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Early indication of Figaro form ahead of The Solitaire URGO Le Figaro

by François Quiviger 15 May 13:30 BST 27 May - 30 June 2019
Loick Peyron - FigaroBeneteau3 - The Solitaire URGO Le Figaro © Christophe Launay

For the solo sailors working up to the start of The Solitaire URGO Le Figaro, which sets sail from Nantes on Sunday June 2nd, this past week has been mostly about rest and recovery. The demands of the first two events for the new class of Figaro Bénéteau 3, the two-handed Sardinha Cup followed by the Solo Maitre Coq, having taken a toll on both bodies and boats.

In fact, the mental and physical fatigue has been building steadily since the first 45 of the new foil assisted designed one designs were handed over in mid January. Since then the solo racers and their teams have been at full stretch; fitting out, optimising, training and racing as they prepare for the 50th anniversary edition of The Solitaire URGO Le Figaro, which is set to feature a virtual 'who's who' of French solo ocean racing.

The inaugural race for the new VPLP designed replacement for the Figaro 2 was the Sardinha Cup, a new double handed race which was sailed out of Saint Gilles Croix de Vie on the French Vendée coast. Featuring three races during the first 12 days of April - a short offshore and two longer Solitaire type stages the Sardinha Cup was won by three times Solitaire champion Yann Eliès sailing with Briton Sam Davies on Saint Michel. The top international finisher in the 34 boat fleet was Ireland's Tom Dolan in 14th, sailing Smurfit Kappa with Damian Foxall.

The first solo race on the new, faster lighter Figaro Bénéteau 3, which features asymmetric spinnakers and a Code Zero headsail, was the Solo Maitre Coq. This brought a whole new set of challenges, not least the demands of manoeuvres and sail changes in solo mode in full race conditions. Raced out of Les Sables d'Olonne, there were two inshore race days followed by an offshore race of just under 400 miles which saw the fleet race through three nights and three days.

The Solo Maitre Coq saw the return to the class of Vendée Globe winners Michel Desjoyeaux and Armel Le Cléac'h among a 47-strong fleet including most of the sailors who will compete in The Solitaire URGO Le Figaro.

Le Cléac'h has adapted quickly to the new boat and finished second in the first inshore race and 21st in the second inshore race which was won by Eliès, with Jérémie Beyou second on Charal. On the long offshore Le Cléac'h led through the latter stages of the race but dropped to fifth during the last two legs. Martin Le Pape (Skipper Macif 2017) triumphed on the long offshore but overall victory went to Les Sables d'Olonne based Xavier Macaire (Groupe SNEF). Top international finisher was Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) in 14th.

Macaire, who finished third in the Sardinha Cup with young Achille Nebou, has marked himself out as one to watch in what promises to be an epic Solitaire URGO Le Figaro. Of the new challenges which will prevail over the four stages of The Solitaire, Macaire says: "We have learned from these races that the key things will be when and how to use or not use the foils and the process of making smooth manoeuvres and transitions with the sails.

"Selecting the right sail at the right time will be vital," he continued. "And between now and the start of the Solitaire the gains can be made by training these manoeuvres and refining the equipment. And the new boats are much more challenging physically and so we will see bigger speed differences between the boats and that will make for potentially gaps."

Banque Populaire sailor Armel Le Cléac'h is largely of the same view as Macaire: "The Figaro Bénéteau 3 is quite lively even in light winds thanks to the large asymmetric spinnaker. From 15 knots of wind, the sensations are great with the foils and you can easily reach fast speeds. In Figaro 2, we all knew all the little details on the boats and went at the same speeds. With the Figaro 3 we have to learn again from the beginning, trying to find the little details that make the difference, especially since there are so many different settings.

"Nobody has found the keys yet to make the boat go best in all the different conditions. That will be the challenge on La Solitaire," summarised Le Cleac'h.

Three times winner of The Solitaire Yann Elies was recognised during the Sardinha Cup as making big gains because he could sail a lower, faster mode which no other sailors have mastered. But Elies was not so good on the long offshore on the Solo Maitre Coq when he finished 21st, leaving him 12th overall, one place behind veteran Loïck Peyron. Taking a view of the learnings so far Eliès reports: "The boat is super hard physically, I am sure we will suffer more on this Figaro 3 because it is new to us. There are still refinements to made in the ergonomics, we will sort those in time but not for the Solitaire."

Speaking on the challenges of the Solitaire, Eliès continued: "We have not seen anything yet on the pre-season races. We were two up on the Sardinha and the long race of the Solo Maitre Coq was only like a short stage of the Solitaire URGO. Here we will have to do that four times with longer legs. There are plenty of surprises to come. We are all just taking ownership of the boat and learning together. But after these first two races, I really feel the need to take care of myself and that's what I'm working on right now, to be as physically ready as possible to keep pace with the Solitaire."

He concludes: "Here it is exciting because things are much more open. The gaps are open and closed very quickly because the boat accelerates faster. And the psychological aspect will surely be more important than before."

2,130 nautical miles of challenging offshore racing around some of Europe's roughest waters await the Figaro skippers between Nantes, Kinsale (Ireland), Roscoff and Dieppe in what is the longest course in the races history.

Owned and organised by OC Sport's French subsidiary OC Sport Penduick, The Solitaire URGO Le Figaro is one of the world's toughest sailing competitions. Fiercely competitive, the race is recognised as the unofficial world championship of solo offshore racing, with the course taking just over a month to complete.

Preparing to rise to the challenge are 49 of the world's top solo sailors, including six former winners, fresh young talent and a strong foreign contingent making for an exceptional line-up. And if the pre-season races are anything to go by, there could well be some surprise results on the water.

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