By nature meticulous in all of his planning and his preparation, British solo racer Alan Roberts is trying to ensure he has left nothing to chance before he starts what promises to be the most competitive Solitaire URGO Le Figaro on Sunday 2nd June from Nantes in Brittany.
Since making a successful transition some six years ago from being a many times British high performance dinghy champion to solo offshore racer, Roberts has devoted his energies entirely to the famous French multi-stage offshore classic. This season he was hand-picked to work with three-times Solitaire champion Jérémie Beyou as a like-minded, talented, hard-driving training partner.
That open book, no-secrets working relationship has allowed the duo to optimise the preparation of their respective new Figaro Bénéteau 3s, Beyou’s Charal and Roberts’ Seacat Services, to follow a two boat tuning and training programme in addition to their participation within the Pole Finistêre elite training group in France.
The huge entry for this 50th anniversary edition of La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro and the transition to the new foil assisted VPLP designed Figaro Bénéteau 3 has seen the return to the race of Beyou, Yann Eliès, Michel Desjoyeaux, Yoann Richomme, Loick Peyron, Alain Gautier and Armel Le Cléac’h, creating a sporting level which is unprecedented. As he approaches his sixth consecutive Solitaire, Roberts, 29, is relishing every aspect of the upcoming four stage race which starts on Sunday in Nantes and finishes at the end of the month in Dieppe after stages to Kinsale, Ireland, to Roscoff, a loop off Roscoff and a final leg to the finish.
“I feel really good. There is nothing I can think of that we might have missed,” Roberts says from the dock in Nantes four days before the start. “I have been super methodical in the way we prepared the boats, how together (with Beyou) we maximised our time on the water, I am in a good place. I think we both got from the relationship what we wanted, so that we could both spend time sailing while at the same time advancing the preparation of the other boat in the workshop. Both of us and our boats are in great shape. Of course you always want to do more and have done more, but that is in the nature of the game.”
Funding the new boat and getting to the start of this landmark edition of the Solitaire is a success in itself, one which brings a high level of stress. Roberts has a raft of smaller, passionate and supportive sponsors which include Seacat Services, Magma Structures, Kilchoman Single Malt and Marine Results, and there is much more to the solo racer’s life than simply prepping the boat and going racing.
He explains objectively: “In terms of ‘Figaro land’ I am still just scraping by. I still get to the end of my season and end up with a negative bank balance. This is not a living, it is about pursuing the dream, the end goal and not losing sight of that. I have enough to do everything and I am grateful for everything. And you want to give as much as you possibly can to the sponsors. But the net result is that this year I have had only five days when I was not working on the boat, sailing or working with my sponsors or on the project generally.”
Given the exceptional field and the new boats which, compared to the previous generation of Figaro 2s have asymmetric gennakers and a Code Zero, and are faster and lighter and have the foils, Roberts contends that more than ever, the firm principle should be to absolutely minimise the tactical and strategic risks and to sail with the ‘peloton’ of the fleet as much as possible.
“It is about how you sail the boat, because you will have to sail bigger angles and sail further out to get clear air then there is a big possibility to get separated away from the fleet. So, really the focus has to be really, really always be aware of the risk you are taking at every point in time. We are going to start the first leg and half the fleet will drop from contention on that leg, then half of the remaining fleet drop out on the next leg, you just have to make sure you are always in that top half. There are so many good guys this time it will be hard to know who to stick with.”
And although Roberts still holds the top overall result by a British skipper in the last 40 years with his ninth overall in 2015, ninth overall too in the French solo offshore championship that year, at this elevated level this year, it is very hard for him to have a realistic target result.
“If I am inside the top 20 then I will be happy. This really is a learning year for us all and I think the amount we all learn on the race course this time will be huge. If I could crack the top 10 in this field I would be ecstatic. I absolutely know I have the ability and there are different aspects of the way we sail these boats that really play to my strengths. I am very happy in the strong downwind conditions in this asymmetric configuration, the boats are lighter and faster and you learn how to work off the foil in these conditions when in others you are really trying to minimise its influence.”
Meantime Roberts is an advocate of the class and solo Figaro racing extending to other areas outside of France.
“I think there could be so many more races in different countries for this boat; in Spain, on the RORC races in England, they would be smaller but it would be so great to spread the interest and the passion outside of France a bit more. From that standpoint, going to Kinsale, Ireland is great news this time and hopefully there will be guys there inspired to get into the Figaro.”
Owned and organised by OC Sport Penduick, the French subsidiary of international event organisers OC Sport, La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro is one of the world’s toughest sailing competitions. Fiercely competitive, the race is recognised as the unofficial work championship of solo offshore racing with the 2,130 nautical mile course taking just over a month to complete.