Young skippers lining up for La Solitaire Le Figaro

La Solitaire rookies

British sailors have made consistent, notable inroads into the highly charged world of La Solitaire Bompard Le Figaro, the solo multi stage offshore race, in recent years not least establishing a solid record in the challenge to be top ‘bizuth’ or rookie.

The ‘bizuth’ prize, open to soloists competing in their first La Solitaire Bompard Le Figaro, is a highly coveted signal of future potential. For the up and coming sailors it is a great calling card, an objective endorsement, to take to potential sponsors and supporters.

Past winners of the top rookie award who have gone on to win La Solitaire overall include Armel Le Cléac’h who was top rookie in 2000 and won overall in 2003, Charles Caudrelier top rookie in 1999 who won La Solitaire in 2004, and Franck Cammas who was top rookie in 1994 and was overall victor in 1997.  Double Vendée Globe winner and three times La Solitaire winner Michel Desjoyeaux was rookie winner in 1990.

And of the current crop of 39 skippers who will start the 47th edition of the race on Sunday from Deauville, Nico Lunven returns to the race as one of the overall favourites. Back in 2007 he was top rookie and won La Solitaire overall two years later.

Britons have yet to step on the overall podium even if they are inching closer each year. But, at the end of the last three races it is sailors of the Artemis Offshore Academy which were on top, or second on the Rookie standings; Jack Bouttell winning in 2013 and Robin Elsey in 2015. Sam Matson narrowly missed out on winning, taking second Rookie in 2014.

Predictably then there are high hopes that this momentum can be maintained during this upcoming four stage race of 1,525 miles over four stages; Deauville to Cowes via Wolf Rock (510 Nms), Cowes to Paimpol (475 Nms), Paimpol to La Rochelle (410 Nms), finishing with a 130 miles circuit off La Rochelle starting on 6th July.  Already excitement spiked momentarily when Will Harris won the pre-race inshore prologue race, and there is every indication that the trio of British rookies, Harris, Hugh Brayshaw and Mary Rook, have the potential to further the recent record of their compatriots.

On paper the youngest sailor in the race, Harris, aged 22, is the best British hope to retain the Rookie title won by Elsey last year. A past GBR youth team sailor, he has the advantage of two years of part-time sailing and helping with the Artemis Offshore Academy Figaro boats before he was selected to the Artemis programme. Therefore his learning with the 33ft Figaro has stood him in good stead.

But his yacht racing experience is limited. After cutting his teeth on Queen Mary Reservoir racing dinghies, one of his first times on a yacht was when he trialled for the Artemis Offshore Academy.

His intuitive boat speed is excellent, he is increasingly happy with the pressures of life on board and he is resourceful with good boatwork skills. But his self belief is married to an assured competitiveness, meaning he feels at home in the leading pack and is not phased by leading or challenging the top names.

Harris’ sixth place in this year’s solo 346 miles Concarneau Trophée Guy Cotton and seventh in the Solo Maitre Coq underline his potential to win the 10 strong Rookie fleet this year.

“It was good to win the Prologue but that means nothing really other than a little boost to the confidence. It is good to see I can do it. The three races I have done I have been top Rookie but also have had sixth, seventh and eighth. The biggest challenge for me has been learning offshore tactics. The first time I stepped on a yacht was three years ago,” smiles Harris,

“That was when I first trialled for the Academy and so enduring the whole ‘being at sea for three days’ was a big challenge. It is so easy to burn up in the first 24 hours. You have to be making good decisions on the last day.”

“Winning top Rookie is not so hugely important. It is one of these things to think about on the last leg, but I will be focusing always on the whole fleet. I want to have a good performance on the overall performance. I want a good result overall. That is more important.”

Hugh Brayshaw, 22, also comes from the world of GBR Youth sailing, a past 420 UK National champion who campaigned in the 470 too, eight months ago his offshore keelboat sailing was negligible. But a hard winter of training and he has already bagged respectable results. He started out the season with a 17th in the Solo Concarneau, 14th in the Solo Maitre Coq and 14th in the Solo Normandie.

