James Boyd Photography / www.thedailysail.com

Lengthy light leg to Gijon

Wind forecast to shut down twice on the Solitaire du Figaro's opening leg from Paimpol to Gijon

Saturday June 23rd 2012, Author: James Boyd, Location: France

Anyone who has been in the UK or France over the last month will know that despite the longest day of the year having been and gone, summer has yet to arrive. Earlier in the week the forecast for Sunday’s start of La Solitaire du Figaro looked set to be in gale force conditions. From the sublime to the ridiculous, now the opening leg from Paimpol on France’s northern coast to Gijon in northern Spain, looks set to feature two extremely light patches, one coming soon after tomorrow’s start at 1300 local time (1100 UTC), the second occurring on Tuesday as an area of high pressure sets up in the Bay of Biscay.

“It is going to be a tough leg, maybe the decider for the Solitaire this year,” believes Yoann Richomme, skipper of DLBC, competing in his third Solitaire du Figaro. “Very tricky conditions, very light winds and big currents in the north of Brittany.”

Yann Elies, skipper of Groupe Queguiner-le Journal des Enterprises, and one of the race favourites agrees that this opening leg could decide who wins this year’s Solitaire. “Because we have a light wind area to cross at the top and then in the Bay of Biscay, it will be an important leg.”

Even the wind direction around tomorrow’s start it hard to predict. There is a weak cold front lying west to east over northern France and at present it is unclear whether the boats will find themselves north or south of this. “Tomorrow is a bit of an unknown entity,” says Artemis Offshore Academy skipper Sam Goodchild. “For sure there will be a lot of wind in the morning and it is when it dies off, whether it is before or after the start.”

After an initial inshore triangle, culminating in them rounding the Radio France buoy, so the boats initially head north to the Men-Marc’h cardinal mark before they turn west towards Ushant. The big question will be how far they can get down the coast before the tide turns foul at around 1600 UTC, five hours into the leg. For then it seems likely that the boats will be forced to dive into the rock-strewn northern coast of Brittany where they will inevitably end up having to find water shallow enough in which to kedge - dropping their anchor to prevent themselves being washed eastward, back up the coast.

Elies gives his predictions for the first night: “Probably we will have a hard first night because there is lot of light wind areas, so probably we will have to anchor and probably we will have to go into the rocks to be sure that the current doesn’t push us back.”

Depending on how much progress they make before the wind shuts down and the tide turns foul, Elies expects the fleet to be kedging somewhere between Perros Guirec and Les Sept Iles.

However according to Sam Goodchild, the routing indicates the outside chance of a northerly option too: “Going right offshore, looking for a shift and tacking on it. Maybe there is a fraction less current in the middle, but a lot more than there is on the coast. But at the moment the GRIBs are saying in the south there is three knots while there is 10 knots in the north but you have to go 20 miles to reach them. That is a long way and it is a big risk as there is no way out when you go there. But you might see some big splits there.”

The tide turns favourable again at around 2200 UTC on Sunday night when the wind is still forecast to be light to non-existent.

At present the trek 75 miles west to the treacherous Chenal du Four between Ushant and mainland France is predicted to take a lengthy 18-22 hours. Once round the competitors will see the wind filling in from the west allowing them to make reasonable speed under spinnaker down towards the turning mark of Les Birvideaux, to the north of Belle Ile.

But their progress towards northern Spain will come to an abrupt holt yet again on Tuesday when an area of high pressure - and literally ‘zero’ wind - sets up over the middle of the Bay of Biscay on their direct route to Gijon. Elies says that at present there is the small possibility of the boats skirting the centre of the high to east to avoid being becalmed. But what is certain is that there will be some compression of the fleet going into the high and some extension by the leaders once they are through it.

Depending on what time the boats reach Gijon and how the forecast pans out, they will either drift across the line in little wind or with good pressure from the east, accelerated by the mountains along this rugged coastline.

The course generally appears to be one where ‘the rich get richer’. As Richomme puts it: “It is hard to say if there are any places to catch up, but there will definitely be some big time differences when we get to Spain...”

While the boats are unlikely to arrive in Gijon later than Thursday, the skippers are going to be very reliant on receiving the latest weather information to determine the optimum path across the Bay of Biscay towards the finish. On board the skippers are allowed to download the latest synoptic charts from the Met Office in Bracknell and will also be radioed through the sea areas forecasts appropriate to where they are.

Sam Goodchild concludes: “This leg has the potential for someone to get a big break. If someone tries inshore or offshore and it really works, then they could make a tidal gate and be six hours in front of the fleet.”

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