The first leg of the 40th edition of La Solitaire du Figaro, one of the world's toughest series of offshore races, got underway at 13h00 today in classic conditions. The 52 boat fleet enjoyed a clean start in an 11 knot westerly breeze, with a slight swell, bright sunshine and clear visibility.
Earlier there was a mood of optimism, confidence and expectation as the fleet prepared to leave their berths at the submarine base in Lorient, Brittany. The pontoons were packed as shore crew and skippers completed their final preparations, journalists grabbed final interviews, and sponsors, VIPS, friends and families gathered to wish the skippers ‘bon vent'. Among many favourites in a particularly talented line-up is Michel Desjoyeaux (Foncia), three-times winner of the Figaro among numerous other accomplishments. The veteran racer is typically cool and confident: “My pulse isn't racing yet, but that will all change at 12.50. I'm pretty calm. There was a time when I'd be sick with nerves a couple of hours before the start, but that's a long time ago now…. Things are pretty clear for this first leg. It's quite straightforward because the weather forecasts have been saying the same thing for the last two days. There have been no big surprises, the models are stable. My strategy is pretty clear for the whole leg.”
At the other end of the spectrum of experience is the race's youngest entry, 22 year old Breton Vianney Jacquier (Latitude Entreprise), one of 15 ‘rookies' making their debut in this year's race. For him the prospects are exciting: “In half an hour I'll be leaving the dock and I'll be all alone on board – and I can't wait ! It's just fantastic to be on the start line with so many big names all around me. The weather conditions seem to be pretty good, and there are maybe two or three important decisions to make, to give me a chance of a good placing.”
Among the handful of international sailors daring to take on the cream of French offshore racers is Britain's Nigel King. With considerable depth of experience in the most demanding echelons of the sport, including maxi-multihulls, Open 60s and Volvo 70s, he is returning to La Solitaire for the second time in a largely self-funded campaign, and in optimistic mood: “I am very relaxed and chilled out and I feel prepared and in control. I definitely think this is different to 2007 in that I know more of what I am in for, and I'm keen to get underway and into my own clean air. Leg one will be good to get out of the way so I can see how I am positioning. I certainly feel that I have better speed, knowledge and more confidence in myself.” King's optimism certainly seems justified in the first few hours of the race at least – sixth to round the Radio France buoy, first mark of the inshore stage of the leg, and still in the top 10 as the fleet headed offshore into the Bay of Biscay.
King was among a breakaway group from the fleet who chose to stay close inshore to Lorient's Larmor Beach on the seven mile beat up to the radio France buoy, while the rest of the fleet preferred to try their luck along the shore of Ile de Groix further out. Larmor certainly paid off, and it was Jean-Paul Moren (M@rseillesentreprises), veteran of a record 23 editions of La Solitaire, who led around the mark, closely followed by Yann Elies (Generali), returning to competitive racing after his miraculous survival during the Vendee Globe. From the first spinnaker hoist Elies started to take control, and was confirmed in the lead by the time the leading group had reached Birvideaux lighthouse, last mark before starting their crossing of the Bay of Biscay. Well up with the leaders was Fabien Delahaye (Port de Caen-Ouistreham), seventh at the Radio France buoy and the first of the ‘rookies'.
Only one small shadow clouded the spectacular start to the race: Jérôme Samuel (Opera en plein Air) ran aground off Ile de Groix and has returned to port for repairs.
Jacques Caraës, Race Director was generally a happy man this afternoon “It's a real pity for Jérôme Samuel, because everything else couldn't have been better : beautiful seas, very pleasant sunshine, stable breeze and all in all a great spectacle – you couldn't ask for more !”