Solitaire du Figaro fourth and final 430 mile leg starts tomorrow, Sunday 21st August, from Les Sables d’Olonne (France), home to the start of the legendary solo, non-stop round the world Vendée Globe race.
For the British Artemis Offshore Academy sailors Sam Goodchild (Artemis), Phil Sharp (The Spirit of Independence) and Conrad Humphreys (DMS) this has been their first experience of the Solitaire du Figaro; however, for Nigel King (E-Line Orthodontics) it is his third time in this highly competitive race.
As expected, it has been a steep learning curve for the first-timers, as they deal with the challenges of racing solo in such a competitive field on short and demanding offshore courses. Not surprisingly, some harsh lessons have been learnt along the way which is all part of the learning process and the main reason for being part of the Solitaire du Figaro as the British sailors strive to carve out their own solo careers.
Sharp, who has competed in other demanding solo races like the solo transatlantic Route du Rhum, has been placed in the top ten for most of the legs so far and is chasing the top spot in the ‘Rookie’ class: ' There’s only 40 minutes (between me and the leader of the rookie class) and a lot could happen in this last leg,' explains Sharp. 'If you miss a tide gate then potentially you could lose two hours, so it’s going to be important to be in touch with the front of the fleet as we go around and capitalise on any change in the weather we see.'
This leg takes the fleet of 46 one-design Figaro boats from Les Sables d’Olonne around the Brittany coast to finish in Dieppe next Wednesday. The fleet of solo offshore sailors will battle it out against each other for quickest time with the winner of the Solitaire du Figaro being the sailor with the lowest accumulated time after competing in the four legs.
Looking forward to the next leg Humphreys explained: 'The final leg is an epic coastal challenge. Both Ille de Yeu and Belle Isle must be left to port which limits the option to head more offshore and keeps the fleet together close to the coast. The main decision will be when to leave the North Brittany coast to head offshore towards Alderney as the routing suggests, although the weather models are not in agreement.'
Spending a few days in Les Sables d’Olonne has had Humphreys’ reminiscing about his previous participation in the Vendée Globe whilst the other three can only dream about their long-term aim of competing in a future edition of the Vendée Globe. 'It was the start of the Vendée race in 2004 that really inspired me to try to do a Figaro,' said King. 'I want to do a competitive Vendée Globe campaign in the future - that’s always been the ambition from day one. There’s definitely a different atmosphere at this port, there’s a special connection to offshore sailing here. Everywhere you go there are videos, photographs, the restaurants and bars have pictures of Vendée Globe skippers, so it’s a nice pick-you-up to everyone who aspires to do that race.'
The month-long, four-leg Solitaire du Figaro is seen as the main training ground for sailors wanting to enter the Vendée Globe in years to come. It’s the biggest race 21-year old Sam Goodchild, the youngest competitor in the fleet and winner of the Artemis Offshore Academy scholarship, has ever done.
'It’s good to be racing against some of the top guys who are here and learning from them, it just makes the experience a whole lot more beneficial for me. It’s not just another sailing regatta, it’s got so much more to it than that - learning about your boat, learning about yourself, learning about everything really. It’s got so much more to it than I ever imagined, it’s gone way over my expectations.'
Britain’s Samantha Davies, who competed in the last Vendée Globe capturing the hearts of the public and media in both the UK and France along the way, has also competed in the Solitaire du Figaro four times. She and Nigel King both achieved a sixth place leg finish – the best result for the British in this French dominated race. Davies appreciates first-hand what the sailors are going through: 'For me it’s probably the hardest sailing race that’s available on the planet. The fact that it’s single-handed obviously makes it pretty extreme to start with. But I think it’s the intensity of the race, you’re just accumulating fatigue, mental and physical tiredness from thinking about tactics, strategy and weather all the time.'