The first of four stages of La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro, the 48th edition of the French multi leg solo offshore race started this Sunday afternoon from the Gironde estuary by Bordeaux. But the all too gentle winds which required a delay to the original start time, finding the 43 solo skippers drifting and struggling to beat the tidal flow, seemed in stark contrast to the forecast for stormy winds, so strong that the race organisers have prudently shortened the stage from the proposed 525 nautical miles to 430 miles by taking the race only two thirds of the way north up the Bay of Biscay.
This edition promises to be one of the toughest fought for many years. Highlight is the return of titans Jérémie Beyou (Charal) and Yann Eliès (Queguiner Leucémie Espoir), the two most outstanding solo skippers of their generation who are each bidding to become the first ever skipper to win the race four times. Both legendary solo racers who grew up in the same area of Brittany as contemporaries of this year’s Vendée Globe winner Armel Le Cléac’h, have won three times. Eliès won in 2012, 2013 and 2015 and shares the record for the most stage wins – 10 – with Frenchman Jean Le Cam. Beyou first won in 2005 and then again in 2011 and 2015.
The race remains the uncompromising proving ground for the world’s best solo ocean racers. Four winners of La Solitaire also went on to win the Vendée Globe, Christophe Augin, Alain Gautier, Michel Desjoyeaux. It is the race which shaped the predatory talents of Le Cléac’h who won La Solitaire in 2010 and finished second twice in the Vendée Globe before winning the most recent edition. It is where, as the race publicity this year says, ‘here legends are born’
Beyou and Eliès share a remarkable 33 La Solitaire du Figaro participations between them. Beyou 16 races and Eliès 17 had to take time out during the last 18 months to prepare for and compete in the last Vendée Globe, last summer’s Figaro season went on without them and the level of the top skippers rose another notch. So while they have had less training and preparation time this spring, there are five or six other favourites also all well placed to win.
On paper the best is Charlie Dalin (Skipper MACIF 2015). The solo skipper from Le Havre who trained as a naval architect in Southampton was third in 2014, and runner up in 2015 and 2016.
Describing this first leg Dalin said, “It’s going to be big, it suits me well, because I like the conditions expected. It is a leg that will test the core values and qualities of this race in every sense. We are going to have an exit of the Gironde with many tacks and buoys to manage, it will be quite intense. After that, the first night, there will , be a transition to manage and then we will be in quite tough. Especially in this stage for 24-36 hours, it will be important to be careful not to break anything. But overall the leg reminds me a bit of the conditions we had last year on the Douarnenez-Horta and it pretty much worked out well for me. All lights are green.”
This is his last year on the MACIF programme which supports France’s best up and coming solo racing talent, producing 2012-13 Vendée Globe winner François Gabart and more recently last year’s winner Yoanne Richomme who is taking time out to prepare his own Vendée Globe project and work on the new foil assisted Figaro Benetau 3 which will be introduced for the 2019 La Solitaire race.
Among the other favourites among the top echelons of the fleer are Nico Lunven (Generali), the only other skipper in the field to have won the race outright, in 2009. Thierry Chabagny (Gedimat) was second in 2006 and has finished in the top ten in all three of the last races. Erwan Tabarly (Armor Lux) won the first leg into Cowes last year and finish fourth overall. Xavier Macaire (Groupe SNEF) was the 2015 overall French solo champion and has two podiums, second in 2013 and third in 2015.
When last year there were eight British skippers competing, the withdrawl of Artemis from the groundbreaking Artemis Offshore Academy programme has stalled the aspirations of many promising young British solo racers, unable to find sufficient funding to compete. Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) is the best of the British skippers and in his fourth La Solitaire has a realistic chance of bettering his ninth overall placing, the best ever GBR result, which he scored in 2015. Both Hugh Brayshaw (The Offshore Academy) and Mary Rook (Inspire +) return for their respective second La Solitaire races. Most significantly there are no British first timers among the ten strong ‘bizuth’ class.
Among the best of the Rookies crop may be Milan Kolacek a French based Czech sailor who in 2010 was the French champion in the solo Mini Class. There are six women racing this time including Switzerland’s Justine Mettraux (Teamwork) who raced on the Team SCA crew on the last Volvo Ocean Race and who already has a collection of top 10 finishes in different Figaro circuit races.
Rather than take the fleet NW from the mouth of the Gironde to round a mark on Britanny’s NW tip which would have taken the La Solitaire soloists on their 32 foot Figaro Beneteau 2 into winds of 40-45kts and big confused seas, the first race was scheduled to go south to a mark off Arcachon, then north to a turn off Ile de Ré north of La Rochelle. There will still be a textbook crossing of an Atlantic cold front to cross with gusty 30kt winds at the most northerly point of the track before a 220 miles fast spinnaker reach to the finish off Gijón where the breezes are due to evaporate once more.
If the last two editions of the famous French multi stage offshore race La Solitaire du Figaro could be criticised for being too coastal, some would say spending too much time dealing with critical changes of tidal flow, negotiating headlands and navigating close to land, the 48th edition of the summer solo classic seems set to largely buck that trend.
Of the four stages there are two – constituting nearly half the course – which criss cross the notorious open sea of the Bay of Biscay, to and from Gijón on the gnarly north coast of Spain. These are followed by a short 24 hours 150 nautical miles sprint leg out and back from Concarneau. This stage starts sharply after the conclusion of Leg 2 and leaves little time for rest, so heaping more pressure and stress on the exhausted soloists. Leg 4 is from Concarneau to Dieppe via Wolf Rock by the Scily isles and into the English Channel. The winners should finish into Gijón between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
Jérémie Beyou (Charal): “It is a full on Figaro course. A bit of coastal stuff to start with, a front to negotiate with little secondary fronts in it, strong winds, light winds and a transition in an anticlyone. But this is a very complete leg to start with. I have not had too much time after the Vendée Globe to prepare for my ‘little’ Solitaire du Figaro.”
Yann Eliès (Queguiner Leucemie Espoir): “I have worked hard but I am a bit below the level I’d want to be at. But I’m ready. It’ll I’ll be looking to get all the components of my game, physical, mental and technical all start to be really automatic again and that will probably take the first and maybe the second night. I’ll be totally super serene and calm. The first bit is upwind then it is working through the first ridge, then the transition of the front probably needing to make sail changes into 30-35kts a long leg all the way across the Bay and then a ridge to finish with. I think there are five, ten or maybe even 15 guys who can do well.”