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A Biscay showdown will decide the 53rd La Solitaire du Figaro title

by La Solitaire du Figaro 4 Sep 15:11 BST
53rd La Solitaire du Figaro © Alexis Courcoux

In beautiful September sunshine and a light SE'ly breeze the 32 strong fleet of the 53rd La Solitaire du Figaro left the high cliffs and beautiful beaches of Royan, and the strong tidal currents at the mouth of the Gironde estuary behind them Sunday lunchtime as they started the race's 640 nautical miles third and final stage.

Ahead is a complex finale. With a fast, squally, rainy 270 miles downwind last leg from the last turning mark of the race, by Gijon on the north coast of Spain, back across Biscay, many observers consider this stage might already be shaped by the outward track through a series of light wind transition zones and acceleration areas on the outwards, descent of the Bay of Biscay.

Le Havre's mild, slightly reserved deep-thinking rookie Guillaume Pirouelle (Région Normandie), leads the general classification by just over 14 minutes going into the stage, ahead of Tom Laperche (Région Bretagne-CMB Performance). The two have been close rivals in training at Brittany's ultra elite Pôle Finisterre as well as pressing each other hard on the Figaro Beneteau circuit races this season.

Indeed, as it to give a foretaste of a possible title battle, they were locked together side-by-side as they left the final mark of today's sunshine showcase three-buoy, five nautical miles inshore circuit which was watched by hundreds of spectators. Even on this very first visit to Royan in La Solitaire's history of more than 50 years, hundreds turned out to enjoy the early Autumn departure spectacle.

International duo Pep Costa (Team Play to B-Terravia) of Spain and Ireland's Tom Dolan (Smurfit Kappa-Kingspan) clearly set out their own individual intentions ahead of this last proper, offshore open sea stage. The 23 year old Catalan who was tipped for a top ten overall finish has had a disappointing event, lying 27th overall. But he sped round the opening circuit today and left the Gironde in third place. Dolan, fifth overall, fifth on the last leg, was fourth at the final buoy this afternoon. A notoriously modest starter round the high pressure inshore circuits, this is by far Dolan's best yet, leaving ahead of the duelling Pirouelle and Laperche.

A full Irish breakfast cooked in the early morning by his partner seemed to do the trick for Dolan as he was fourth to the first mark around a short, but very tricky, tidal coastal course.

The first 61 miles downwind leg to Arcachon should see the leaders round there around midnight or on the very early hours of Monday. And the winners are expected into Saint Nazaire Thursday morning.

Laperche, poised to pounce and confident offshore as well as on the coastal legs

Hotly tipped by three times La Solitaire winner Michel Desjoyeaux during the Royan stop, second placed Tom Laperche, is up for the fight, poised and ready to take on the race leading rookie Pirouelle. On the dock this morning the more experienced Laperche said:

"Just like on the coastal courses, I have already made good races offshore, I feel ready. I'm leaving 14 minutes behind Guillaume Pirouelle, which bodes well for a great battle for the end, just as we've already had in training and pre-season races. To tell the truth, I don't know if I prefer to be hunter or hunted, both have worked for me so far. I like to adapt to each situation, it doesn't change much in my way of doing things on the water. On the first two stages, I was always really good on three-quarters of the course, and then there were major re-sets which changed the situation at the end. I am especially happy to have remained at the forefront each time. Even if the stage victories eluded me in Port-La-Forêt and Royan, I won't be changing my way of sailing. Each time, I didn't miss anything really and if it is, it will work on this last course. I prefer not to ask myself too many questions and continue to trust myself, while having fun; that's how I am. I have sailed a lot on François Gabart's trimaran Ultim, and I am convinced that that brings me a lot. It is one of the fastest boats on the planet, which requires a real physical commitment in the maneuvers; psychologically also in terms of concentration to sail at very high speeds. Inevitably when I come back to the Figaro, it seems easier to me, at least in the management of the boat. On the whole I was always looking for speed, and here the whole race is about not losing meters, and that's what I will be keen to do on this last course. I feel I am one of the best equipped to face the conditions we expect."

Weather...not going to be easy and with a sting in the tail!

A small depression will move across the south of the region which should generate N'ly winds as the fleet accelerate down the course toward Arcachon and the turning mark there which is about 65 miles from the Royan start line. As the leaders round at about midnight they should be seeing a decent 15kts of breeze. But after that it becomes quite messy with small, mobile depressions and high pressure cells creating very different, but quite changeable conditions either side of the rhumb line on this 255 miles leg down to the Sud Farallones cardinal buoy near Gijon. North of the direct route they should see an E to SE'ly wind of about 7-11kts but Monday will be day of head scratching transitions as the wind is expected to veer all the way through south to W'ly at maybe 5-10kts although there will be notable soft areas which will need to be avoided.

But as they get towards the Spanish mark they will become more and more influenced by this big depression which will be in the SW of Ireland. The weather becomes more unstable with an initial S'ly of 10-15 with stormy squalls bringing gusts well over 20kts. As they approach the turn they will start to benefit from the lee of the Spanish coast on Tuesday evening and into the night.

Then the climb back 270 miles across the Bay of Biscay to Saint Nazaire should be completed at high speeds in difficult downwind conditions with frequent showers and big, active squalls. This, of course, will require a high level of continuous focus otherwise small boat handling mistakes from the very tired skippers, running on adrenalin, can prove very expensive this late in the three stage race. Some models have the winds to 30kts but the latest files pre-start suggested perhaps a little bit less.

Alan Roberts (GBR, Seacat Services) said: "This should be a fun stage especially the blast back from Spain but it will be tricky getting down to Arcachon with thermal breezes and how to line up and then Biscay is tricky with a few features going to Spain. The general theme is knowing exactly how far north or south to go, that will be the key. It is unsure because it is pressure dependent. The wind shifts to the right as we go across the Bay, so it is how high do you go, then there is a gybe across a ridge and then it is really how you play the features as they come across to you. It is whether there might be a route through on the rhumb line or there will be much more pressure a few miles to the north, these are the key questions. It seems that further south the rhumb line is light and pretty high risk. But there could be little avenues through. I think this, the main upwind across the Bay of Biscay, will be the most important. It could be the case that all the top boats cover each other and stay as a pack, maybe that will open opportunities. But I think options can open up quick. The order can be set at Farallones but then coming downwind in a bit of breeze it is whether you put up the big kite or the small kite, whether you have the energy to be at the helm for 24 hours, when you get sleep...making your gybes, or you could write off the big kite....it is going to be exciting."

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