The fourth and final 430-mile leg of the 2011 Solitaire du Figaro starts tomorrow (Sunday 21/08/11 at 11:00 BST) from Les Sables d’Olonne (France), home to the start of the legendary solo, non-stop round the world Vendée Globe race. For the British Artemis Offshore Academy sailors Sam Goodchild (Artemis), Phil Sharp (The Spirit of Independence) and Conrad Humphreys (DMS) this has been their first experience of the Solitaire du Figaro; however, for Nigel King (E-Line Orthodontics) it is his third time in this highly competitive race.
As expected, it has been a steep learning curve for the first-timers, as they deal with the challenges of racing solo in such a competitive field on short and demanding offshore courses. Not surprisingly, some harsh lessons have been learnt along the way which is all part of the learning process and the main reason for being part of the Solitaire du Figaro as the British sailors strive to carve out their own solo careers.
Sharp, who has competed in other demanding solo races like the solo transatlantic Route du Rhum, has been placed in the top ten for most of the legs so far and is chasing the top spot in the ‘Rookie’ class: “ There’s only 40 minutes (between me and the leader of the rookie class) and a lot could happen in this last leg,” explains Sharp. “If you miss a tide gate then potentially you could lose two hours, so it’s going to be important to be in touch with the front of the fleet as we go around and capitalise on any change in the weather we see.”
This leg takes the fleet of 46 one-design Figaro boats from Les Sables d’Olonne around the Brittany coast to finish in Dieppe next Wednesday. The fleet of solo offshore sailors will battle it out against each other for quickest time with the winner of the Solitaire du Figaro being the sailor with the lowest accumulated time after competing in the four legs.
Looking forward to the next leg Humphreys explained: “The final leg is an epic coastal challenge. Both Ille de Yeu and Belle Isle must be left to port which limits the option to head more offshore and keeps the fleet together close to the coast. The main decision will be when to leave the North Brittany coast to head offshore towards Alderney as the routing suggests, although the weather models are not in agreement.”
Conrad Humphreys poses for photos with fans © Artemis Offshore Academy
Spending a few days in Les Sables d’Olonne has had Humphreys’ reminiscing about his previous participation in the Vendée Globe whilst the other three can only dream about their long-term aim of competing in a future edition of the Vendée Globe. “It was the start of the Vendée race in 2004 that really inspired me to try to do a Figaro,” said King. “I want to do a competitive Vendée Globe campaign in the future – that’s always been the ambition from day one. There’s definitely a different atmosphere at this port, there’s a special connection to offshore sailing here. Everywhere you go there are videos, photographs, the restaurants and bars have pictures of Vendée Globe skippers, so it’s a nice pick-you-up to everyone who aspires to do that race.”
The month-long, four-leg Solitaire du Figaro is seen as the main training ground for sailors wanting to enter the Vendée Globe in years to come. It’s the biggest race 21-year old Sam Goodchild, the youngest competitor in the fleet and winner of the Artemis Offshore Academy scholarship, has ever done: “It’s good to be racing against some of the top guys who are here and learning from them, it just makes the experience a whole lot more beneficial for me. It’s not just another sailing regatta, it’s got so much more to it than that – learning about your boat, learning about yourself, learning about everything really. It’s got so much more to it than I ever imagined, it’s gone way over my expectations.”
Britain’s Samantha Davies, who competed in the last Vendée Globe capturing the hearts of the public and media in both the UK and France along the way, has also competed in the Solitaire du Figaro four times. She and Nigel King both achieved a sixth place leg finish – the best result for the British in this French dominated race. Davies appreciates first-hand what the sailors are going through: “For me it’s probably the hardest sailing race that’s available on the planet. The fact that it’s single-handed obviously makes it pretty extreme to start with. But I think it’s the intensity of the race, you’re just accumulating fatigue, mental and physical tiredness from thinking about tactics, strategy and weather all the time.”
Artemis Offshore Academy sailors on form with just two days to the start of Leg 1 on Sunday…
With just two days to go before the start of the 42nd Solitaire du Figaro race, the atmosphere around the dock in Perros-Guirec, (Brittany, France) where all 47 competing Figaro boats are moored, is beginning to hot up. Some of the world’s most talented solo sailors including last year’s winner, Frenchman Armel Le Cléac’h, are making final preparations before heading out for Friday’s Prologue race and the start of Leg 1 on Sunday at 1100 CET.
