Solitaire du Figaro - Testing night at sea for the skippers

Michel Desjoyeaux, skipper du Figaro TBS, sur la 1ere etape de la Solitaire du Figaro-Eric Bompard cachemire
Maxime Flipo
In the Solitaire du Figaro, the second night at sea proved particularly testing for the 41 skippers taking part in the first leg from Bordeaux to Porto, in Portugal. Strong winds from the NE, peaking at over 35 knots, big, confused seas, close encounters with fishing boats and the simple feeling of intense weariness starting to seep, all combined to take a toll on in boats and their sailors.

But, after the frontrunners rounded Cap Finisterre off the NW corner of Spain in the early afternoon, the breeze quickly became fickle and shifty making for a very tight compression of the fleet. And so, almost as predicted before the start the final 100 miles down the Iberian coast will be crucial and could mean huge gains or losses.

© Jean-Marie Liot

The Anglo-Saxon skippers, led by Sam Goodchild (Shelterbox – Disaster Relief) have so far showed excellent performances and keep battling on. Provisional leaders Alexis Loison (Groupe Fiva), Michel Desjoyeaux (TBS) and Jean-Pierre Nicol (Bernard Controls) have the smallest margins in hand – less than one mile- on the chasing pack and the finish in Porto looks both uncertain and delicate.

The stormy winds which the fleet encountered off cap Ortega, with gusting up to 35-38kts was pretty short lived but left a series of casualties in its wake. The list is long and varied: blown spinnakers, malfunctioning auto -pilots, broken spinnaker poles, jammed sails... In less than six hours several skippers suffered from damages and technical setbacks, serious and not so serious.

Some, like Fabien Delahaye (Skipper Macif 2012) broke both the spinnaker and the spinnaker pole, the Brits Jackson Bouttell (Artemis 77) and Henry Bomby (Rockfish) blew out their big kites, Jean-Paul Mouren (SNEF) was left with no more downwind sails, Nicolas Lunven (Generali) – one of the favourites - must have suffered from some other technical hitch being reported in an unusual 33rd position, even double winner Armel Le Cléac'h (Banque Populaire) had his spinnaker jammed in the forestay for some time while Basque Amaiur Alfaro (Région Aquitaine –Ateliers de France) had his auto-pilot out of service and his spinnaker shredded into pieces. Almost everyone had troubles getting out the the hit-and-run storm unhurt. Shore teams and sailmakers have some busy time in store when the boats get to the pretty Marina Douro, in Porto.

Judging by the way the Anglo-Saxon squad has approached the inaugural leg of the 44th Solitaire du Figaro-Eric Bompard cachemire, the six skippers have clearly profited well from the extensive pre-race training and coaching by Nicolas Berenger and team manager Marcus Hutchinson. Passing almost unscathed through last night's heavy conditions, save some spinnaker issues for Henry Bomby (Rockfish) and Jackson Bouttell (Artemis 77), four of the six skippers have managed to stay in the top 25. According to the latest report, issued at 3pm (French time) Sam Goodchild (Shelterbox – Disaster Relief) is the best placed in 18th and despite having lost six positions since this morning, has come closer to the leaders now who were less than 2,7 miles ahead.

Henry Bomby (Rockfish) in spite of losing his big spinnaker during the stormy night, managed to stay in touch with the leaders too and is in 20th neck and neck with Nick Cherry (Magma Structures) in 21st. Rookie Edmund Hill (Artemis 37), at his very first experience in the Solitaire du Figaro, has showed excellent boat management and good tactical skills and after having lead the rookies category for most of the leg, is in 23rd and has ceded the top spot to Joan Ahrweiller (Région Basse Normandie).

Obviously age and experience are also key factors in such a tough and complex race, so much for two young sailors like David Kenefick (Full Irish) and Jackson Bouttell (Artemis 77) who are in 38th and 40th respectively but have profited from the fleet's compression to reduce their disadvantage to less than nine miles. Still as Sam Goodchild put it in a radio vac this morning, 'there is still a long way to go' and some clever tactics, careful sailing and good trimming could mix things up and give the two young sailors a chance to bounce back.

Alexis Loison, skipper du Figaro Groupe Fiva, sur la 1ere etape de la Solitaire du Figaro-Eric Bompard cachemire entre Bordeaux et Porto (Portugal) - en mer le 04/06/2013
Maxime Flipo

The worst may seem left behind, once past Cap Finisterre. As a matter of fact after the stormy night the 41 Solitaire du Figaro-Eric Bompard cachemire skippers are possibly coping with the most grueling part of the first leg: the 120 miles descent along the Spanish and Portuguese coast to Porto. The weather forecast for the coming hours is anything but clear, and predicting what is in store for the fleet is a big gamble. At mid-afternoon when only some 100 miles separated the 41 skippers from the finish line in Porto, a light wind area is spreading along the Spanish coast and both offshore and inshore the sunset could bring big calms.

It becomes increasingly possible that the last stretch of this first leg could turn into a painfully slow finish, consuming what is left of the skippers' energy after three days and three nights at sea.

Sam Goodchild (Shelterbox – Disaster Relief): 'We've just changed to the small spinnaker, cause I broke the big one and I'm trying to keep the small with me. It's very wet and very hectic but very fast so I can't complain. At the moment it's to do the shortest distance but it's still a long way to go so I don't know if it's working yet. That's the idea we'll see how it goes. It's still 70 miles to Finisterre and then on the other side to the finish. It's going to get interesting again with no wind.I'm trying to not break anything than when we'll go round Finsterre I think it all will change very quickly and this afternoon there will be sunshine and looking for wind I guess. I don't believe it now with 35 knots but apparently it's true. I've been non-stop sleeping since we left, not quite, but I have been sleeping a lot cause I realized that Finisterre was not going to be easy and the same after that so I'm feeling quite fresh. Ate a lot of food so I'm quite happy...'

Anthony Marchand (Bretagne – Crédit Mutuel Performance): 'We're doing 18 knots, it's hot. There are 35 knots at the moment and there is a lot of boats around, one has to be extra careful. Downwind, at this speed, it's hard to manage the boat, there is not that much room to avoid the others, it's stressing. I slept well yesterday, we had good conditions to rest. We have to take advantage of this wind cause later Cap Finisterre will shadow us, there will be no winds. I'm not that happy about my position, I seem not to be fast and I also collided with something with a rudder, a big wooden piece and I believe I have some damage... but now I'm getting closer to the ones in front, that is good!'

Claire Pruvot (Port de Caen Ouistreham): 'I'm going to be quick as I still have 35 knots... I just crossed a boat, there are fishing boats everywhere... We need to be careful and I have no navigation display outside. Right now, I'm under the small spinnaker, steering all the time, so I'm somehow managing the situation...'

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