La Solitaire – Leboucher rocks off from Roscoff to lead testing light wind channel challenge for Stage 3

French 2012 Olympian Pierre Leboucher, who lies second overall, stole the limelight from local heroes Armel Le Cléach and Jérémie Beyou as the third stage of La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro started on their home waters, the Bay of Morlaix in northern Brittany today, Sunday 16 June. Leboucher, 28, who is racing his third La Solitaire, started smartly and established an early lead on the 10 mile showcase circuit before the 46-strong fleet left the famous rocky, tidal Finistère bay behind. It is on these waters which the current Vendée Globe champion Le Cléach, three times La Solitaire winner Beyou and past Figaro winner Nico Lunven all grew up as close friends and sparring partners. The opening, preliminary circuit of what promises to be a challenging, light winds 450-mile third stage from Roscoff to Roscoff, proved to be a perfect spectacle for the huge crowds which turned out on one of the most exciting days of the multi-stage annual race’s ten day stop which incorporates two starts and two finishes.

Under leaden skies which parted periodically to allow slivers of sunshine to dapple the bay, Leboucher (Guyot Environment) underlined why he is presently the biggest threat to overall race leader Yoann Richomme, who started this stage with a comprehensive margin of two hours and 17 minutes. In 15 knots of southwesterly wind, by the first turning mark, after an exciting, competitive two mile beat, Leboucher had eked out a decent lead ahead of Eric Péron (French Touch). Briton Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) made his best start of the three stages so far and was fifth round the first two marks while compatriot Will Harris (Hive Energy) was in the top ten and going well. Surprisingly, Richomme started modestly and was nineteenth.

As he docked out Roberts, who is 12th overall in this years Solitaire URGO Le Figaro, explained the leg ahead: “This leg is a lot more tidal. Going through the Channel Islands will be key and thankfully this morning the weather forecasts starting to agree a bit more. We should see some more breeze to Videocoq the first mark (at Granville) nicely. Then to Alderney. There, you need to sniggle through to get the tide, if not there can be big differences there. Then there is the option to got north of the TSS. It will be dependent on the time you get there. For me this is not a high risk leg. It will be more of the same as I have been doing; stick with the pack and be conservative and fast. I am not going out to win this leg I am trying to stay in the bunch and let some of the top guys drop out of the bunch.”

This third stage looks like it will be the critical decider of the four legs which comprise this 50th anniversary edition Solitaire URGO Le Figaro. It knits together some of the most renowned tidal passages in the west of the Channel and with light, unpredictable winds forecast including periods of calm, there will certainly be splits in the fleet which may extend to several hours.
Initially the fleet heads east on the heels of a solid breeze passing by the iconic Mont Saint Michel to turn at buoy by Granville where the wind is forecast to die. From there it is 60 miles up to Alderney opposite the Cherbourg peninsula and the infamous raz de Blanchard or Alderney Race where the tidal current sluices between the island and the Cap de la Hague.

Then it is 90 miles across the Channel, probably staying south of the Casquets TSS, although perhaps there might be more wind to the north. The northernmost turning mark is Hands Deep which is three miles to the northwest of Eddystone Light. The it is back across the Channel to the Fromveur mark between Ushant and the TSS, then to Chaussée de Sein (130 miles), through raz de Sein and the chenal de Four up to Portsall Grande Basse buoy (50 miles), repeating the same finish leg as Stage 2, in to Roscoff.

Weather advisor to some of the sailors Christian Dumand explained what is ahead: “The wind should decrease around Granville in the early morning. Then they go to the next mark with about 10 knots then to Hands Deep. But here, by Eddystone, is where the ridge will be encountered and here the wind will shift from the southwest to the northeast with very light winds. That will be one of the keys. The end of the race is very unsure. It should be northeasterly to come back to Ushant and then a little trough develops for the approach to the finish but we don’t know where. The key may be this evening around Saint Brieuc before Granville because there could be no wind in the north. Then the current at Alderney will be key, and then the transition through the ridge tomorrow evening.”

The overall race leader Richomme sounded confident as he left the dock this morning. “It does not look that bad going up to Alderney which we should get to tomorrow morning. I could be wrong, there could be a light patch on the bay going over there before Granville, but we might be OK and go through easily. Tomorrow morning we will be going straight into the tide going west towards Plymouth. That might be quite tricky. There might be the option to go north of the TSS. I probably won’t do that except under extreme circumstances. The tricky part is the transition going south across the high pressure ridge. I think the first ones to pop out there will have the advantage, how big I am not sure.”

Asked if he felt the pressure of leading into a leg which holds so many potential pitfalls, Richomme said: “I feel really confident. I take this leg by leg. I don’t want to think about anything else. I know the ranking roughly but I don’t look at it.  I know each leg is hard enough and I take each leg at a time. I feel good. I know the key points. I am just aiming for the top ten. That is what I always do. And then for the first half of this race I will be just doing my race for sure. Then if I need to, like on the first one, I will control a little bit just to make sure I can control if I need to. I want to do my race. I don’t want to do a race under pressure to watch everyone. There are just too many people. I will do my race.”

In second place on the overall ranking, Leboucher is reckoned to be one of the rising stars of La Solitaire. Sixth at the 2012 Olympics in the 470 as helm with crew Vincent Garos, his coach from the Pôle Finistere Christian Le Pape says he is “a force of nature who has excellent control driving downwind, a finesse at the helm and intuitive sensations that make a big difference as the boat accelerates “.

Behind Leboucher in third, at two hours and 28 minutes behind Richomme is Armel Le Cléac’h who will be racing in his backyard on a course where rock hopping and hugging the coast to seek relief from the strong tides may be essential. A double winner of La Solitaire, once by just 13 seconds overall, the skipper from Saint Pol, the next town south of Roscoff, Le Cléac’h will be a threat on this stage, especially as the accumulated fatigue and stress impinges on the decision making processes.

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