The third leg of the 40th Anniversary edition of La Solitaire du Figaro got under way as scheduled at 13h00 this afternoon, a complex 485 mile passage between St. Gilles Croix-de-Vie in France's Vendée region across to Dingle on the west coast of Ireland. Once again it was a gentle start, with 5 or 6 knots of westerly breeze under cloudless blue skies and on the flattest of seas. The mood among the 52 skippers is much more intense however, with the Figaro veterans relishing the prospect of a classic leg full of twists and turns, and those ranked further down the fleet in attacking mood, seeking every opportunity to take big risks and reap bigger rewards.
While the light airs did not lend themselves to spectacular manoeuvres and close quarter jousting, the spectacle was nevertheless a picturesque one for the busy spectator fleet and the crowds lining the coast. St. Gilles has done La Solitaire proud, with the race village consistently crowded over the last four days, and a constant queue of people eager to get on the pontoons and see the racing fleet at close quarters.
Two skippers were a little too keen to get away, Nicolas Bérenger (Koné Elevators) and Thierry Chabagny (Suzuki Automobiles) the guilty ones this time, earning themselves individual recalls. Laurent Pellecuer (arnolfini.fr) got the best start, elbowing his way in the middle of the line, and like the majority of the fleet heading to the right on port tack. A smaller but select group chose to do things differently, the likes of Michel Desjoyeaux (Foncia), Eric Drouglazet (Luisina) and Frédéric Duthil (BBox Bouygues Telecom) heading off on starboard towards the Radio France buoy, first mark of the course three miles to windward. 45 minutes later Duthil was first to round, closely followed by Jérémie Beyou (Bernard Paoli) and Armel le Cléac'h (Brit Air). It is too early to draw any conclusions though, and Duthil himself was quick to point out the potential pitfalls of this particular leg on the pontoons this morning: “This time it won't be enough just to go quickly, you need to make sure you're in the right place as well. There's a lot that's still unclear, particularly for the finish, where we don't really know when and where the south-westerly breeze will arrive.”
British skippers Jonny Malbon (Artemis) and Nigel King (Nigel King Yachting) will be glad of the extra distance on this leg, both finding themselves in the lower echelons of the fleet at the start. King stayed with the middle of the pack and was 33rd at the Radio France buoy, while Malbon opted for the northern, committee boat end of the line and was 51st at the first mark of the course. The fleet are now on their way past Ile d'Yeu, and will spend their night moving westwards along the coast of Brittany, on their way to the GMF Assistance buoy at Penmarc'h Point, and the first of their major strategic decisions in what is expected to be an intense three and a half days.