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Low risk strategy for Tom Dolan as Stage 1 of the 51st La Solitaire du Figaro beckons

by Tom Dolan Racing 29 Aug 2020 09:05 PDT
Tom Dolan, the Irish skipper of Smurfit Kappa © Thomas Deregnieaux

Bearing in mind that in both 2018 and 2019 his two first legs proved to be what he still describes as 'disastrous' Irish solo racer Tom Dolan will start the 51st edition of La Solitaire du Figaro on Sunday focusing on minimising any tactical risks and trying to stay with the main 'peloton' on the 642 nautical miles stage around the Fastnet Rock which starts and finishes on the Baie-de-Saint-Brieuc.

The annual French multi-stage solo race will prove to be one of the only major offshore sailing races to happen in Europe on a 2020 sporting calendar blighted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Strict protocols have been in force in the picturesque seaside holiday town Saint Brieuc, which lies to the west of Saint Malo, with masks required in all public places on the seafront and around the La Solitaire du Figaro race village. Skipper presentations have been minimised and the sailors safety and weaher briefings have been on line.

Dolan, sailing Smurfit Kappa, joins the field of 35 sailors from six different nations knowing that the winner of solo racing's pinnacle event, which accumulates elapsed time over four legs and more than 1850 miles of sailing, is almost always the sailor who makes the fewest mistakes.

He is looking to start cleanly on Sunday afternoon and employ low risk options, playing the long game and stick to his 'roadbook' - the pre leg strategy - watching how the weather options develop and not taking any early flyers.

"Last two years I have been out of it after the first leg." Dolan notes, " So I am just looking to be still in the game when we get back to Saint Brieuc, I am taking no risks, stay with the fleet. To be fair there is not too much risk to be taken but you can't go too extreme on the first weather front. Just keep a cool head and remember it is a long race."

The first leg is a straightforward passage out to Fastnet and back with no waypoints or marks of the course other than Ireland's iconic sail racing milestone. Racing last year to Kinsale there were many of the top sailors punished for moving too far west in the early stages of the Celtic Sea anticipating the breeze to move west. It clocked the other way and they finished hours after the stage winners.

Patience may well prove a virtue on this first leg as the weather situation will promote a bungee elastic effect as the leaders stretch away then are caught up in lighter winds towards the finish. The strong tides and complex winds on the approaches to the Bay of Saint Brieuc mean there may well be a sting in the tail and the leg will not be won or lost until the end.

The 33 year old Dolan explains the weather outlook for the first leg, "There is a big ridge of high pressure coming in from the west which we have to get across. It arrives more or less at the same time as the tide switches, so we will get light winds and tide against us off Roscoff. Then the wind comes in from the SW during Sunday night. If you get drifted north by the tide you will get the wind later and so you will have to be careful there not to get left behind. Then the SW comes in and it will be rich get richer, the lead boats will go faster and faster. And then a big frontal system comes in when the wind shifts from the S to the NW in a very short space of time during Monday afternoon which will be interesting. You either cross it early or try and stay ahead of it. And the leaders will extend. Around the Fastnet there will be a new depression coming in with SW'ly but there is still a ridge over the entrance to the Channel and so it won't be over until the finish line."

The first stage is expected to see 12-15knot N'ly winds at the start. There is no prologue circuit which was always a La Solitaire tradition, racing to the Radio France buoy being a spectacle for shoreside watchers.

"I feel good because the start is open and there is no opening circuit to the Radio France buoy for spectators which was always my early downfall. So it should be good for me." Dolan acknowledges his recent results have been encouraging, "It is probably good that I made a bit of a mess of the first race this season and cracked up a bit because I realised I needed to work on my head, my mental game and since then I have been better."

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.

The first 642 miles stage starts and finishes in Saint Brieuc, the winners due in Wednesday. The second stage is 497 miles to Dunkirk via Wolf Rock, the third is 504 miles to Saint Nazaire at the entrance to the Loire estuary and the final sprint is 183 nautical miles off Saint Nazaire.

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