Published on 21/08/2021
The 52nd La Solitaire du Figaro’s race pontoons in Saint Nazaire may, predictably, have seen rather fewer skippers than would usually be the case at 24 hours before the start of the solo offshore season’s annual epic. But the undercurrent of nervous tension and sheer anticipation has still been evident on the eve of the start of the longest ever La Solitaire course which opens Sunday with first 627 nautical miles leg across the Bay of Biscay to La Coruna where the 34 skippers turn to come back to a finish line at Lorient.
The first stage is a typically open, out-and-back Biscay leg. With a high pressure weather system centred to the west of the Bay, the racers will have a downwind passage into a strengthening, heading breeze. The Figaro Beneteau 3s go fastest on reaching angles and with their mini foils to generate lift and righting moment, accelerate quicker and quicker as the wind builds. This means that as the leaders emerge into the strengthening breeze any advantage will magnify quickly.
Rich get richer
“It does look like it will be a rich get richer scenario.” Notes Britain’s Alan Roberts, skipper of Seacat Services, who is starting his eighth La Solitaire du Figaro. “The main thing always on the first night is to get into the rhythm and not get left behind. Last year I experienced that and that influenced all of the rest of my race.”
Due to the expectation of lighter winds towards the finish the course has been shortened by around 60 miles, replacing the original BSX mark off Bordeaux with Rochebonne which is off the Vendée coast, 40 miles SW of Les Sables d’Olonne. Adding to the already significant challenge, French naval exercises in the Bay have required Race Direction to establish three exclusion zones which have to be observed under a penalty of disqualification.
Ireland’s Tom Dolan built the foundations of his fifth place last year with an excellent first leg, in the leading two or three to the Fastnet Rock. The Smurfit Kappa-Kingspan solo racer believes, “The wind will likely be a little bit stronger at Cape Finisterre, Spain and the course alteration does make it more of an upwind, downwind course. It should be a bit rich get richer as the further down, across the Bay you get the more wind there will be and the first to the zone at Finisterre will get a boost because there is always an acceleration zone there. There could, however, be some ‘flap-flap’, light wind there are we will round very early morning and it is very close in to the coast.”
The health situation has seen skippers normal agenda of personal appearances, commitments and briefings relaxed and mainly on line. The fortunate gain has been in an altogether more relaxed build up.
” I’m really looking forward to getting going. Everything is ready in the boat even if I have only been on it for ten minutes this week.” Smiles Fabien Delahaye (Groupe Gilbert) “ Having a few Solitaries under my belt I know what to expect. It’s a beautiful and long first stage that will be tough with four nights at sea. We are going to start with a real sprint that will nevertheless have to be approached like a marathon, being careful to manage your rest and your eating rhythms well.” adds Delahaye who, correspondingly, has started around 30 stages.
According to the latest forecasts around start time, 1745hrs CET, the racers will see flat seas and 12-14kts of NE’ly breeze.
Making ready for his sixth challenge Pierre Quiroga (Skipper Macif 2019) is another who knows what to expect of this opening stage “It seems that my body is already anticipating this massive Solitaire and this big leg that I approach a bit like a Formula 1 race, looking really to be preserving myself for the end of the race. It is a question of not doing anything stupid, like straying into the no-go area, tearing a sail, or missing a tack. We all know too well that this race leaves no room for error.”
First night nerves?
For the first timers like Americans Jesse Fielding and Francesca Clapcich of the State Street Marathon team the sheer magnitude of the challenge that faces them – the longest ever La Solitaire du Figaro course - could overwhelm them. But they are both sticking to first principles, looking to keep it simple and stay with the pack as much as possible.
“I am fine just now but likely will be a bit nervous when I push off the dock tomorrow.” Enthuses Clapcich who grew up in Italy’s sailing hotbed of Trieste and has two Olympic Games and a Volvo Round the World Race in her locker. “I will try to be smart and keep the boat fast. Getting out of the channel initially can be quite complicated. But maybe they are being kind to us rookies by cutting the course by 60 odd miles, it all counts!”
“I am as ready as I can be. When the gun goes it is a sailboat race but until then I will be doing all I can to manage my nerves and then off the start line stick to the principles I have heard, stay with the fleet, try and stay fast. I figure that with my offshore experience, my blue water miles, that I should be good enough at self management, wearing the right gear, eating, sleeping and anticipating, but this La Solitaire is two years in the preparation and a lifetime dream, so I’ll be giving it all I can.” Concludes Fielding.
Stage 1, Saint Nazaire to Lorient via La Coruna. ETA Thursday morning 26th August. 627NMs
The course has been slightly reduced due to the prospect of light winds on the approaches to Lorient early on Wednesday morning but at 627 nautical miles is still a long stage. But in keeping with the abiding philosophy of race director Frances Le Goff, it opens the race with an open, proper offshore course with the minimum of turning or passing marks. In essence it is a straight out and back passage all the way across the Bay of Biscay to turn at La Coruna to head back to the finish line off Lorient which is 220kms NW of Saint Nazaire. It a standard, long La Solitaire route.
“This choice of the first course allows Biscay to be covered in its entire length with very few marks to respect. It is a big, open course to contend with as a starter.” Advises Race Director Le Goff.
Stage 2, Lorient to Fécamp, Start Sunday 29th August. 489NMs ETA Wed 1st September.
This second course is also very typical for La Solitaire du Figaro. After leaving Lorient the fleet heads south to the plateau Rochebonne before a challenging long coastal passage round both the point of Brittany and the Cherbourg Cotentin peninsula, so passing the tidal races at the Raz du Sein and the Raz Blanchard eastwards up the Channel along the high cliffs past Le Havre to finish into Fécamp which welcomes the race for the first time. As coastal course this will be a tough leg with of transition zones, tidal gates, little time to rest and many sail changes.
Stage 3 Fécamp to Baie de Morlaix, Start Sunday 5th September, 624 NMs, ETA Thursday 9th September.
This leg is slightly different. It starts as a classic westwards out of the Channel leg, the fleet taken to the English coast by the requirement to round South Pullar cardinal east of the Isle of Wight. After Land’s End the northernmost turning mark is Saint Gowan – a new mark to the race - off the SW coast of Wales by Milford Haven. This route then, climbs the Celtic Sea and crosses the entrance to the Bristol Channel with Lundy island as a mark of the course. It is tricky, long leg which keeps up the challenges all the way to the finish line off Roscoff.
Stage 4, Baie de Morlaix to Loire Atlantique (Saint Nazaire), Start Sunday 12th September, 685 NMs, ETA Thursday 16th September
A classic, epic marathon to finish up with. Gone are the days of a 24 hour sprint finish. An out and back passage to the Fastnet. Like the first leg this will be open with few marks of the course and so it will be a speed test, a test of playing the subtleties and evolutions of the weather systems and phenomena and stamina and staying power. A difficult leg considering all the built up fatigue, skippers really need to have the drive to keep pressing and not succumb to their body craving rest and relief.
How to follow the start, and the race.
The start of the race and the first loop to the first ‘engagement’ buoy will be broadcast live on the event website, on with commentary in French with Clarisse Cremer. It is also streamed on the event social media channels. All of the leg starts and finishes will be streamed on the event social media channels.
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