Three times overall La Solitaire winner Yann Eliès (St Michel) may, by conventional logic, have lost his chance of a fourth title as he lies 16th overall in the 2019 rankings, more than seven and a half hours behind the leader, but he made the best start to the fourth and final stage of La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro which left Roscoff this afternoon bound for Dieppe via Wolf Rock off the southwest tip of England. In light breeze, Elies took command of the 47-strong fleet of solo skippers, proving his determination to finish on a high note. Briton Will Harris (HIve Energy) was fourth as the fleet bid farewell to the Bay of Morlaix.
In sixth place as the fleet left the Bay behind and headed offshore, was current overall leader Yoann Richomme, (Hellowork – Groupe Telegramme). In previous editions of La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro a leading margin of more than one hour would have provided a comfortable buffer to the skipper in pole position. But the 50th anniversary of this famous and revered race has disproved any previously held rules of thumb.
Although Richomme started the final 500-mile leg from Roscoff to Dieppe today 1-hour 11-minutes ahead of second placed Gildas Mahé, (Breizh Colo/Equithé), Leg 3 saw Richomme’s 11-hour advantage slashed after a tidal gate at Alderney split the fleet. Just three boats broke through before the tide turned against the fleet – Richomme was not one of them and paid the price. Yet the 2016 overall winner remained positive going into the final leg.
“This La Solitaire has not been a simple race,” Richomme, a qualified naval architect who last year developed a super fast Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe winning Class40, explains. “Solo sailors who previously had the formula to win no longer have that, or at last not this year. Things have definitely changed. Of course there is the new boat, but also the courses, the weather has been challenging, and the need to be strong physically and mentally. We have ended up with strange patterns but I have done nothing particularly complicated. I went as straight as I could. And as soon as it was complicated I really focused on going fast towards the waypoint. That is not necessarily the right strategy but it has worked. I was successful whilst others found themselves in dead ends.”
Before leaving the dock, second placed Mahé, who has been in the position of challenging for the podium previously in 2014 when he narrowly missed out to finish fourth, said: “The thing is not to dwell on that too much because you get stressed and it affects you. There will be lots of little plays all the way in the little areas of strong current. You have to stay focused to the end and it is then you can worry about the result.
“This will be a complicated leg with light winds along the English coast. And those who can, will push their options to the extremes. The game between Wolf Rock and Owers can have a real bearing on the overall. It can be important. I will try to race my own race, one hour and 11 minutes is a lot. There is no strategy to try and regain that so I will sail for the leg, not looking too much as the general classification.”
Many others such as Armel le Cleac’h, Jeremie Beyou Michel Desjoyeaux, who had started the event among the favourites, had also fallen foul of the costly tidal gate and the fickle conditions that followed and were trailing the front runners by up to 10 hours. They will be hoping that the same theory would remain true for the final leg and provide an opportunity to get back into the frame.
The weather forecast for the next three days suggests that this could be a possibility. From the start, a decent east-south-east breeze is forecast to launch the fleet west to the first mark, Grand Basse de Portsail and remain in strength and direction for the cross channel reach to the second mark, Wolf Rock off Land’s End.
But from there, as the breeze backs towards the northeast, it is forecast to drop significantly. With strong tides along the UK’s south coast and the fleet bound for the Owers mark off Eastbourne before turning to Ouest Saint-Marcouf and onto the finish in Dieppe, there is the potential for tidal gates around key headlands to stir things up in the fleet.
This is also the point in the event where the cumulative effects of fatigue start to play an even greater part in the performance of individual skippers, with Kiwi first-time competitor Conrad Colman saying you can “see the fatigue in the eyes and souls of the skippers.”
As usual, the focus for those at the front will be for overall victory, but the final leg is also important for those aiming for the new Vivi trophy, an award for the top international skipper. Here, Will Harris (GBR) (Hive Energy) had been the first non-French skipper to finish on Leg 2 & Leg 3, but a poor performance on the opening leg has hampered his overall time to place him third on the Vivi Trophy rankings.
Instead, it is fellow British sailor Alan Roberts, (Seacat Services), who leads with a 1-hour 16-minute advantage over Swiss sailor Justine Mettraux, (Teamwork), who lies in second.
Before departing today, Roberts said: “The target of this leg is to finish, to stay in contact and to not try anything too radical and keep it simple. It’s going to be tricky with the weather. I think there’s going to big splits again in the fleet which means there could be people getting out ahead or groups dropping behind. It could be very tricky right up until the finish where we’re going to have lots of thunderstorms over the land with no breeze, and then 100 metres away maybe 15 knots of wind. So I think we just need to keep it simple and take it as it comes.”
Harris had a similar assessment of the Stage ahead: “This leg will be just as crazy as the rest. The routings say there's a chance we could see a 60-mile north-south split in the fleet sailing up the channel. I’m feeling pretty open about this one. I have to gain a good few hours to go up the general rankings so I’m open to taking a bit of risk if I see a suitable option.”
The 50th Anniversary was always going to be a special affair, but the new boat, unusual weather conditions and an impressively strong field of entries, even by La Solitaire standards, has produced an exceptional event that looks set to continue right through to the finish.
Track the fleet on the final leg on the official website here (https://www.lasolitaire-urgo.com/en/).