After the headlong, straight-line rush across the Bay of Biscay that was the second leg of La Solitaire, the third is shaping up to be a more classic, technical test of the ‘Figariste', with abundant strategic options and the opportunity to make big gains… or to suffer big losses. With 120 miles more distance than in the last leg, and some tricky obstacles to negotiate, the 485 mile passage from St. Gilles Croix-de-Vie to Dingle in South-West Ireland could easily deliver a radical shake-up to the closely contested rankings. “We're not exactly starting from square one” said Race Director Jacques Caraës “but it's not far off.” Or as skipper Thomas Rouxel (Défi Mousquetaires) puts it “This is where it starts to get serious.”
From St. Gilles the 52 boat fleet will once again pass by Ile d'Yeu, heading along the coast of Brittany via marks at Spineg and Cap Caval, before going offshore into the Western Approaches. It is then a case of choosing the best way they can, with no further waypoints before the arrival in the picturesque Irish port. The decisive moment is likely to have come well before then however, with the effects of a disintegrating weather front, a ridge of high pressure, thermal effects along the Breton coast and fierce currents at Cap Caval all threatening to wipe out the negligible accumulated time differences presently separating the boats.
The weather picture has remained fairly stable over the last couple of days, and looks to play out much as follows: a steady 8-12 knots from the North-West for the start at 1300 (local time) tomorrow, followed by more variable breeze for the first hours of the race. A small ridge of high pressure immediately to the west of the Vendée region will fade out with the arrival of a more active weather front from the west; as it dissipates this front will give rise to considerable fluctuations in the light westerly winds, generally of less than 10 knots. The wind should become steadier during Tuesday morning with the arrival of a powerful ridge from the Azores High, bringing North and North-Westerly winds to carry the fleet offshore. The fleet will have to cross this ridge, upwind in 8-12 knots, before touching new south-westerly breeze off Ireland which will give a brisker downwind run to the finish.
Crucial to a favourable result will be good timing at the GMF Assistance mark, the west cardinal mark at Cap Caval, south of Eckmühl lighthouse on Penmarc'h Point. Those boats rounding before 0600 on Tuesday will benefit from a favourable south-north running current, which could make all the difference in the expected light and fickle breeze. To miss it could be very expensive. Here too there is a major tactical choice to be made, whether to head straight offshore, or to stay with the current inshore among the rocks of the Ras de Sein.
Erwan Tabarly (Athema), lying in 9th place with a deficit of only 37 minutes, is relishing the challenge: “This is going to be a proper Figaro leg, just how we like it. Now's the time to step it up a gear ! I enjoy this very varied sort of race, with coastal, offshore and upwind elements; they can blow the game wide open. There are a lot of things to try, and plenty of traps. And this time we won't have to sail with our hoods pulled down over our eyes and collars up over our noses – that sort of thing can affect the fun of being at sea! It's going to be very tactical, with lots of moves, opportunities to open up some separation or to make a come-back if something doesn't work out. I think this third leg could open up significant gaps.”