French skipper Xavier Macaire (Groupe SNEF) led the 35 strong fleet round the Fastnet Rock at 1830hrs local time Ireland this Tuesday evening. The 39 year old skipper from the Team Vendée Formation, who has never won a stage, has been in the lead since very early yesterday morning. He passed the half way point of Stage 1 of the 51st La Solitaire du Figaro in a modest ten to 11 knot southwesterly breeze with a very slender lead.
As two times overall winner Armel Le Cléac’h (Banque Populaire) turned round the iconic rocky lighthouse within clear sigh of rival Macaire, half a mile behind, it marked the conclusion of a spectacular recovery, rising to chase the leader’s stern at the turn, in the space of 24 hours coming back from 22nd and 20 miles behind the leader
Le Cléac’h – who takes weather strategy advice from Dutch ace Marcel Van Triest – as did last year’s leg and overall winner Yoann Richomme – clawed back fully 10 miles and nine places as he took a more northerly route at the Scillies TSS, cutting inside the fleet on the corner entering the Celtic Sea.
The Vendée Globe winner’s track gained him more wind pressure and speed and, as he passed the rock which he first encountered on a Figaro race in 2001, Le Cléac’h is back in the game in a very strong position to challenge for the fifth stage win on his career.
As is so often the case the passage into and out of the Fastnet brings all the leading contenders within close sight of each other, the top ten sailors all within two miles of leader Macaire. The passage, leaving the mark to port proved a very tight turn as the fleet skirted the very edge of the forbidden traffic separation zone to their east and there were opportunities to gain and lost places.
Passing the iconic rock in his home waters in seventh place casts out the some of the ghosts of La Solitaires past for Tom Dolan. The Irish sailor was third for most of the passage across the Celtic Sea but dropped places being too high on the line approaching Fastnet letting three boats slide inside him.
That said the 33 year old sailor from Kells, County Meath has shown again that head to head he can match speeds with the best of the fleet sprinting across the Celtic Sea in moderate 12-15kts southwesterly winds. Until the corner at Fastnet he lived up to his billing in France, as the ‘Irlandais Volant’ (Flying Irishman).
In 2018 when the opening leg of the race was heading to the Baie de Saint Brieuc, Dolan had to motor there from Le Havre, forced out of the leg by a damaged spreader root. Dolan was up to second, 1.1 mile behind the leader Macaire during this afternoon, but soon became another prey for the ‘Jackal’ as Le Cléac’h has been known as.
For all the 35 skippers now the big challenge is managing themselves on a fast reach back to Saint Quay Portrieux where they left Sunday afternoon. The quick reaching will require long hours at the helm to maximise speed whilst still considering a light winds finish is forecast where the fleet is expected to compress significantly in the final miles to the line.
Race veteran Gildas Morvan, with 22 La Solitaires to his credit, observed in his lunchtime analysis today: “In the standings, Xavier Macaire and Corentin Douguet are leading the way, their trajectories are exemplary, they have sailed well right from the start, they are the ones who set the pace, they are quite impressive, these old guys still have it! The young guns of Crédit Mutuel Bretagne (Tom Laperche and Loïs Berrehar) are not very far behind, they keep up the pressure, we will see who will be the strongest on the return leg, because we will have to let go and push hard. Even on a pure speed drag race there are still options.”
Britain’s Sam Goodchild (Leyton) is still very much in the leading group in 13th place at 2.5 miles behind Macaire. Goodchild lost places on the final approach to the turn but gained back distance on the leader as the fleet compacted. His compatriot and long time Class 40 rival Phil Sharp (OceansLab) is 16th. Sharp is alongside Anthony Marchand (Groupe Royer-Secours Populaire) who won the first stage into Saint Quay in 2018. But this duo have a three miles gap to make up to the next boat.
On his first La Solitaire since 2015 when he was tenth overall Jack Bouttell (Gillot Fromagerie) is in 22nd place and reported, “Physically I am pretty good I would say, the first night was pretty tough with the light winds zone, obviously I got through it better than I thought I did, but to be 17 miles behind first place is quite a long way back and disappointing. I am hoping to catch up some miles in the next few days.
“I think the strategy I had was opposite to what happened I did no really understand what went on, I was not in the right place and I struggled a bit with upwind speed. I think with that and a combination of things I did not end up in the best place. The wind was meant to drop from the front of the fleet and not the back and in the end the further back you were the worse you were. The rich got richer. It should be good now with some faster sailing in the next few hours, to Fastnet, The breeze is a bit more left than forecast and so I hope it goes right again. I don’t really know where the leading group are. I think the we are quite lined up now. The front I don’t know where they are.”