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Internationals can call on different levels of experience as they take on La Solitaire du Figaro

by La Solitaire du Figaro 28 Aug 2020 23:40 PDT 30 August 2020
Alan Robers on Seacat Services during the 2nd stage of La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro 2019 © Alexis Courcoux

At the age of 30 Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) could hardly be called a La Solitaire old stager, but the top British racer who won the VIVI Trophy last year as the first non-French finisher, is actually starting his seventh consecutive La Solitaire du Figaro.

He lines up on the Baie de Saint-Brieuc on Sunday on the back of a strong second place earlier this month in the 360 mile Solo Guy Cotten.

Having come directly to the Figaro from top level dinghy racing in 2014 no other British solo sailor has taken on the pinnacle solo offshore racing challenge as many times.

Roberts says "I still feel early on in my career. When I started I had never sailed yachts, I had never sailed offshore and I had never sailed overnight. So for me it was learning all these things. When I look at my peers here a lot started in the Figaro having done much more offshore and yacht sailing."

Last year's 15th place finish for Roberts ranked as a disappointment as he had so often been fighting near the front of the fleet during what proved a particularly tough first edition for the Beneteau Figaro 3 but struggled for off the wind speed in particular conditions.

Looking relaxed Roberts recalls, "It has been a condensed season for obvious reasons. It would be good to have been able to do more training as it really feels like it has been race, race workshop, race, but I am not complaining. It is awesome to be getting out racing when no one else is able to, everyone else is on shore. We are lucky."

The second place is a confidence boost at the right time for him but the four stage 1850 miles La Solitaire is a three week marathon. He may be on good form but has learned to take nothing for granted, "I think the Figaro 3 is still so open. There are 20 guys who could finish in the top 5 or on the podium. There have been a couple of boats which have had a bit of a speed edge this year so far, whether that is down to sails or technique - Sam Goodchild and Tom Laperche in particular have stood out off the breeze in particular. As I have been putting up newer sails I have been going quicker."

After putting all his efforts with one sailmaker last year Roberts has cherry picked a quiver of what he feels are the best sails from the different lofts and so feels he has much more confidence in himself and his speed.

"I feel I am more consistent with my speed, last year I had some areas where I was really good but there were areas where I was really slow and that was the risk you take from doing something different from the fleet. This year I am more conservative and have what most people have with just some very small variations. It feels like a safer package."

"I feel good. But I felt good this time last year." Continues Roberts, "But last year we had not really had much time to test in different conditions. We spent half the race on spinnaker and I had a problem there. I am more in line with what the other guys have this time. I have taken less risk. A lot is down to technique off the breeze especially with the Kite and the Code Zero, that is where the gains are still to be made."

He concludes, "Every year I come here to learn. I want to come away from this event a better sailor having gained in confidence, having learned from mistakes and to have enjoyed the time on the water. But I only here because I want to win. The only reason I come to any sailing event is I want to win. I am also realistic in that I know that on my day I can be in the top three, but also you can say that about 20 others, on a bad day I can end up 15th to 20th

Irish Rookie Rumball Is Ready

At the other end of the spectrum of solo experience Ireland's newcomer Kenneth Rumball comes to La Solitaire not as the realisation of any longstanding ambition or desire for a big sailing adventure but very much as a means to an end.

He is one of the first of what is expected to be a growing number of international sailors moving to the Figaro Beneteau 3 as one of the best pathways into double handed offshore racing. An accomplished offshore racer and skipper from Dun Laoghaire on Dublin Bay, his original plan was a programme to get to the Mixed Double Handed Offshore Worlds with Irish Figaro racer Joan Mulloy.

The Irish qualification trials were to have been in the Figaro at the Solo Concarneau due to have been in May. Mulloy subsequently withdrew as she is expecting a baby at the end of this month and so Pam Lee joined.

They did one week's training before the COVID-19 lockdown and the double handed worlds were cancelled.

"So I was left looking at the season wondering what to do then, I did not want to waste the season and to get better at shorthanded and solo offshore sailing this is what you do." Recalls Rumball, 33, who is a qualified accountant and pro sailor who runs the Irish National Sailing and Powerboat School and a commercial division Irish National Marine Services.

While the 'Bizuth' division, competing for the rookie prize, is hotly contested usually the rookies have come from solo racing in other classes such as the Mini650 or Class 40. But Rumball's actual first solo race was the Solo Maitre CoQ three months ago and then the Solo Concarneau earlier this month.

Predictably he feels light on training with the fleet or a group. As soon as lockdown was lifted in Ireland they took their boat back to Ireland and practiced for five weeks to get used to the boat handling skills from late May until 16th June then he went to France and straight into the Solo Maitre Coq.

He made the lockdown work, though, doing French lessons, building up fitness and doing meteo lectures with Christian Dumard.

"To some degree we really made it good for us. We were stuck at home but did a lot to prepare ourselves for being here." Rumball recalls

"I am still a vertical learning curve. As a sailor I know I can get the boat to the Fastnet and back. I can do that. But getting the boat to the Fastnet and back and be racing in the fleet is a different thing entirely. But the whole objective is to finish, to get to the end and have learned and to enjoy it, a bit, and experience the French scene."

"If you were to ask, yes, Olympic selection is the long term goal." He acknowledges, "But it is one step at a time, but there are other sailors here agree, like Tom and Alan Robert agree that this is the best place to be to get better."

Rumball has had excellent help from North Sails in Ireland who have in turn ensured he has had good help and service from North Sails in France, so the Irish skipper has built some confidence in his speed and his set up.

Dolan Looking For Solid First Leg

Rumball's Irish compatriot Tom Dolan's two previous challenges on La Solitaire du Figaro have found the Irish sol racer fighting back after massively disappointing first legs. So while he might harbour high hopes of a finish in the top fifteen of this year's 35 boat fleet, 33 year old Dolan who is from County Meath but has lived in Concarneau for 11 years, is looking strictly short term, aiming to sail a solid, assured first leg to build on.

"I want to do a good first leg. That is the dream. The first two years my first legs have been a disaster. Last year I was in the west on the first leg (to Kinsale) and came in six or seven hours after the leaders. So right now I am just looking to do a good first leg and then take it from there." Dolan says resolutely.

When last year was all about learning the boat and compressing as much training in as possible before the start, the skipper of Smurfit Kappa has taken time to significantly improve his strength and stamina and to bolster his mental toughness.

"I have worked with the fitness coach in Concarneau three times a week and I really notice the difference. Don't get me wrong I did stuff before, but it really was not enough of a priority. It came after the boat work and sailing, way down the list. And I really do notice the fatigue taking longer to affect me." He says.

He has also worked on keeping to his game plan more and not letting frustration boil over into making risky decisions. Racing the Drheam Cup two handed with Mini Transat winner François Jambou gave him the chance to focus solely on his strategic decision making.

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