For Race Officer Dominique Berenger, waiting patiently on the committee boat at the entrance to Dingle Harbour last night, it must have seemed like being on the receiving end of a nautical version of the Charge of the Light Brigade. After a third leg full of tactical twists and meteorological surprises, the weather threw a final curveball in the fleet's direction as the leaders entered Dingle Bay yesterday afternoon. Less than 10 miles from the finish line the breeze in the bay died completely, and the placid waters became a parking lot for Figaro Beneteau 2s as the rest of the fleet piled around the corner at Valentia Island. It was to be six hours before enough breeze kicked in to propel the boats the final distance, by which time the view from the finish line was of a seemingly endless arc of navigation lights across the bay. Any one of 20 boats could have won it, but ultimately it was Jérémie Beyou (Bernard Paoli) who held his nerve and crossed first, at 2245 local time, for his second consecutive leg victory of this year's edition of the race.
The name of the charming Irish port is now quite likely to enter the lexicon of Figaro shorthand to indicate a comprehensive reshuffling of the pack right in the final stages of a race. Last night's nail-biter bore a remarkable similarity to the events of three years ago, when the Figaro fleet's last visit here was under similar circumstances. No tactical option was left untried this time, with one small group of boats trying to creep along the southern shore, and others trying to hold the breeze across the mouth of the bay to reach the northern side. In the end it was just a question of patience, though for the likes of Antoine Koch (Sopra Group) and Armel Le Cleac'h (Brit Air) the frustration must have been particularly intense. Going into the second night each had been at the head of groups of differing tactical opinion, Le Cleac'h being the only boat of the more westerly pack to emerge unscathed from the effects of a dying low pressure system which unexpectedly threw the tactical scenario into disarray. The two front runners had spent yesterday fighting it out neck-and-neck along the Irish coast, only for their match race to finish abruptly just short of the line.
Beyou had kept a relatively low profile throughout this third leg, and accepted his win quietly: “It was like having a new start line set up at the mouth of Dingle Bay ! I've won, I'm pleased, though obviously I would have preferred the manner of winning to be more like that of the last leg at St. Gilles Croix-de-Vie. I've lost plenty of legs that have finished like this though so I'm very happy to take this win, it makes up for all the times I've been on the receiving end ! At the same time it's fairly representative of La Solitaire: a marathon that finishes in a sprint in flat calm. Really anything could happen. The game is still wide open for the last leg.” In the event it was a closer run thing than even Beyou had imagined, when a jury hearing this afternoon imposed a one minute penalty for carrying 300cl more water than the strict class rules permit, reducing his winning margin to a mere 19 seconds. He now finds himself moving up to third place in the overall rankings, behind Nicholas Lunven (CGPI) and Yann Elies (Generali).
Delighted to be among the 47 boats that streamed across the finish line in a mere 42 minutes last night were British skippers Nigel King (Nigel King Yachting) and Jonny Malbon (Artemis). Having leapfrogged no less than 18 boats in Dingle Bay, King's 22nd place, only 10 minutes after Beyou, will be some compensation for a thoroughly exhausting leg: “I had a problem with contaminated drinking water quite early on and have been ill most of the way across and unable to eat. By the time we got to Fastnet I was completely wiped out, so it's been a question of just trying to hang in there.” Malbon was pleased and exhausted in equal measure, continuing his steady progress up the learning curve and the rankings with 39th place, 25 minutes and 35 seconds behind the winner.
With the arrival of the fleet Dingle is in full party mood, and the skippers can expect two days of rest and entertainment before embarking on the final leg, to Dieppe, on Sunday. The Irish port is celebrated for Funghi, its friendly dolphin which has welcomed visitors at the entrance to the port for the last 25 years. Last night he must have invited all his friends, the bay being filled with upwards of a hundred of the creatures, a pleasant diversion for the anxiously waiting fleet.