three times La Solitaire du Figaro winner Yann Eliès (Quéguiner Materiaux-Leucémie Espoir) was holding a very slender lead over Britain’s Sam Goodchild (Leyton). Racing through the strong currents off Ushant on the north-west corner of Brittany with only very, very light winds Goodchild continues to hold his own as he matches Eliès who he pipped to second place at the Stage 2 finish into Dunkirk. Were Eliès to cross first he would draw level with his long term rival Le Cléac’h on seven stage wins

But while the British solo racer continued his carefully measured approach through a day which was marked by a significant bounce back by General Classification Armel Le Cléac’h (Banque Populaire).

Just when observers in his native France were voicing concerns that the twice La Solitaire champion had spent all of his overall lead of 37 minutes – and maybe more as he lay 24th and some ten miles behind the pacemakers - Le Cléac’h, The Jackal, again proved his willingness to take risks.

Cutting the corner at Ushant, passing down inside the small islands of the Ile de Quemenes and Ile Molene Stage 2 winner Le Cléac’h steadily clawed back five or six miles back on the leaders. Momentarily up to second, his actual placing is of no consequence. Of more significance, the move brings him to within three miles of the two leaders, in theory just about restoring his overall lead.

It is the third time in as many legs that Le Cléac’h has been bold enough to split from the fleet. Each time he has gained. On the first leg, just as today, it got the Vendée Globe winner back into contact with the leading vanguard, while on the second leg’s first night it proved to be his winning move.

But with light, offshore north-easterly breezes set to remain at around nine knots or less until the finish line where the leaders are expected tomorrow morning, anything can still happen. Another small low-pressure centre looks set to develop tonight centred over Lorient which will again upset the wind fields and make for lighter breezes. There appears to be more wind pressure offshore but at the expense of sailing a longer distance, and the breeze seems set to head and drop near the line.

But with the worst of the tidal gates, and the rocky, technical, tidal Raz de Sein behind them this evening and it is largely a straight line gennaker reach to the Loire Atlantique line where the winners should cross tomorrow morning. After 370 miles of racing since leaving Dunkirk on Saturday evening there are just two miles separating the top ten solo skippers, and 28 of the 33 skippers within 10 miles of the lead.

For Goodchild, the battle over these final hours to the line is mainly with Xavier Macaire (Groupe SNEF) who is second overall at 6 minutes and 29 seconds ahead of him when they left Dunkirk. The British skipper in turn had 6 minutes over Eliès who is fourth overall and Goodchild has 7 minutes and 15 seconds over Tom Laperche (Bretagne CMB Espoir).

Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) is nicely positioned now in eighth, 1.8 miles behind the pacemaker but within reach of the podium, just half a mile behind his compatriot Goodchild. Phil Sharp (OceansLab) is 13th alongside Ireland’s Dolan (Smurfit Kappa) both 3.8 miles behind the leader.

Tracker here

Published in Tom Dolan

Dun Laoghaire Harbour Rookie Kenny Rumball is currently as high as 15th place and staying very much in touch with the fleet in the opening hours of Stage 3 of La Solitaire du Figaro tonight while Ireland's top-ranked Tom Dolan is at at the back of the pack after this afternoon's start but such positions are most likely temporary.

Racing in very light and variable easterly winds, progress this Sunday afternoon has been as slow for the 33 solo skippers racing on Stage 3 from Dunkirk to Saint Nazaire at the entrance to the Loire estuary.

With the fleet spread almost side-by-side along a north-south line 25 nautical miles long, gains and losses appear mostly temporary. The choice of staying offshore in the stronger ebb current and better breeze seemed to have paid a very welcome dividend for three times winner Yann Eliès (Quéguiner Materiaux-Leucémie Espoir) and Britain’s Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) who came back to take the top positions in the middle of the afternoon but with the fleet racing side by side off Le Havre at 1600hrs this afternoon that gain appeared to evaporate again and there was nothing in it as the fleet race slowly westwards towards the headlands of the Cherbourg peninsula, Barfleur and then Cap de La Hague at some 45 miles ahead of them across the Baie de la Sein

“This is how we expected this stage to be.” Commented Race Director Francis Le Goff this afternoon, “Now the combination of light weather and the tides of the Cotentin (Cherbourg) will now push the sailors to make big choices. The seas are like a lake meantime, but a lake with a lot of seaweed.”