Sam Goodchild, Nigel King, Conrad Humphreys and Phil Sharp are the only British contenders in the predominantly French 47-strong field, and they have been putting themselves through a rigorous training programme with the Artemis Offshore Academy in preparation for the Solitaire du Figaro. This has been their focus for many months and now the time is here to perform. For Sam, Conrad and Phil it is their first participation and they will be out to shine in the ‘Rookie’ Division, whilst King is returning for a second time.
The Solitaire du Figaro is regarded as one of the major offshore events on the calendar and always attracts the best of the solo world including up and coming talent, seasoned professionals and returning veterans.
The standard of competition is exceptionally high, which is a direct reflection of the successful formula of the event combined with the knowledge that participation in this event advances a sailors chances in the major, round the world competitions like the Vendée Globe. Racing takes place in identical Figaro Bénéteau 2 class yachts to a strict, one-design rule which means competitors go head to head using their tactical skills, strategy and weather analysis to identify the fastest route round the course.
This four-leg marathon of a race around the English Channel and Irish Sea covers a total of 1,695 nautical miles with the longest leg – from Dun Laoghaire to Les Sables d’Olonne – at 475 nautical miles. Each leg takes between 3-5 days depending on the weather, and it is the most intense form of offshore solo sailing, with the sailors barely managing more than a few minutes sleep at a time. The racing is close with the boats often finishing within minutes, if not seconds of each other.
Sam Goodchild, the 21 year old who won the Artemis Offshore Academy fully-funded scholarship earlier this year, said: “It has been an extremely big learning curve. I will be spending the last few days brushing up on the course, and the weather and trying to keep stress down to a minimum. One of my biggest worries about the race is sleeping and making sure I get the right balance. There will be a certain amount of pressure however, because the better results I get the easier it will be to continue my career path.”
Getting the right amount of sleep on a four-leg, sprint course is crucial. Even for first timer Conrad Humphreys who is a seasoned global solo sailor: “Comparing it to the Vendée Globe, I would say it is harder because with this race your performance right from the start is everything, and it is much more intense. In my opinion, the key to success in this race is to get a good start, hang in for the first 24 hours and keep pace, which may mean not much sleep. I have also noticed that the last 72 hours of the race is when the competitors start to suffer with fatigue the most so if you can keep something in reserve for that final day then I think you can make quite a lot of places.”
Nigel King, the most experienced Solitaire du Figaro sailor within the four-strong British team, is under no illusions about the reality of his performance. “The first Figaro I did in 2007 was a full shock to the system because I thought I had done enough solo sailing before the event. Nothing could have been further from reality. In fact it was only then I discovered how much I didn’t know!”
Phil Sharp, winner of the Solo Basse-Normandie earlier this year, is no stranger to the world of solo sailing, having spent many years in the Open 6.50 class where he finished a creditable fourth overall in the 2005 Mini Transat. “There have been quite a lot of financial hurdles to get over, so making that happen has sort of compromised my on the water training a bit,” said Sharp. “However, I am quite happy with my speed, it is now just a case of working on the navigation prep to try and get as much knowledge in my head as possible before the start on Sunday.”
Utilising the skills they have learnt throughout their rigorous winter training and the using experience gained on the Figaro circuit this season should see the British team in a positive frame of mind for the start. Humphreys summing up the views and expectations of the team said: “If any of us made it to the top 30 that would be a great achievement, to get into the top half would be brilliant, the top 20 would be absolutely amazing!”
Solitaire du Figaro Race Itinerary:
Leg 1: Perros-Guirec to Caen (320 miles)
Departs: Sunday, 31st July
Leg 2: Caen to Dun Laoghaire (470 miles)
Departs: Sunday, 7th August
Leg 3: Dun Laoghaire to Les Sables d’Olonne (475 miles)
Departs: Sunday, 14th August
Leg 4: Les Sables d’Olonne to Dieppe (430 miles)
Departs: Sunday, 21st August