At 1200BST today [Thursday 20th June], the forty strong Solitaire du Figaro fleet set off on the final 520 mile push from Roscoff to Dieppe (France), via Wolfe Rock and the Needles Fairway. Conditions for the Leg 4 start were much in the style of the 2013 Solitaire du Figaro, light and overcast.
Perhaps inspired by Vincent Biarnes Leg 3 start ‘port flyer’, Nick Cherry (Magma Structures) and current Rookie division leader Jack Bouttell (Artemis 77) both crossed the fleet and the start line on a port tack, putting them in a solid position into the first course mark. Nick was the first British skipper to round the buoy in 12th, followed by second Rookie Ed Hill (Artemis 37), who is reported to have been 'on fire' around the initial 1.5 mile windward leeward course, rounding the first mark in 17th.
Then setting his spinnaker and rolling Leg 2 winner Morgan Lagraviere to lead the British boats offshore in 11th position. Hoping to cement his provisional title as highest ranking British Solitaire du Figaro skipper since the race went one-design in 1991, Sam Goodchild rounded the first mark in 21st, followed by Jack in 24th and Henry Bomby (RockFish) in 32nd. The fleet were led offshore by three times Solitaire winner Michel Desjoyeaux (TBS), who currently sits just two minutes behind Sam on the overall race leaderboard.
'This leg for me is going to be about trying to keep safe to be honest,' said an unusually anxious Sam prior to the leg start. The Shelterbox skipper is currently eight positions higher in the ranks than the current top British finisher in the modern era of the race, Phil Sharp who finished 18th overall in 2011. But with heavy winds forecast and being well aware of the unpredictable nature of the Solitaire – Sam is not popping the Pol Roger Champagne just yet. 'The weather is looking pretty breezy and we’ve all packed last minute spare spinnaker poles, but I am most nervous about keeping my position in the race, trying to hold that and not doing anything stupid.'
Currently sitting in 10th on the leaderboard, 23 year old Sam is 1 minute and 41 seconds faster on overall cumulative elapsed time than two-time Vendée Globe winner Michel Desjoyeaux and nine minutes and fifteen seconds faster than double Solitaire winner and 2012/13 Vendée Globe runner up Armel Le Cleac'h - not a bad place to be for Sam, racing just his third Solitaire du Figaro.
Shaking off the 2013 Solitaire norm, the final leg of the four-stage race is set to be a windy one, with 30 knots of wind and 40 knots gusting forecast for the ‘last blast’ under spinnaker along the south coast of England, stealing the title away from Leg 3 as the ‘toughest leg yet’.
Unable to sleep for the excitement of a final sleigh ride through his home waters to the finish, an excited Nick, currently 20th overall, reported: 'It will be a technical race at first going round Chenal du Four, with lots of tidal gates probably spreading the fleet a little bit. There's not going to be many opportunities for sleep over this leg, maybe a bit on the beat up to Wolfe Rock, but this is going to be the toughest leg for sleep for sure. Got my Red Bulls lined up and then I’ll be holding on - it's going to be a wild ride down the south coast. I think we’ll be broken men arriving into Dieppe. I can't wait.'
'It's the last leg, so you can put absolutely everything into it- there is nothing we need to hold back and reserve,' an equally excitable Henry continued. 'I'm sure we'll all arrive over the finish line absolutely knackered.'
For Academy Rookies Jack and Ed, the final leg of the 1,938 mile race sees both sailors gunning for the Rookie win, Jack overall and Ed for the leg win, with Leg 4 offering a last chance to prove himself against the Figaro young guns: 'It’s going to be tough, but hopefully not as mentally as the other legs. I’m looking forward to stretching 37’s legs across the UK south coast and finally and hopefully coming away from the leg with a result I can be proud of.'
Despite his three hour lead and having the first British Solitaire du Figaro Rookie overall win at his fingertips, an ever composed Jack was calm and considered before the midday start and looking to sail the leg in true Bouttell style – in third gear, maybe cranking her up to fourth at the finish: 'I have got a nice buffer on the rest of the Rookies, but I'm just going to sail as I normally do, try to not break anything and not try to throttle back to much. It should be a good leg, the English Channel is looking pretty full on.'
On completing their windy dash across the British coastline, the already bruised skippers will face a final wet and wild two-sail reach back across the channel to finish line in Dieppe – with Henry having already warned his mother not to look at the forecast for the final day of sailing.
With a rough and ready leg ahead of the Artemis Offshore Academy Rookies and Graduates, let’s hope the skippers can continue on their path to bringing home some great British Solitaire du Figaro results. The fleet is set to arrive in Dieppe between Midnight and the early hours of Sunday 23rd of June.