Le Goff, who accompanies the fleet on one of the three guardboats, considers there is a good chance for the leaders to still catch the last of the favourable current at Barfleur and the Cap de la Hague on the east of the peninsula but they may then be stopped at the Raz de Blanchard at Alderney, a tidal gate which proved crucial during last year’s race.

Meantime the focus is to stay on the pace with the group and try to keep rested and hydrated in the strong sunshine, looking ahead to a long second night at sea which should see the wind shift more to the north-east as the fleet start to escape a sticky ridge of high pressure centred in the east of the Channel.

Roberts and Eliès continue to take the offshore track and may well continue to profit, the French skipper who was third on Stage 2 is looking to back up that decent finish with another top five, whilst the British skipper Roberts is seeking his first top ten finish of a La Solitaire du Figaro on which he was tipped among the top favourites.

Meantime in terms of distance to the next waypoint there are just five nautical miles between first and 30th place but that picture will almost certainly be very different come Monday morning. Patience and focus will be key requirements tonight.

Published in Figaro

Tom Dolan is hoping the same measured, steady approach that has served him well on the first two stages of La Solitaire du Figaro will work just as well on Stage 3, a challenging 504 miles leg from Dunkirk in the very northeast of France, round the Brittany peninsula to Saint Nazaire at the entrance to the Loire estuary.

The 33-year-old Irish skipper of Smurfit Kappa has logged a tenth and an 11th and lies 11th overall, one hour and 11 minutes behind leader Armel Le Cléac’h (Banque Populaire). On a very tightly packed leaderboard he is just 33 minutes off second place after an aggregate of six days of racing, and a few seconds away from the top 10.

In Dunkirk today in the pleasant September sunshine Dolan was not letting the prospect of a very challenging third leg upset his mindset. The stage will include two of the most famous, rocky, tidal races in France, the Raz Blanchard at Alderney and the Raz de Sein off the tip of Brittany. Winds are once again expected to be light to moderate for the duration of the four-day stage which starts at 1600hrs local time. This race is immediately followed by Stage 4, a 24 hours 180 miles final sprint.

Stage 3 is a challenging 504 miles leg from Dunkirk in the very northeast of France, round the Brittany peninsula to Saint Nazaire at the entrance to the Loire estuaryStage 3 is a challenging 504 miles leg from Dunkirk in the very northeast of France, round the Brittany peninsula to Saint Nazaire at the entrance to the Loire estuary

“I am thinking like most people that this third stage will be crucial in terms of the final classification of the race. Even if I have done well enough these first two legs I go into this one just looking to try and do the same again, I stay focused, humble and not let things run away with me.” He said, “This is not an easy leg, we are in anticyclonic weather system with the ridge of high pressure to go through with light winds, again, then downwind in the light, then the tidal gates. I think people will get away the gaps will open and close like elastic. I just want to stick with my plan and keep pace with the fleet.”

Winds are set to be light on Sunday and timings on the headlands on a classic race down the Channel can be key, as will be making a good start off the line Saturday afternoon.

“We will be racing against the current, short tacking to start with and it will always be good to be in the top group. But I don’t really want to think too much about the result or what might be, I'll try to do my own race without looking too much at others at the AIS (radar). We'll see when we get there ".

Published in Tom Dolan

Finishing 11th into Dunkirk, France on the 404 miles second stage of La Solitaire du Figaro this evening Ireland’s Tom Dolan has maintained the level of consistency which he was seeking when he left Saint Brieuc on Sunday morning.

As Afloat reported earlier, adding to his tenth on the 624 miles first stage, around Fastnet and back, the skipper of Smurfit Kappa now lies in an excellent 11th overall, one hour and 11 minutes behind leader Armel Le Cléac’h who won the second stage.

On a tightly packed leaderboard, Dolan is now only 12 minutes outside the top five as the 35 solo skippers seek to maximise their rest and recovery before Sunday’s restart for the 504 nautical miles stage to Saint Nazaire at the entrance to the Loire estuary.

