Solitaire du Figaro 2015 – No one ever said that trying to do well in the French-dominated discipline of solo offshore racing would be easy. Although Britain has a long heritage in this part of the sport, the initiative has been held by the French in recent decades (not withstanding the exploits of certain outstanding British sailors like Dame Ellen MacArthur).
The aim of the Artemis Offshore Academy, set up in Cowes in 2010, was to right this wrong and bring a new generation of young British talent to bear on this most demanding and multi-faceted area of sailing. But good results were never going to come immediately.
Like a fine wine, an accomplished short-handed sailor, racing at the top-level takes years to develop and mature. He or she must combine natural talent and flair with hard work, both on and off the boat, and then the magical ingredient – experience.
Young sailors learn how to race alone offshore only by doing it, by making basic mistakes and learning from them and by building on a growing bank of experience that helps them sail at optimum pace for more and more of the time in all conditions. Learning to read the weather is another element that can only be perfected with practice along with race tactics and general personal management – just how do you get the right amount of food and sleep over five days racing non-stop miles from land in close proximity to other boats?
Each year since its inception, the Solitaire has been the main goal for current Artemis sailors and those who attended the Academy in earlier years. The reason being that the Figaro is the well-established route to the blue riband event in solo ocean racing – the Vendée Globe solo round the world race. Do well in the Solitaire du Figaro and you at least have a chance of hooking sponsorship for a Vendée campaign.
There have been some excellent results for British sailors in the past five years, but this summer’s performance by the Academy rookies and the alumni sailors, has undoubtedly been a step up and one that underlines that the long-term trend is heading in the right direction.
Consider that Alan Roberts at the helm of Magma Structures achieved the best ever result for a British skipper in the modern Solitaire du Figaro when coming ninth overall. Behind him, Jack Bouttell on GAC Concise was 10th while Sam Matson was three places back in 13th on Chatham. Two places behind him came Robin Elsey, sailing an Academy boat, who clinched the coveted top rookie prize, an achievement that indicates a bright future for the young man from Truro.
In addition to these solid performances, there were other moments of brilliance for the Brits in the four-stage solo grand-prix, not the least of which was Henry Bomby’s impressive fourth place on Rockfish Red in leg two from La Coruna to La Cornouaille. This was an outstanding result from a sailor noted for his inconsistency, but one that suggests he can go far if he manages to put a steady series together.
Roberts and Matson are year two alumni of the Academy, Bouttell in his third year. Clearly the combined body of knowledge among British Figarists, their growth in numbers and the ever-increasing bank of experience about all aspects of the game both among the sailors and their coaches, is starting to produce results. The British contingent are gradually moving up the Figaro peloton, something their French rivals generously acknowledged at the end of this year’s event.
Charles Darbyshire, the Academy Sailing Team Manager, says that he and the sponsors at Artemis always knew that this programme was a slow-burner. It would not produce results immediately, but if the funding remained in place and a steady stream of young talent was trained and nurtured, then the benefits would start to show.
“It’s how we saw it from day one,” said Darbyshire who was delighted with this year’s performance from British rookies and Academy alumni alike. “We knew it would never be an overnight success, in the same way as the Royal Yachting Association’s Olympic programme after 1996 took the time to mature. Our goal is to develop a panel of good talent and we will continue to do that and we are very lucky that Artemis has continued its funding all the way through the development of the programme. It takes such a long time to build a platform in a new sport – most people don’t have the time but Artemis has given us the time,” added Darbyshire.
Roberts is an interesting example of a highly talented sailor who has been learning the ropes of the solo game and has transformed his performance on the water. An accomplished dinghy racer, the modest and softly-spoken Roberts from Southampton is a former Merlin Rocket national champion and winner of the Endeavour Trophy – the champion of dinghy racing champions.
As such Roberts’s tactical know-how was excellent as were his boat-handling skills. But Roberts came to the Academy in 2013 with next to no experience of racing offshore, let alone on his own. He had never raced at night and the multiplicity of disciplines involved in running a 33ft one-design offshore were all new to him. Last year on his debut in the Solitaire du Figaro he struggled to bring his true talent to bear, as he tried to come to terms with new challenges. He finished last.
This year, it all began to click as work over the winter and the lessons of 18 months, both in the Academy and after it, began to bear fruit. Competitive at leg starts and in the early stages, Roberts noticed that he was falling away in the hours of darkness when he found it difficult to maintain his boat speed. So he set about giving himself the best chance to keep up. This meant getting more sleep in the day, eating properly ahead of sunset and preparing himself mentally to push hard through each night offshore.
“I’ve grown in confidence in this Solitaire,” said Roberts at the finish at Dieppe, having completed the 1,661-mile grand prix in 12 days, four hours and 14 minutes, just under seven hours behind the overall winner, Yann Elies. “I’m learning more, bit by bit. The starts are good for me due to my experience with dinghy sailing, but the rest of it I’m learning from the top guys. I’m pretty happy with the way I sailed – slowly creeping my way up through the fleet on both day and night.”
It is an exciting time in British short-handed sailing with a handful of talented young men now learning from each other and pushing each other as they make their way towards a possible tilt at the Vendée. Among those who raced in this year’s Figaro, Bouttell looks to have the temperament and skill set to go the distance, Matson is a proven and consistent performer while Elsey is an exciting new prospect, sailing on his wits, for want of experience. “I want to finish first!” was how he refreshingly summed up his intentions at the start in Bordeaux. And that is exactly what he did.
by Ed Gorman