Back across the Bay of Biscay
The 40 remaining skippers competing in the 44th Solitaire du Figaro Eric Bompard cachemire set sail from Gijòn on the north coast of Spain today at 1000 UTC, bound for Roscoff on the north coast of Brittany, on the third and penultimate leg of the race.
Getting to the finish could be a long and painful affair as the weather forecast looks set for very light winds on this 436 mile leg.
Before setting off into the Bay of Biscay the 40 skippers sailed a windward-leeward course, just off the Cimavilla Cape. The start gun was fired on the dot of noon, the competitors treated to an unexpected 15 knots of wind, with the weather again forecast to be light and unpredictable, caused by an area of high pressure hanging over the Bay of Biscay.
The best start was made by Vincent Biarnes on Prati'bûches, who crossed close to the pin end on port while the rest of the fleet was packed at the committee boat end.
Biarnes successfully port tacked the entire fleet, got to the layline and the upwind mark with only one tack and a margin good enough to escape the chaotic rounding that ensued, as tens of Figaros fought for water.
The wind increasing a little more, the downwind leg turned into a fast and spectacular gybing match. Thanks to his edge on the rest of the fleet, Biarnes managed to hang on to first place around the Radio France mark, the last compulsory waypoint before heading offshore to the Bay of Biscay, followed by Julien Villion on Seixo Habitat, Gildas Morvan on Cercle Vert, Michel Desjoyeaux on TBS and Jérémie Beyou on Maître CoQ.
Spurred on by the gift of a moderate breeze, self-confessed poor starter and current Rookie division leader Jack Bouttell made the best British get away this morning, rounding the first offshore mark in 16th, Jack’s best start to date – with Nick, Ed, Henry and Sam following in 19th, 25th, 28th and 33rd respectively.
All in all it took the fleet less than half an hour to cover the 5.5 mile course.
Three hours after the start, the fleet was progressing upwind in a shifty, unstable 8/10 knot breeze. And, contrary to what had been forecast, the wind was slowly veering into the northwest, while the forecast suggested it be easterly...
12 miles out from Gijòn and the fleet is already starting to spread out with a lateral separation of some 8 miles between the most offshore and inshore skippers, Jean-Pierre Nicol on Bernard Controls and Morvan have opted for speed instead of the most direct heading, with the present leaders in the middle of the pack. At the 3pm position report, the top spot was still occupied by Biarnes with Michel Desjoyeaux, Xavier Macaire on Skipper Herault, Morgan Lagravière on Vendée and Nicolas Lunven on Generali close behind.
The trio of Jackson Bouttell on Artemis 77, Nick Cherry and Sam Goodchild on Shelterbox – Disaster Relief were neck and neck and best placed non-French skippers holding 25th, 26th and 27th respectively with Bouttell at this point leading the rookies. Further behind were David Kenefick on Full Irish in 31st, Henry Bomby on Rockfish in 34th and Ed Hill on Artemis 77 36th.
Looking ahead the skippers are faced with this leg's big dilemma. Which way to go to cross the bay of Biscay with such uncertain weather forecast? The first, and only, compulsory mark is Ile d'Yeu, to be left to port, is some 240 miles but how to get there remains an enigma. Moreover, weather and routing models seem to differ very much and the skippers will have to make shrewd strategic calls to avoid getting stuck in windless areas whereas their adversaries benefit from a different breeze, meaning big gains or losses that could turn the second part of the leg into playing catch up or a solitary run to the finish.
Best Anglo-Saxons ever
Sam Goodchild in currently hold 9th overall and is determined to achieve his target of being the best placed British skipper since Claire Francis' 3rd place back in the 1970s. Since then Phil Sharp is the top placed Brit finisher having come home 18th overall in 2011. Nick Cherry could also succeed in this, lying 14th overall at this Solitaire's half way point and having showed extreme consistency and maturity on the race course.
If young Jack Bouttell manages to keep his biggest threat at bay (Claire Pruvot on Port de Caen Ouistreham), he could also enter the history books in becoming the first Anglo-Saxon to win the rookies' division for La Solitaire's first timers.
With the race underway so some of the skippers reported in:
Vincent Biarnes (Prati'Büches): “I started on port tack, in front of the whole fleet - a bit risky, but I'm really happy because I only made up my plan two minutes earlier! Plus, with the wind going to the northwest, I was heading straight to the mark, with just one tack and voilà - I was in front! Now we're on route to Ile d'Yeu and everyone is charging on... there is a lot of lateral separation. We can expect some very radical options, this afternoon already."
Jean-Pierre Nicol (Bernard Controls): “I have this idea turning over in my mind, the wind was not coming from a “normal” direction at the start and this means that the situation is different from what we thought. So I went West, more West than the others, but the latest weather models tell me it might be the right choice. I want to get around the wind-hole from the North so I set a waypoint to do that. But we will have to adapt to the situation to keep boat speed”.
Gildas Morvan (Cercle Vert): “We're into a front over northern Spain that is not moving, and the wind is coming from everywhere... there is some fog and some swell that makes it hard to trim and we have manoeuvre non stop. The air is a NW now and I'm looking for a NE, that's a big 90° shift to the right.The plan is to be fast, stay lower to the direct route to benefit from the wind shift as soon as possible. It should become more stable in a few hours...”
Prior to the start the British skippers looked ahead at the leg.
“It’s going to a difficult race because of the ridge of high pressure in the Bay,” reported a noticeably tired Bouttell, the previous 834 miles of racing taking their toll. “Trying to predict how that is going to move and where we have to position ourselves over the 100 mile stretch of open water will make this a complex leg. Taking big risks during this particular leg could reap big rewards, but quite as easily it could see the race lost on one rash mistake.”
With the outcome of the Solitaire du Figaro based on the cumulative time across the four legs, consistency is key and it will be crucial to hold a good position, staying close to the competition. Sam Goodchild explains: “For me my aim is to just try and stick with the fleet and with the leaders, and not do anything radical or do anything that could be a risk and add to my cumulative race time. I don’t think the leg will be simple at all. I’ve got in my head what I want to do and I will have to see what the fleet decides to do in relation to that.”
“I’m looking forward to it, with loads of rain and grey skies it’s weather we’re used to in the UK, so I’ve got a massive advantage on the French already,” Ed HIll joked on the dock, fully recovered from the disappointment of Leg 2 and fired up for the start. “In all seriousness, it’s going to be a tough old leg, but I’m feeling pretty prepared and pretty well rested, and I’m keen to get out there and go. After the disaster of Leg 2, for sure I need to be more cautious, stay safe and stick with the fleet, but also I have my own game plan for those little gains.”
Rockfish skipper Henry Bomby commented: “I have not got a specific plan for this leg after the my specific plans of Legs 1 and 2 didn’t go to plan. My vague plan for this leg with the forecast is to play it safe, stick with the fleet and let my speed do the work, rather than following my own strategy – but of course it may get to the point where I have to make a deciding decision for myself. I have a feeling we’re going to be forced into making a breaking decision in this leg, and you can’t just follow when it comes to doing that.”
Sam Goodchild added: “I think with the layout of the routing and weather as it is at the moment, we’ll have some pretty big fleet splits. There are some guys who are expected to be in the top ten, with the 20’s then being three of four hour behind – so I think they’ll be some pretty big splits between the the leaders and the rest of the fleet. For me my aim for this leg is to just try and stick with the fleet and with the leaders and not do anything radical or do anything that could be a risk. I haven’t got anything to lose right now and am way ahead of where I predicted I would be in the rankings.”