“I seem to be going quite well. I am definitely staying much cooler and focused on the race course and getting away from the starts a bit better. To be honest, I am a bit surprised how well it is going, but in saying that I have worked hard and am doing more in terms of preparation. I feel more confident in what I am doing.” Acknowledged a visibly tired Dolan on the finishers dock in Dunkirk,

“What I planned to do I really pretty much did, I had in my notes to stay north of the fleet on the way back across the Channel and ended up to the south which lost me a few places but overall I am pretty happy with how it went. I am a lot more patient. The more I do this the more I realise that everybody makes mistakes on this race. And this race so far is so very close there is nothing really in it.” Dolan reported, “Now I really need to make sure I get as much sleep as I can for the next stage.”

Published in Tom Dolan

There's another strong performance in the making for County Meath's Tom Dolan in the second stage of the La Solitaire du Figaro today with the third time Irish Figarista lying 11th in the 35-boat fleet, having been as high as fourth at one stage yesterday. Dolan, who finished tenth in the first leg, is expected to finish leg two this evening is currently ten miles off the leader. 

Ireland's Kenny Rumball of RL Sailing from Dun Laoghaire is lying 33rd in his first-ever Figaro competition. 

Two times La Solitaire du Figaro champion Armel Le Cleach (Banque Populaire) said before the start that he was 'going to be an opportunist' on this 51st edition. For the second time in as many stages the Vendee Globe winner has been true to his word but this time his risk was positively rewarded.

Prepared to hold further to the east, to leeward of his rivals on last night's beat from the north Brittany coast 100 miles to Eddystone Lighthouse, Le Cleac'h's slightly gutsy move was rewarded with a small jump on the pack which this Monday afternoon he has increased to a very useful 3.3 miles over a very compact group of pursuers. Transitioning an occluded front it may be Le Cleac'h was prepared to press his luck, but more likely he saw less cloud coming toward him and so was confident the front had evaporated and was therefore confident in his break away from the peloton.

Early on Stage 1 to the Fastnet and back Le Cleac'h chased his hunches and had strayed away from the pack and initially paid a heavy toll in miles to the leader. But a remarkable comeback got him to fourth at the finish, 10 minutes and 20 seconds behind stage winner Xavier Macaire. It not only got him into contention but also underlined that the 44 year old has ample speed and is very much a title contender. Indeed he would be top of the overall classification this afternoon if the race was stopped. With a new Ultime in build, the Vendee Globe title in his back pocket and the solid support of the French bank, Le Cleac'h has nothing to prove to the sailing world, or his peers.

At approaching the halfway point of the leg, with the winds due remain moderate to fresh for the remainder of the passage to Dunkirk the pacemakers should reach Dunkirk around 2000-2100hrs Tuesday evening.

Published in Tom Dolan
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The Irish National Sailing and Powerboat School is based on Dun Laoghaire's West Pier on Dublin Bay and in the heart of Ireland's marine leisure capital.

Whether you are looking at beginners start sailing course, a junior course or something more advanced in yacht racing, the INSS prides itself in being able to provide it as Ireland's largest sailing school.

Since its establishment in 1978, INSS says it has provided sailing and powerboat training to approximately 170,000 trainees. The school has a team of full-time instructors and they operate all year round. Lead by the father and son team of Alistair and Kenneth Rumball, the school has a great passion for the sport of sailing and boating and it enjoys nothing more than introducing it to beginners for the first time. 

Programmes include:

  • Shorebased Courses, including VHF, First Aid, Navigation
  • Powerboat Courses
  • Junior Sailing
  • Schools and College Sailing
  • Adult Dinghy and Yacht Training
  • Corporate Sailing & Events

History of the INSS

Set up by Alistair Rumball in 1978, the sailing school had very humble beginnings, with the original clubhouse situated on the first floor of what is now a charity shop on Dun Laoghaire's main street. Through the late 1970s and 1980s, the business began to establish a foothold, and Alistair's late brother Arthur set up the chandler Viking Marine during this period, which he ran until selling on to its present owners in 1999.

In 1991, the Irish National Sailing School relocated to its current premises at the foot of the West Pier. Throughout the 1990s the business continued to build on its reputation and became the training institution of choice for budding sailors. The 2000s saw the business break barriers - firstly by introducing more people to the water than any other organisation, and secondly pioneering low-cost course fees, thereby rubbishing the assertion that sailing is an expensive sport.