The top French sailors in the Figaro class dominated the first leg of this year’s Solitaire Bompard Le Figaro, with Erwan Tabarly, nephew of the great Eric Tabarly, winning the stage on board Amor Lux.
This was an incredibly tough first leg – even by the standards of the Solitaire – with a three-and-a-half day 510-mile course, shorted by 36 miles that featured everything from tough upwind conditions to fog, driving rain and devilish windless zones.
But the most important element were the spring tides that turned the south coast of England into a game of snakes and ladders for the exhausted skippers as they made their way from Deauville to the Owers mark off Selsey Bill and then all the way west to Wolf Rock before finishing off the Needles. The course involved five or six make-or break sectors where a combination of tide and wind could be a skipper’s undoing.
When Tabarly crossed the line at dusk last night at the Needles Fairway buoy to the West of the Isle of Wight, he was marginally the leading skipper in an all-French top-five featuring the most of the hot pre-race favourites. Yoann Richomme (Skipper Macif 2014) was just six minutes behind him, then Charlie Dalin (Skipper Macif 2015) who led for much of the leg, then Thierry Chabagny (Gedimat) and Nicolas Lunven (Generali).
After that the rest of the 37-strong fleet were spread over 122 miles with a group off Anvil Point, another approaching St Alban’s Head, a large loose collection off Portland, then two straggler groups off Start Point and the Eddystone Light.
Tabarly has come to the Solitaire – his 14th entry – with winning intent, having triumphed in the Transat AG2R La Mondiale earlier this year. His best finish in the Solitaire was third pace in 2011 but he has put down a marker with this impressive performance.
“I am really very happy,” said the 42-year-old Frenchman from Fouesnant in Brittany. “This is the first leg I have won. I have been on the podium six times and each time it has played to my disadvantage and I did not want to be second again. I will not get carried away – this is a race of four stages. But I will enjoy this first place for now and we’ll see for the other stages.”
Richomme, 32, from Lorient is on his seventh Figaro and has a best previous finish of fourth overall in 2014. “It was a beautiful stage that ended well,” he said. “I made a few mistakes at the Owers. But I managed to find the speed to come back and if someone had told me I would be leading at Wolf Rock I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Dalin led for much of the early part of the stage and he was happy to get to the finish within quarter-of-an-hour of the Tabarly. “It’s good to finish within 11 or 12 minutes of the first boat,” he said. “It was important not to lose this stage and I’ve done that.”
For the leading Brits, the stage was a disappointment with Alan Roberts, who has ambitions to finish within the top-10 overall for a second year in succession, the best-placed but back in 17th position on Alan Roberts Racing. Both he and Nick Cherry on Redshift, who was next best in 21st place, were caught out when going with a group inshore off the Lizard on the second night, only to see the boats further south get more breeze and sail away.
“That split was pretty instrumental in the race,” reflected Cherry. “I guess it was probably quite a risk but because there was a bunch of us doing it, it didn’t feel so risky.”
After Cherry, the next British sailor to finish was rookie Will Harris on Artemis 77 in 23rd place who was just pipped by Frenchman Pierre Quiroga on Skipper Espoir CEM in the rookie stakes who got to the line five minutes ahead of him. By that stage Harris was so tired he could not keep his eyes open.
“I had to go below to sleep just five miles from the finish,” said Harris. “I just couldn’t see anything, my eyes were bleary and wouldn’t open.” Summarising a tough baptism of fire in the Solitaire, the talented young sailor from Surrey added: “On top of the challenging weather, at every headland we’ve been fighting current. We have literally had every offshore sailing challenge crammed into three days. That’s why there’s such a big split in the fleet. It was quite impressive really and I’m really happy to have finished in not too much of a bad place either.”