Eight of the 35 solo skippers who will start the 51st edition of La Solitaire du Figaro on the Bay of Saint Brieuc on Sunday are not French natives and so are eligible to compete for the Vivi Trophy which was inaugurated last year.
GBR fields Alan Roberts, 30 (Seacat Services) who starts his seventh La Solitaire, Sam Goodchild, 30, (Leyton) who is on his fifth race, and Phil Sharp, 39, (Ocean Lab) and Jack Boutell, 29, (Fromagerie Gillot) who is half Australian. Representing Ireland are Tom Dolan, 33, (Smurfit Kappa), on his third La Solitaire, and race rookie Kenneth Rumball, 33, (RL Sailing). Italy has Alberto Bona, 33, (Sebago) and race rookie Nils Palmieri, 33, carries Swiss colours.
On form Goodchild, in his first year in the new class, backed up a second in the Solo Maitre Coq by winning the Drheam Cup while Roberts took second in the recent Solo Concarneau Guy Cotten. Add in an excellent ninth place in that race by Bouttell, earned just days after stepping into the boat for the first time and there is some justification for high hopes.
All three very experienced and successful Brits Goodchild, Bouttell and Sharp come back to the race each after a long break, similarly drawn to the challenge of the new one design class and the high technical level offered by the multi stage race which is the toughest annual challenge in solo offshore racing.
Six years on from his last La Solitaire this season Goodchild has impressed the top French cognoscenti and has been tipped as a possible podium finisher overall. He did four back to back La Solitaires aged 20-24, stopping in 2014 after his best result 11th in 2013. The intervening period has seen him amass substantial experience as an in-demand first choice crew on Ultime and Maxi multihulls such as Spindrift and Sodebo and Multi70s as well as Class40 successes which culminated in his second on last year’s Transat Jacques Vabre.
Goodchild has a good programme backed by Leyton who are one of the more active new sponsors in sailing and admits he has the skills and the tools to win.
Goodchild has not been carried away by his successes this season, “My biggest weakness is that there are so many conditions I have not sailed in, but the light is difficult because it is hard to get a gauge, a feel, in light winds the winds are not very stable and you need a lot more time to know what works and what doesn’t. In the Figaro 2 you could always go at the same speed, now you can go a knot or two knots faster by driving, and now there are times when you can only lose 0.2 of a knot to go to sleep.”
He has fast tracked his learning of the new boat with the help of guru Pascal Bidégorry.
He feels he is a more ‘complete’ sailor learning from some of the best, “I don’t think anyone is the perfect sailor. Sailing with Pascal, sailing with Brian Thompson, sailing with Thomas Coville, sailing with Rob Greenhalgh, when you sail with a bunch of really good guys I have had the good fortune to sail with, you put the pieces together and learn. And if all five of these good guys think the same things are important then you learn from that, you learn so much.”
Meantime Goodchild’s aim is not a number but to finish with no regrets. “It would be nice to finish and think I sailed as well as I could. It would be nice to come away with no regrets. I have the tools to win for sure, but on a race like this the stars do need to align a bit, I feel like I have a capacity to win, I have the boatspeed and I have the nav, I have made some good calls and some bad calls but that will always be the case on this race, I am capable of winning but there are many more here who are capable of winning.”
Back after four years, Bouttell
Three weeks and two days ago the thought of doing La Solitaire du Figaro had not even crossed Jack Bouttell’s mind. But the 29 year old Guidel, Brittany based Volvo Ocean Race winning sailor, who describes himself as ‘half British, half Aussie’ will be on the start line Sunday, lining up for his fourth La Solitaire armed with a very competitive, well prepped boat belonging to his Team Dongfeng crewmate, three times La Solitaire winner Jérémie Beyou.
When The Ocean Race was postponed recently Bouttell, whose La Solitaire best is tenth overall and was first rookie in his first edition, found himself looking for a sailing challenge.
