La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro – an ultra marathon, not a sprint

Race direction of the 50th anniversary La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro have made it their clear policy to make each stage as open as possible by minimising the number of marks of each course. They have rewarded avid followers of the demanding French multi stage solo offshore race with a suspenseful  opening act, from Nantes across the Celtic Sea to Kinsale which promises a denouement on Thursday worthy of Hitchcock. Increasingly it looks like the winner will not be decided until the slow final miles set to be raced in light winds.

Three days in to the 553 nautical miles opening leg from Nantes, at 110 miles from the turn at the mythical Fastnet Rock this afternoon the 46 strong fleet has a lateral separation – west to east – of more than 60nm. Already the unsettled winds in the early stages of this course means the stage is 24 hours slower than expected.

After a welcome interlude of fast surfing under gennaker and code Zero yesterday afternoon, last night another cold front passed over the fleet to make for a wet, bumpy and unpleasant beat across the approaches to the Channel.

So changeable have been the conditions that there has been little time to rest – the new Figaro Beneteau 3s are more demanding on the helm and sail changing and trimming –  that solo skippers are increasingly sleep deprived and exhausted.

“It's certain that if we had put a course mark at Ushant we would see a much more compact fleet today. But we wanted to offer real freedom of choice. It is a more open game that we are looking for,” commented Francis Le Goff, Race Director. “Looking back at previous races as Race Director, I can honestly say that this has been a very demanding leg. The light winds at the start used up a lot of energy, then there was the sea state and the separation into two big groups with the TSS. Nothing could be taken for granted in terms of the positions and there has not been any moment when they could ease off.

Last night the influence of the Traffic Separation Scheme at Ushant combined with expectations of what the new low pressure system might bring has seen the fleet split to three approximately equal sized groups.

Initially yesterday afternoon a leading group headed by three times overall winner Yann Eliès (St Michel) as well as some of the race heavyweights, including Thomas Ruyant, looked well set to dictate terms to the fleet. But the heading breeze required them to take a 15 nautical mile hitch to the west to avoid the exclusion zone.

While the majority of the fleet went west, either by careful assimilation, desperation or the gut instinct which comes with their combined decades on this circuit, Armel Le Cléac’h (Banque Populaire), Alain Gautier (Merci pour ces 30 ans) led a small posse to the east.

The main westerly group split apart during the middle of the night, some choosing to hitch further west while Pierre Leboucher (Guyot Environnement) and Class 40 Route du Rhum winner Yoann Richomme (Le Telegramme/Hellowork) stayed on starboard tack and now hold a small advantage over the groups on either flank of them.

The official rankings have now recorded nine different leaders, Morgan Lagravière (Voile Engagement ), Michel Desjoyeaux (Lumibird), Henri Leménicier (Eureka), Adrien Hardy (Sans Nature Pas de Future), Yann Eliès (St Michel) Thomas Ruyant (Advens-Fondation de la mer) Alain Gautier and Pierre Leboucher (Guyot environnement)

As for The Jackal, twice overall winner and Vendée Globe victor Armel Le Cléac'h, who was in 45th place yesterday afternoon, he may still profit from his routing in the extreme east. He is up to 18th at eight miles from the lead.

Who might be first to the Fastnet?
It is hard to say. As usual the weather models and consequent routings don’t agree.
“The situation is controlled by a small depression over Scotland. The route up the curve of the isobars sees the wind veer north in the afternoon and through the night before backing again for the end of the leg,” explains Yann Château, meteo analyst for the race direction. Depending which of the two main weather model prevails he believes it could be either Armel Le Cléac'h or Pierre Leboucher but he does not believe the west will win out.
Switzerland’s Justine Mettraux in 11th, GBR’s Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) in 16th and Kiwi Conrad Colman (Ethical Power) in 17th are all well established in the main peloton in the middle of the course. Will Harris (Hive Energy) is 30th, sailing among past La Solitaire winners in the westerly group.

Harris reported today: “The last three days have been pretty challenging. The wind has been so unstable and every two minutes it has been going up and down. It is hard to leave the helm to itself and you are always having to be changing sails and making sure everything is OK. And trying to find time to sleep and rest and at the same time trying to keep the boat going as fast as possible. All is going well but it has been a bit of a struggle without the wind instruments but we are still going OK.
I was pretty sure of the strategy going to the west of Ushant as there were some boats went to the other side. We will wait and see. I managed to catch up a few places there holding high with the spinnaker when the front came and since then I have been slowly catching one or two places by being a bit quicker than the boats around me.”

Tiredness and seasickness contributed early this morning to the first retirement of the leg. Rookie Cassandre Blandin fell asleep in the cockpit approaching the TSS and hit a cargo ship. The bowsprit of her Klaxoon was knocked off. More shocked than injured she is heading for Brest but will need to restart from Kinsale if she wants to attain an overall result as the rules do not allow racers to abandon or not start two legs of the four stage race.

Triple winner Jérémie Beyou (Charal) reported today, “It’s true that it’s a bit long. More importantly, a lot is down to chance. We don’t know where the others are. So each time in the rankings there are surprises and disappointments. It’s rather unusual. You think all sorts of things about the others, but the important thing is doing your own thing. The westerly wind is a bit more stable now. Last night sailing upwind, I managed to get the autopilot set up to get a bit of rest. A while ago, it was very unstable with 40° wind shifts. It’s a bit better now but we have to be able to react. I have only managed a few snacks until now. Nuts and stuff.  Dried meat. But I have just warmed up my first hot meal. It hasn’t exactly been fine dining!”

Race Director Le Goff adds, “It’s the transition as we approach the Fastnet that is going to be complicated. Those behind risk getting caught in the trap. The fleet is still bunched up for the moment, but those further back need to keep up with the pack before the wind drops right off in the Celtic Sea. It is still very unstable along the south coast around Kinsale. When they talk about variable winds in the forecasts, that may mean there is no wind at all. I’m more worried for those off to the SW. The fading wind may lead the pack to get even closer together, but we cannot dismiss the idea of some of the boats making their getaway either. It’s harder for us to follow, but in terms of the race, it’s interesting. If we had fixed a waypoint off Ushant, Alain Gautier probably wouldn’t be the leader this morning. That too is what the skippers were looking for this year.”

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