200 mile slog upwind

Lead changing every sched as Figaro sailors near the turning mark of the Solitaire's third and final leg

Sunday August 10th 2008, Author: Sabina Mollart-Rogerson, Location: United Kingdom
A fierce battle for the lead ensues on the final leg of La Solitaire du Figaro. Nine boats are within just a mile of each other as they furiously beat upwind to the Brittany Buoy, 20 miles further out to the east before they turn and make the final direct run back to l’Aber Wrac’h. Just 38 boats remain with eight abandonments since the start on Friday in Cherbourg. The front that swept over the fleet yesterday bringing with it winds of over 30 knots and heavy seas has finally eased and settled.

The lead continually changes hands among the first nine boats, often within sight, just 1.2 miles of each other. Last night it was Eric Drouglazet’s Luisina, then Frederic Duthil’s Distinxion Automobiles, or now Erwan Tabarly's Athema and Nicolas Bérenger's Koné Ascenseurs…“It is quite amazing to think that after 200 miles of racing upwind we find ourselves so grouped together,” claims Bérenger, polled in joint first place at 16:00. “I am a bit fed up with this constant tacking and am going to go off and do my own thing,” says Duthil.

“It has been a slow and laborious process to beat up to the mark,” describes Foncia skipper, Nicolas Lunven, in 7th place one mile from the leader. However obviously the boats will all converge further upon rounding the Brittany Buoy, when they will end up downwind. “We will dry out and have a chance to have a hot meal, but then the sea is still messy and we are going to have to take care on the spinnaker run, so we might have to wait for that hot meal until we get to l’Aber Wrac’h!” continues Lunven.

Two days into the race and exhaustion is taking its toll on the solo sailors. “In the difficult conditions I only been able to snacks and right now having my first hot meal since the first night” recounts Bérenger.

The rookies are also enjoying a close battle with François Gabart ( Espoir Région Bretagne) holding a 0.5-mile advantage over his closest rival Adrien Hardy ( AGIR Recouvrement), both just over 3 miles behind the leading pack. British skipper Andy Greenwood ( Imtech), who chose a more northerly route, is trailing behind by 26.9 miles in 35th place.

Overall race leader Nicolas Troussel ( Financo), keeps gaining ground, regaining ten miles off his lead over the course of today and continues to sail above the bulk of the fleet, now 24th place and 10.2 miles behind. The sailors furthest north have an average one-knot edge on the average boat speed, which will see the deficit reduced on the final approach to the Brittany buoy.

At 17:00 on Sunday, the Race Director announced a further change to the course: Instead of heading down to a mark off the Ile de Sein, the fleet will now return directly to l’Aber Wrac’h after rounding the Brittany Buoy, this cutting out some 30 miles off the route. The reason for this decision is that a further depression bringing strong 40-knot winds is expected to sweep over the race area on Tuesday between 02:00 and 05:00 am. This shortened course should see the sailors reach port safely from Monday afternoon on.

The skippers described the conditions on board:

Nicolas Bérenger ( Koné Ascenseurs): "You just have to really keep going, keep the spirits up. I am just having my first hot meal since the first night. Conditions were quite fresh: 30 knots of wind and then a big cross swell that is not nice, enough to make your stomach turn. It is a real mind game, there are wind shifts and you just need to get the most out of them. I really knuckled down yesterday and tried to go fast. I managed to grab on to Fred (Duthil) who was going fast. Lat night, when the wind shifted, I managed to get a bit of sleep, because being scotched to the helm was really quite tiring yesterday. As soon the wind came in on the first day, I put my dry suit, harness over the top and clipped on. It has now become a full on tactical game. It is quite amazing to think that after 200 miles of racing upwind we find ourselves so grouped together. That is the nice side of the sport. You have to keep en eye on the others, head for the clouds so you hold on. I now can’t wait to turn around and head the other way and hoist the spinnaker, dry out and head for l’Aber Wrac’h.”

Thierry Chabagny ( Suzuki Automobiles): "The Brittany buoy is still 50 miles away. Right now we are in a group of boats fighting it on the water, following the wind variations with a bit of left here, a bit of right there. We had a big squall five minutes ago and then the wind just shifts round. The wind has eased though so there are sail changes to be made; basically there is work to be done. You were better off storing up on some sleep last night. You can’t help being tired after 300 miles of sailing upwind. But as this is the last leg, you just have to keep going right to the end. I am trying to sail as best as I can and not too sure what is going to happen with those that went off to the right. It will be like deliverance once we round the mark. There is a risk that it will be like a train tough and it will be hard to gain any spaces on the run back.”

Nicolas Lunven ( Foncia): “It feels like we still have a long way to go to the mark with the wind right on the nose and the squalls passing over. It is slow and laborious progress. I think that Jacques (Caraës) has put a detour into our course…because last night we went right passed l’Aber Wrac’h! Once round the mark we hoist the spinnaker, get out of our foul weather clothes that we have been in since the start, and try and finally get a hot meal. This leg is beginning to be really draining on the body. I have Koné Ascenseurs, Suzuki Automobiles, le Comptoir Immobilier just on my wind…it is interesting and you have to be really alert but that’s hard because you have to concentrate and it is beginning to get quite tiring.”

Gildas Mahé ( Le Comptoir Immobilier): “I managed to sleep quite a bit in the wind because the pilot drove the boat as well as I could: I made the most of it to get some kip once passed the Ushant shipping lane. The front was not too bad because I had the boat well set up. The only thing is that I am soaked to the bones. There is still lots of play out here with a good bunch of boats leading and wind oscillations to work on. There should be quite a fight to the finish. I can’t wait to block the lines and hoist the spinnaker. The wind is due to easy after the Brittany buoy and we may well not get all that much downwind.”

Armel Tripon ( Gedimat): “I am really enjoying it and had great first night. I did not get my feathers too ruffled in the bad weather and am now with my rivals up ahead, so all it great. We did not really get a storm; it was still manageable. I had one reef in my mainsail, the solent up front and the boat was well set up for it. I stayed at the helm at the beginning and then I managed to get some rest below. Right now there is lots of work to be done as we tack and chase the clouds. There is a fight on the water right up to the Brittany buoy. I am right in there, but quite tired too. I am going to have to find the time to get some rest if I am going to stay alert. It is far from over and we still have a long spinnaker run followed by the finish where there is current and lots of rocks to deal with. It really is a nice leg!”

Frédéric Duthil ( Distinxion Automobile): "Once we passed Ushant on the first night, we got the rough sea, but sailing was still manageable. All that said, I must say that I am quite shattered really and a bit fed up with the upwind slog. Right now there are some wind shifts to get the most out of which means doing lots of tacks. There must be 45 miles left to the mark. I managed to get a bit of sleep last night so today I am full of energy!”

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