Leg 1 – My hard fought top ten.

The result is the highlight of my solo sailing career to date. Seventh place, not first or anywhere near the podium but the seventh skipper to cross the finish line. And it felt amazing, the grin on my face was painful and I was glad we finished at night so no one could see the lunatic that was dancing around his boat.

                            36 solo skippers in front of 36 identical Figaro 2s in Le Havre

The 49th La Solitaire du Figaro started in Le Havre, Normandie, a short solo delivery across the Channel from Cowes. The build up to the start of my 3rd Solitaire felt more relaxed than the previous years despite the reduced on-shore support. Despite this I was confident in preparation and setup of my boat and my ability to fight it out at the top of the fleet. I managed to prove this in the prologue race, a warm up inshore course finishing just outside the harbour. I finished this tight race in 4th place which gave me a massive confidence boost, I made some good racing moves, nailed my solo boat manoeuvres and had the speed to put it all together.

                             Sailing well among the top teams during the prologue.

The course for leg 1 was to cross the Channel from Le Havre to a buoy off the Isle of Wight, sail down the English coast to the Wolf Rock lighthouse off Lands End and then cross back to France sailing east along it’s coast until we reached the town of Saint Brieuc in Brittany. The forecast for the first 24 hours was for very strong winds, up to 40 knots, and then for it to drop off, eventually dropping to nothing before picking up again for the end around 3 days later. I always get a bit nervous when there’s a prediction for some serious wind, I know its going to be tiring, wet, uncomfortable, and a bit dangerous.

      Helicopter shots during the down wind start mayhem, easy to spot with my grey kite.

The downwind start and inshore circuit was full on, after a bad start I worked through the mess and was sitting in 7th as we blasted out into the big sea trying to hold our boats together as we held our small kites on the tight reach. There was no opportunity to leave the helm, I was concentrating very hard as you would lose height and distance with every broach and risked breaking something major. I could just hear on the radio over the wind and breaking waves news of boats having to retire and heading back to port with serious damage. 4 hours in with gusts up to 35 knots my spinnaker guy started coming out of the spinnaker pole meaning my kite would become very unstable and I couldn’t keep my course to the next mark. It meant I would have to slow the boat down, run to the bow and wrestle the loaded sheets back onto the pole. After the 3rd trip I made the decision to drop the kite, regain some energy and check the system in the rain and poor visibility. I swapped the pole round attached a thicker guy to the spinnaker and re-hoisted. A very tiring and wet process! Now unfortunately the wind was up to 40 knots and I saw my maximum gust of 46 knots. I couldn’t hold the boat on course and I couldn’t see it was so wet, the boat was overloaded with power and smashing into waves covering the boat and myself in white water. I had to drop the kite again, get back on course and be ready for the upwind to come. I also had to remove the salt water swimming pool that was inside my boat, my Figaro doesn’t make a good submarine.

             Fellow Brit Nick Cherry inspecting his broken rudder during the big wind.

The wind only started to drop constantly below 20 knots after 24 hours of beating upwind, I had about 30 minutes of sleep and the inside of my boat was finally dry after many attempts to bail out all the water. In short, tacking up the shore of the Isle of Wight went well, I caught up a lot, the approach to Start Point went very badly for some reason and I lost a lot. There was completely 0 wind around the Lizard but by Wolf Rock I had got myself into 11th place, something I was absolutely thrilled about. We spent the third night crossing the Channel back to France, the wind was very light but the boat sailed upwind well. I treated myself to some good food and sleeps for a job well done.

            Not much sleep down the English south coast and around Wolf Rock lighthouse.

We rounded the mark off France with kites up and hit a very strong tide stopping us in our tracks, shortly the top 25 boats were right next to each other. We were frantically gybing through tight gaps in the rocks to avoid the worst of the tide and trying to avoid huge patches of seaweed that would kill your speed. Some more committed sailors would slow the boat, strip down to their boxers and jump off to dive and remove the weed by hand. After a few hours double checking every rock I could smash into, the wind increased and the fleet lined up to sail a more direct line. I felt fast and after taking a bunch of boats by hugging the coast a little closer I split off slightly offshore for Ile de Batz off Roscoff to catch the positive tide. The move worked wonderfully and when the boats came together I was 5th! But 25th was so close behind, I felt very tense and would just tell myself to keep going and hold on. Unfortunately, I was not the fastest out there and I reluctantly got passed by Sebastien Simon (Spoiler – this year’s Champion) and fellow Brit Alan Roberts. I copied their setup as best I could and increased my intensity trimming the kite constantly which was the trick, keeping a hold of them and passing Martin Le Pape.

             With the tide again doing 9.4 knots, 0.4nm to the leader and 5th place!

                                          The fleet tight together after 3 whole days.

I was in 6th position with the miles to the finish falling fast, “I can do this” I told myself but would try and steer my mind away from the prospect of a top 10 finish and how amazing that would be. The last 4 hours were tough and I was very thankful for my “good” night sleep but as the light started to go I was getting tired. I remember getting to the last 10 miles and looking around at the masthead lights I could see in the dark, they where everywhere, it felt like everyone was attacking from all angles and to be honest, it got to me. I felt slow again, I was working as hard as I could but I was overtaken by Erwan Tabarly and Alexis Loison who was approaching over my shoulder along with the rest of the fleet. I thought I would lose it all but checked the rudders and keel one more time and suddenly I moved away and created some breathing room. The last 2 miles were fantastic, I knew I was going to do it and the joy and relief when crossing the line and securing everything was brilliant. I had done it, I had achieved my top ten finish in a Figaro race something that always seemed so out of reach. It was a breakthrough race for me, I felt more natural racing around the front, it didn’t feel like I had been at sea for 4 days at all. Overall it gave me the confidence that if I put a few more serious years into this I could be at the front leading the way.

                     Crossing the finish line and still working hard for more speed.

                                                   Champagne celebrations.


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