“It is hard to calibrate your expectations and hopes because it is all so new. Right now it seems a bit crazy that I only started this about eight months ago. That was the first time I sailed on my own on a yacht. It is all more comfortable for me. I feel like I have covered a lot.

“The first few hours I just don’t want to get left behind. I want to get into a solid pack of boats and then get comfortable.”

Mary Rook is a former 49er FX and Nacra 17 dinghy racer and ISAF Women’s Match Racing World Champion who made the transition to solo keelboat racing this past winter. She has all the makings of a very accomplished La Solitaire racer, coming to it with the drive and experience of Olympic classes sailing: “The first leg is going close to home so I am looking forward to that. But really there is so much to learn for me. I don’t have any high hopes. I am out to learn at this stage. In the first year you don’t really know what you are letting yourself in for,” Rook commented.

“I have been better than expected on the first day of a leg and then it drops off and so I need to learn to combat that drop off. It is the opposite to Olympic sailing where you are taught not to train when you are tired and fatigued, here you have to train when you are tired to sail better and make better decisions.

“I am getting better all the time. I don’t think I will do justice this year to what is my potential. So this is very much a learning year. I am looking forward to the learning. I am not interested in the battle with the other girls racing, I want to beat the boys and do well anyway.”

Up against the three from England (including one woman) are three youngsters from the various French training centres (Team Vendée, Bretagne-Crédit Mutuel de Bretagne and the Centre d’Entraînement de Méditerranée) and two bona fide amateurs.

Among the five women who will compete in La Solitaire Bompard Le Figaro rookie division, Justine Mettraux (Team Work) is no doubt the favourite to be top woman. After her successes in the Mini circuit and taking part in the 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race, she has got off to a  good start in the races earlier this year (4th in the Solo Normandie and 8th in the Solo Maître Coq).

What the French Rookies said:

Pierre Quiroga (Skipper Espoir CEM): “I’ve got Xavier (Macaire)’s old boat, which is a good one. I’m really lucky, as this means I can focus on the sailing rather than preparing her. I loved the early season races and enjoyed myself. I am setting out to have fun rather than aiming for a result. I have written that down all around the boat. My problem is getting to grips with the weather, as in the Olympic circuit, I relied on what I felt and local conditions. My goal is to finish between 20th and 25th and maybe get one good leg result.”

Marc Noesmoen (Team Vendée Formation): “I know that the Solitaire Bompard Le Figaro is physically demanding. The unknown factor for me is going to be sleep. But I’m resiliant and hope to find what it takes throughout. The second leg (Cowes, Isle of Wight – Paimpol, Lézardrieux) is the one that worries me most because of the rocks and currents… I think there’s going to be a great battle between the rookies like Will (Harris), Pierre (Quiroga) and Justine (Mettraux). I’m hoping to make it to the rookies’ podium, even if my first goal is not to break anything.”

Théo Moussion (#théoenfigaro): “Competing in the Solitaire Bompard Le Figaro is a sporting and personal challenge. My first goal is to finish and the second to enjoy myself and the third to get as many people behind me as I can, as I’m a born competitor.”

Justine Mettraux (TeamWork): “I’m really looking forward to seeing how it works out and how to go from one leg to another, which is the main thing in the Solitaire Bompard le Figaro. I’m going to have to manage that well. The results so far this season have been fairly positive. I have made progress since the start of the season, but there’s still some work to be done in comparison to the guys that have several years of experience in the Figaro class.”

Yves Ravot (Hors la Rue): “This is a dream come true. I have always sailed a lot and at the age of 20, when I had to choose between becoming a pro sailor or studying, I took the second option. In 2009, at the age of 45, I jumped right into the Mini-Transat, and loved it. Since 2013, I have been looking forward to competing in the Solitaire Bompard Le Figaro and have forced myself to do some training by taking part in a few of the early races in the season, such as the Solo Concarneau and the Solo Maître CoQ. The hardest thing for me is finding time to sail. My goal is not to make a fool of myself, surprise everyone, without trying any suicidal options.”

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