La Solitaire du Figaro International Rookies' Mid-Term Report
Thirty-three-year-old Italian-American Francesca Clapcich (Fearless-State Street Marathon Sailing) was an Olympic sailor who went to two Olympic Games and was 49er FX World Champion in 2015 before she raced the last Volvo Ocean Race with Dee Caffari and Nicolas Lunven on Turn the Tide on Plastic. She only took up short handed sailing two years ago when she and Rhode Islander Jesse Fielding paired up to the campaign for the proposed mixed doubles offshore Olympic discipline. They have trained together extensively at home on the Figaro Beneteau 3 but only managed a couple of months of training in France before the start of this race. Fielding, 34, came through the Morning Light offshore training programme but has gone on to race most of the blue water fully crewed classics but is new to solo sailing.
England's 26-year-old David Paul (Just a drop) graduated through mid-level dinghy racing to compete on the RORC crewed races out of the Solent with some success. His smart move has been transitioning to learning his solo racing in a French programme with the Team Vendée Formation out of Les Sables d'Olonne. And Pep Costa, 22, from the seaside resort of Casteldellels, just west of Barcelona is a successful Mini sailor from the Catalan capital's FNOB project. He started in the Figaro Beneteau 3 in March but immediately did the Transat en Double with Will Harris and so has maximised his miles before solo training. He is the best placed if the international rookies so far after finishing 19th on the second leg.
Here are their thoughts at half way round the four stage 2500 miles course :
Francesca Clapcich (ITA/USA Fearless-State Street Marathon Sailing): "This is the hardest racing I've ever done. It is amazing how difficult this race is. The 34 skippers who do this race give everything from start to finish. They never give up, even a metre here or there. It's very hard to participate, especially for the rookies. We didn't really have the opportunity to train much in France and for me to compare my speed to other boats. This is what makes it really difficult for me because sailing the boat to the maximum of its potential requires so much effort. And that energy is sapped so much it is hard to have much left to develop a better strategy. That was especially hard on this second stage ended up behind at some crucial passages and ended up there after the tide turned. Sometimes I found myself sailing hard and fast just to tread water. At one time I tacked out and back four times to be back to the same rock. God I hated that rock! And that just about brings you to tears. It is so brutal. And as soon as we sleep, we are losing ground. But there have been some really magical moments like during the downwind to the Rochebonne plateau at the start of the second stage. The feeling of speed and power was fantastic. It was really great sailing. I like to really plan, to prepare myself before the stages, to think about the strategy that I will put in place during the race. The Solitaire du Figaro is for me a race of extremes where emotions range from laughter to tears. Even though I am generally happy with the way I managed my sleep on these first two stages I was really, really reaching deep into my resources, I no longer heard the alarm and was dreaming that I was ashore. But I was sailing and that caused a little panic when I woke up. The exhaustion sometimes blurs the lines between dream and reality."
Jesse Fielding (USA, Opportunity-State Street Marathon Sailing): "It is both better and worse than I anticipated in different ways. The on-board challenges, the list of them is everything I thought it would be. The load on each aspect is five times what I thought it would be and they come at you all the time, the psychological load is there all the time. In one word it is relentless. You have to manage that influx of stimuli all the time, and you have to prioritise. Some longer trips even without the push of racing would have helped me a lot. I don't come from a solo background and so more solo passages, up and down channels for example, would just have made it better. You can never to enough passages like that.
As a Solitaire rookie and a solo sailing rookie there is always a level of underlying stress, there is the 'shit here I am on my own, there are rocks and buoys and I just need to be sailing safe as a safe navigator' all the time and then there is racing. I need to make sure that I am in safe places all the time, there is a constant stress level. But it is getting better all the time. We started this two years ago double handed and now we are single handed in Fécamp. I want to do more single handed and double handed sailing but with no double handed offshore going to the Olympics our sponsorship ends at the end of La Solitaire, we both want to go on, But this was a new realm for sailing and so not being in the Olympics it is a big miss for the sport of sailing. At home this is still very niche but there is a growing interest for sure, and everyone we explain the niche to gets it. The momentum that is growing around short-handed sailing is a positive things, it really is."
Pep Costa (ESP, Cybele Vacances-Play to B): "Actually I am happy with my race so far. In most respects it has gone better than expected but it really is an incredible race. It is very intense, you are full on busy all the time. I have had many good moments, I like the close racing when you are with a group and when I made my own decision to go north of Alderney on that last leg and made some gains to get back to the group, that was a good moment. It was stressful. But then to be sailing alongside good guys like Tom Dolan and Nils Palmieri was so good. To be fair I did as much sailing as was possible since I started into the Figaro 3 in March but I will have only done maybe 20 days solo in total and so I am really looking forwards to a winter of training. But I did the Transat en Double with Will and that was invaluable. My worst moment was nearly losing the big kite on the first downwind on the first leg. That was super tough. I ended up at the back of the pack. I just want to keep learning right now and my aim is to do better on each successive leg, which I have managed to do. That's the goal."
David Paul (GBR, Just a drop) (ed note: he had to retire from the first leg after becoming entangled in a discarded fishing net, ropes and buoys): "Well fishing nets notwithstanding it is going well. I had some small damage to the Code Zero early in the second leg which was me being an idiot but you live and learn. I am happy with my decision making and have been fast enough. I have been getting decent starts and now the objective is to just be able to hang on at the front for a bit longer and a bit longer and make fewer mistakes. It is a long way up this road though. I have done all I could since I started in January and don't feel like I could have given it more. But the thing is I start out with zero boat handling experience whereas the French all get a bit and then most of them go through the CMB or Macif or talent identification programmes so they start a little bit ahead of us. I am not whingeing but that is a fact. And on this first time on the race first of all you are learning what you have to learn. I have a long list of things to work on, better light winds set up, better downwind VMG modes, there are dozens of things. And this becomes addictive, already it is an itch you have to scratch again. And meantime I feel like I had my first dose of bad luck but I love being out there, I love sailing and so that was a little setback, I feel like I have paid at least some of my dues."