Intense week of training for Phil Sharp

Phil Sharp in action
Check out the latest from sailor Phil Sharp on the intense week of endurance training.

We recently had one of the most intense week of offshore race training of all our preparation to date this year. Over seven days we covered some 800 miles of racing around Brittany, the English Channel, Jersey, and along the south coast of England.

This is the offshore domain where the real Figaro training begins: battling against choppy seas and strong currents, tacking within a boat length of the rocks, constantly trying to squeeze more speed out of the boat, whilst also looking for some time to eat and sleep.

As part of the 12 or so boats I have been training out of Lorient during the winter, we started from this ocean racing capital of France for an initial overnight leg out to northwest Brittany. From here the sailing got really interesting as we were then faced with an upwind struggle along the north coast of Brittany. I’d forgotten just how physical but rewarding it is tacking up this coast against the tide, and how precise you have to be with your navigation.

Striking the right balance is key: sail too far from the shore and you end up in stronger foul tide; too close, or a momentary lapse of concentration, and you could be on the rocks. Inevitably how close you decide to go comes down to risk management and your nerves.

Later that night we rounded the mighty Jersey as part of our route up to Cherbourg. Prior to our departure I convinced the group that it would make for some interesting tactical sailing, as there are plenty of rocks to play with along the south coast of the island. I was also hoping to organise a wave to my girlfriend as I sailed by, but unfortunately I arrived there about 3am so I decided to let her sleep! I watched instead the floodlit Mont Orgueil Castle move past, which is always an impressive sight, particularly when viewed from the sea.

The next morning we arrived off Cherbourg, one-by-one, after a night close reaching up to the Alderney Race. This had made sleeping difficult and I was dead-beat by the time we arrived. Incidentally we were now only down to four boats as the Artemis group had peeled off earlier to go directly to Plymouth, and a couple of French boats had stopped in their local ports for various repairs. Survival of the fittest it was!

Phil Sharp
Soline Le Grand

The four of us then dived north for a demanding spinnaker reach right across the Channel to the Needles Fairway buoy off the Isle of Wight. From there we sailed all the way along the South Coast to Plymouth, our stopover port, some 450 miles of sailing since Lorient. Needless to say the pub fish and chips and pint we had in Sutton Harbour felt very well-earned and I was looking forward to a proper night’s rest before heading all the way back to Lorient.

After a good shop for British food I miss so much in France, like malt loaf and pork pies (you have to treat yourself occasionally!), we were off again, heading west around Lizard Point and then on to Wolf Rock.

It was a fast, wet and wild reach down to Wolf after sunset, and we then headed south across the channel once more for a mark off Roscoff.

On this leg I had a close call with a fishing boat that I wouldn’t like to repeat. As I had a bit of a cushion at the front of the fleet I was taking the opportunity to sleep quite a bit, whilst keeping an eye on the AIS (Automatic Identification System), having already passed through the shipping lanes. After waking up I heard some chatter on the VHF to hear that apparently I had sailed two metres in front of the bow of a fishing trawler, who had apparently had to go fully astern to avoid hitting me. This hit home instantly the every present danger of a reliance on using AIS for primary navigation, which many commercial vessels still don’t have. One simply can’t afford to be relaxed about doing a thorough, regular visual check on the boats around you, which is why solo sailors mustn’t sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time. This exact problem, a reliance on technology that is not yet widespread, was sadly to blame for a retirement in the last Vendee Globe.

Our training ended with a very enjoyable spinnaker reach from Penmarch point back to Lorient where there was just enough wind to get the boat onto the plane, which really brought a smile to my face – it is not every day you plane on a heavy Figaro! I managed to overtake three boats on this stretch to finish in second place behind Adrien Hardy in Lorient. Although I also finished second to him on the leg up to Cherbourg, I was also happy to win a couple of stages during the week including the overnight sail along the south coast between Needles and Start Point, and the return trip across the English Channel from Lizard to Roscoff. Overall, it was a seriously valuable week of training on all fronts that I feel has definitely upped my game and highlighted the key areas I really need to focus on. Lastly, when racing between France and England, never underestimate the power of the tide!

Phil Sharp Racing