“I wanted to go sailing. I was having one beer with Alan Roberts and he said ‘why not do La Solitaire?’ and that was it. I spoke with Jérémie and because it was a last minute charter the price is acceptable. The boat has a new set of sails to do The Transat AG2R and obviously it was cancelled. It has fallen together quite nicely, but look last minute stuff really is not my style. I prefer to have more time to prepare. It is a cool challenge, I have to look at the big picture and not get worried by the small details, remember what things are important.”
“I had done a few days sailing in the boat so I struggled a lot in the first 24 hours basically getting my head back into racing in this class, where small mistakes become big mistakes become disasters as they do in this class, but I got back into it in the first 24 hours, and then I got into it. I lacked a bit of speed upwind and so lost a few places coming into the finish. This is obviously a bigger event with more boats.”
Some three weeks after the idea dropped to become reality he is on the race dock making final prep, “I don’t think I have really thought about it yet. It has not really sunk in that I am here. It is really cool to be here doing something in my own right. The Figaro is where I had my first start back in 2013. Last time I did it my objective was the top 10 and I made it. It is such a cool race and these are cool boats because there are so many ways to sail it. When I was in the Figaro before it was so refined it was ‘you sail it like this’ and that was it and if you didn’t you were nowhere. This is a more open ball game. There are so many more options.” He adds, “I feel good. I am back to my roots. I enjoy the class, it is super professional high level. I would like to get a good result, finishing in the top half would be good, I am saying that publicly but I am aiming higher.”
And he chuckles, “Who would have thought an Aussie who grew up in Britain and now lives in France is here racing the top French solo race with a French cheese sponsor. It is amazing.”
The 39 year old Jersey solo racer who is now based in La Rochelle, France and who won back-to-back World Championship titles in Class 40 stepped into the Figaro Beneteau 3 fleet at the start of this season looking to improve his level and to test himself in the toughest proving ground in solo racing. He has shown well in the early and middle stages of the races he has done, finishing 22nd in the Solo Concarneau Guy Cotton and 16th in the Solo Maitre Coq. With a limited background in the Figaro class he is very much back in the class to learn and improve from the intensity and a very different style of racing to what he has been used to.
“The competition here is incredible, up against the likes of Yann Eliès and (Vendée Globe winner) Armel Le Cléac’h. This gives you a reference point to know where you at, it gives you a proper real structured training platform and it offers an incredible improvement curve, the amount I have improved over the last few months is really good. It is not easy to see in terms of results because it takes time to turn that into consistency but it has been rewarding to be part of.”
“What is interesting is looking at the level of the skippers and their experience of this racing. But that does not phase me, I relish the competition and do better if I have very highly skilled people around me, that brings out the best in me. After coming from podiums in Class40 to getting a bit of a kicking here it is a bit a of shock. But it makes sense and I am here to improve.”
Sharp joined the group in Lorient in the winter and then joined Saint Gilles training group near his home in La Rochelle where the best of that group is Xavier Macaire. “Since my first race I have focused on my weaknesses. I struggled for reaching speed and have worked on my sail trim and before I really struggled for control in strong downwind conditions. I took the rudders off to find them completely misaligned. The axes were more than five degrees off from the stock of the rudder. Since then the boat does not stall out as much. First of all to have confidence in yourself you have to have confidence in the boat and that has taken a bit of time.”
“ I am happy, the boat feels good, the sails are good, I am happy with what I have. But I am not here to do the Figaro year in year out. There are more exciting boats, more exciting ocean races out there to do. This for me is the ultimate training camp to push myself. I think I will do this year and then see how it goes, but it can be quite addictive!”
He is clear on his target, “I am aiming for the top ten. That is probably optimistic as there are probably ten guys here who can win it, but I believe in aiming high. I am used to offshore. Figaro racing is really stop, start and you have to find a rhythm and then you are back on land recovering, that is what I struggled with in 2011. On a Transatlantic race it is about getting into your 24 hour routine, with the Figaro you have to push harder, you are getting much less sleep and then you have to recover as best you can.”