The French, hosts and organisers of La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro, have a sailing expression, ‘un départ à l’anglaise’ which describes a fast, downwind start under spinnaker.
But top British solo racer Alan Roberts gave the phrase a new meaning this afternoon off Le Havre when he lead the French favourites at the head of the 36 strong fleet through the first hours of this 49th edition of the annual multi-stage French offshore racing classic.
In brisk, boisterous SW’ly winds which gusted to 20kts, and under a grey sky which foretold a fast, muscular evening and first night at sea, 28 year-old Roberts (Seacat Services) took the lead early in the opening eight miles circuit – which mainly benefits the assembled spectators – before heading north 75 nautical miles across the channel. The race turns west at the Pullar mark – SSW of Selsey Bill, the first big turn of the 570 nautical miles first stage. Roberts was first at the opening ‘classification’ mark of the course – the Radio France Buoy.
A past dinghy racer, who races across the channel to pass close to his home club Hayling Island tonight, he won multiple British titles in several different classes before turning to solo offshore racing in 2014. He finished ninth in his second attempt at La Solitaire in 2015 but has not yet been able to replicate that level of overall finish since in the pinnacle annual event of French solo racing.
Some five hours after the 1300hrs CET start he was locked in a tight, fast spinnaker reaching battle in fourth or fifth place, some 1.4 nautical miles behind leaders Gildas Mahé (Breizh Cola) and Anthony Marchand (Groupe Royer). The leaders are expected to round the Pullar mark around 2100hrs CET (2000hrs BST) this Sunday evening.
Before docking out from Le Havre Roberts told his supporters “The aim is to stay in the game.” ” The key points really will be the strong winds heading to the Owers buoy this afternoon and tonight and then working the tide in the east of the Isle of Wight. Thereafter it will be how you deal with the high pressure ridge before Wolf Rock.” ” In my mind these are the two keys to this leg, after this it becomes more about straight line reaching and boat speed. We could see some big splits on the beat to Wolf Rock.”
While Roberts will be pleased to have made a solid start, as did his compatriot Hugh Brayshaw, (Kamat) the Offshore Academy racer who was lying in 21st in the early evening. But Irish Solitaire debutant Thomas Dolan’s dream of winning the rookie division on Smurfit Kappa seems likely to be over after just 90 minutes of the first stage. He was just passing the Radio France buoy when he realised he had broken his starboard spreader (one of the main supporting struts which tensions the mast stay) at the root. The Solitaire represents the 30 year old’s childhood dream, held since he started sailing a wooden dinghy on an Irish lake as a youngster.
He plans to repair the spreader and head directly Saint Brieuc (west of Saint Malo) where ready for the start of Stage 2. His elapsed time will be scored as that of the last skipper to finish plus an extra two hours.
Dolan recalled, “I did not broach or anything. There was a bit of a thud maybe when I was just sailing along. I could see the leeward shroud flapping and knew what had happened. I am so disappointed. It is a bit tough. I have never, ever given up a race before. And so as far as it goes it is game over, the ball is burst as we say.”
British racer Nick Cherry (Redshift) had to turn and slow to deal with a rudder issue and there were fears he might stop but he repaired and was racing in 34th place making ten knots this evening.
The fleet will have a tough evening and first night at sea with a warm front bringing gusting winds of 35-40kts at times, the breeze veering from the SW progressively to the NW, making the spinnaker reach ever tighter before turning upwind. But by Monday morning the breeze will drop as the high pressure resumes, a ridge developing which may be the key strategic test, the weather models diverging to suggest classic choices of either playing the English coastline in the light thermal breezes or tacking across the channel to Alderney and the Cotentin peninsula to approach Wolf Rock from the south. After Wolf Rock the course doubles back 90 miles to Portsall off the Breton peninsula, then with another 165 miles to passes Guernsey and finish off Saint-Brieuc.
Light winds and strong tides means the order may still be reshuffled close to the finish.
Hugh Brayshaw (GBR) Kamat: “It looks pretty breeze on for the next 12 hours or so and it looks fast. The aim is to just get through that and be in touch. I feel a bit nervous as you’d expect when it is the big event you prepare all year for and you know you’re going into some big winds and waves. The first few hours we will see 15-20kts and then when we get offshore we will see more wind, up to 30-40kts. It will be kites up and about managing the boat, managing the speed. You just don’t want to break anything. Fortunately it will be daylight when the winds are at their freshest. The SW’ly will get to 35kts and then swing W about 8pm. I am fit and don’t think I could be more ready for it.”
Alexis Loison (Custo Pol): “On this course there are elements of coastal and offshore racing and so there will be something for all tastes and weather preferences. There is a big charge downwind to join Owers, a long upwind with lots of options before a calm and then the breeze filling again at Wolf Rock. We have been working up to this for a year and so the key is to sail steadily and stay in touch with the pack.”
by La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro