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La Solitaire du Figaro - All set for final stage

by La Solitaire du Figaro on 8 Jul 2012
La Solitaire du Figaro 2012 Alexis Courcoux
The third leg of Solitaire du Figaro - Eric Bompard Cachemire sets sail from St Gilles Croix de Vie on France's Atlantic coast tomorrow, Sunday, at 1300 local (1100 UTC). Whilst the premier event for the Figaro class traditionally is comprised of four legs, this year the race has been reduced to three, so the final stage from the Côte de Lumière to Cherbourg-Octeville represents the last chance for the 37 solo sailors to make an impression on the results table.

The overall lead of Groupe Queguiner/Journal des entreprises skipper Yann Elies, standing at 30 minutes and 17 seconds is going to be tough for anyone to beat given that in La Solitaire competitors typically streaming across the finish line of each leg a few minutes, if not seconds, apart. In addition the 38 year old former Vendee Globe skipper is certain to be sailing conservatively, unwilling to put a step out of place.

The course for leg 3 isn't a straightforward clockwise lap of the French coast, but involves two Channel crossings and taking on the strong tides along the south coast of England and the Channel.

First the skippers must sail up the south Brittany coast, the third time they have competed in these waters in this Solitaire du Figaro. According to Artemis 77 skipper Nick Cherry, this stretch is going to be a fetch, the only options being whether to leave Belle Ile to port or starboard. On Sunday night the wind is forecast to veer from the west into the northwest and lighten, so the boats are likely to be upwind briefly to the Raz de Seine before cracking sheets as they head north for the Chenal du Four, the rocky passage between the northwestern tip of France and the island of Ouessent.

Then the boats must cross the English Channel to Wolf Rock, four miles southwest of Land's End. This is on a bearing of 344 deg and according to Cherry the forecasts differ over the point of sail they will be on. 'The GFS model has us reaching across, but some of the local ones have it as more of a beat, so it could be wide open. It is a 100 mile leg so there is the potential to get quite a lot of separation there.'

Overnight on Monday the skippers can expect big shifts as the wind backs into the west before returning to the northwest. Sailing up the UK coast they must tackle passing various headlands and the accelerated tide around them, starting with the Lizard and then Start Point off the Devonshire coast as they head for leg 3's penultimate turning mark, Needles Fairway buoy, three miles southwest of the Needles, at the western end of the Isle of Wight. 'There was going to be a buoy keeping us in at Weymouth, but we haven't got that now, so we are free to go where we like now all the way to the Needles. It is probably going to be port tack VMG type leg,' predicts Cherry.

So local knowledge might come into play for the Artemis Offshore Academy sailors? 'The bit nearer the Solent I have done a lot there; around Start Point and the Lizard less so,' says Cherry. 'The guys who have done a lot of Solitaires will have done that once a year at least, so there is not a huge advantage there. But I have probably got more experience there than the rest of the rookies and I know what everything looks like and I'm fairly confident around the shore.'

If it is upwind crossing the Channel to Wolf Rock, then there could be passing lanes there but Cherry says sailing along the south coast of the UK they also have the choice of going offshore to find more breeze and sailing inshore to make best use of the tide, when it is favourable. Artemis Offshore Academy coach Marcus Hutchinson, himself a veteran of La Solitaire du Figaro, observes that on leg three, conditions are likely to be similar to the first two legs, with the sky overcast and there being little chance of a sea breeze developing close to shore. So playing that tactical option is effectively ruled out.

From Needles Fairway Buoy, it is a 60 mile reach due south, back across the Channel to the finish. At present the forecast indicates this to be in a dying westerly. 'The wind will be fairly light by then and with the big tide ripping across there it could make things tricky at the finish,' warns Cherry.

Personally Cherry, who is gunning to be the first rookie in this year's La Solitaire says he is 'not overjoyed' by his results so far. At present he is in third place in the rookie standings, two hours and six minutes behind leader Thomas Normand and his Financière de l'Echiquier. In St Gilles Croix de Vie his time has been made no easier by having a stomach bug. 'I have spent the whole time in my room in bed with a bottle of water and some drugs. I am through the worst of it now, so hopefully it won't affect me too much. At least I have had plenty of sleep, so that's not an issue.'

Sailing his first Figaro, Cherry, a three time British Match Racing National Champion, is taking notes about whose who are doing well. He's been very impressed with race leader Yann Elies' ability to sail through the fleet seemingly regardless of the conditions. 'He hasn't got the shiniest boat, but his sails are quite nice, and he has done it so many times,' says Cherry. Then it is down to managing your tiredness, having the confidence to how long you sleep and when – and the only way to learn this is from experience.

While Cherry is hoping for a better result he has his fingers crossed too for Artemis team mate Henry Bomby, at 21 years old, the youngest in the fleet, who suffered from an autopilot problem on the last leg. 'He had shocker. I know he will do better in this next one,' Cherry concludes. La Solitaire website

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