One Final Fastnet Ultra Marathon To Decide La Solitaire du Figaro
Corentin Horeau (Mutuelle Bleue pour l'Institut Curie) led the fleet out of Morlaix Bay this afternoon at the start of one of the longest legs in the recent history of the French annual multi stage solo offshore race, an epic 685 miles Stage 4 taking the 34 racers to the Fastnet Rock and back to the 52nd La Solitaire du Figaro's final finish line in Saint Nazaire on the Loire-Atlantic coast.
The stage promises to be long, mostly slow and very complex. Weather routing experts variously predict the first boats finishing any time between late Thursday and late Friday. Some models even run into Saturday. Besides the very slack pressure gradient over the Celtic Sea and the Channel meaning mostly light winds, there will be a particularly challenging low-pressure trough descending from the Fastnet rock Tuesday morning which might split the fleet.
After the 270 miles run and reach passing the Scillies and Lands End under big spinnakers the fleet leaders might be blessed with a favourable timing which allows them to transition to decent downwind conditions back towards the French coast if they come away from the mythical rock ahead of the trough.
But on the other hand, others could suffer with a conflicting, thermal breeze cancelling the new northerly breeze near the rocky lighthouse which was known as 'Ireland's teardrop' as it was the last landmark the 19th century emigrants saw as when they sailed for the new world, North America. There is a good chance that the fastest boats might be able to escape and open a gap. But if the later racers might be left fighting back the tears, there will be chances to come back, compressions all the way down the course and the final outcome will likely not be decided until the final 20 miles into the finish.
In terms of following a long-term strategy the biggest problem for the solo racers is that the weather phenomena are small and evolving. As the solo racers are not allowed to receive detailed weather information beyond the most basic updates from public marine broadcasts or the race's weather forecasts broadcast by VHF from the Race Direction boats, identifying and monitoring changes to small systems becomes increasingly difficult as the race goes on.
"I could not really dream up a more complicated leg if I tried. And it is long." Concluded Marcel Van Triest, weather adviser to the Lorient Grand Large race group.
"It is pretty complicated. At times I am just telling my guys to keep it simple, sail the most direct gybe when you don't know." Christian Dumard, Van Triest's counterpart at Team Vendée Formation, admits.
In line with Race Director Francis Le Goff's abiding philosophies, the course is left as open as possible this time with no turning or passing marks other than Fastnet while observing the various shipping channel rules, notably the Traffic Separation schemes at Land's End, Fastnet and Ushant. Le Goff has also notably restored the race to a real long hard-core test, eschewing the previous 24-hour sprint stages which were the finale of recent races, instead favouring one final ultra-marathon.
Pierre Quiroga (Skipper Macif 2019), the leader on the General Classification who has won two of the three stages so far and finished second on the first stage, was well placed – in the main peloton – as the fleet left the Bay of Morlaix. Ninth overall last year Quiroga will have to put on hold any celebrations for his 29th birthday on Tuesday, but may well have a bigger reason to pop the Champagne corks come the end of the week in Saint Nazaire. He carries a lead of 1 hour 53 minutes and 44 seconds.
As he left the dock in Roscoff in the early afternoon September sunshine Quiroga smiled,
"The crazy thing is that victory in the this super long and super tough Solitaire will be a magnificent achievement, whether it's me or not. Today everyone has their doubts, their thoughts, their theories about the time gaps on the provisional general classification. Everyone plays with what they have and what they have to do and you have to play to your strengths. I am just like everyone in that respect in being stressed and having doubts. You have to stay humble on this stage in these kinds of conditions, where there will be little wind, current and weather systems to cross. I think the key is to have fun, and from the start I have done just that, I have had a blast on this Solitaire. In Roscoff, we didn't have time to rest. If anything we have just managed to maintain our energy levels but we do have not increased them. We'll make do with what we have left in the tank. "
Britain's Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) was in tenth place, just a couple of hundred metres behind Quiroga, as the fleet started the 105 miles reach to Land's End where the first big tactical decision will need to be made early tomorrow morning, to go east or west of the Longships Traffic Separation Scheme off Land's End
They said :
Francesca Clapcich (USA/ITA Fearless-State Street Marathon Sailing): "I feel good. I think this will be a very long leg maybe five days and so it will be important to keep up the pace and make a lot of gybes and a lot of decisions in light winds. I have got a lot of rest here, a lot of good food, I am ready to go. It will be important to take it a little bit easy at the beginning and not make mistakes on the coastal course. It will be the big kite for five days and so we need to keep it good. I think I want to enjoy this at 100% as this is the last leg. It is super special for me. Every time something goes wrong out there I get a bit mad but as soon as I am back and rested I want to go again. I hope that I am able to find some funding to be back again next time with some more experience. I am happy to be here and race at this high level. I went to the Fastnet a few times but always with a team of ten or 12 people on board. So this time is the first time there solo, so it will be so different. We are sailing alone on the boat, yes, but we have a great team behind us."
Jesse Fielding (USA, Opportunity- State Street Marathon Sailing): "This is the most incredible thing I have done in sailing and this week is going to be long. This for us has been a vertical learning curve for the season. It feels good now, much more comfortable and though we were never going to win I came here to learn and achieve my own goals. The last leg was challenging and we met them and now I am ready for the next leg and plenty more challenges. It is going to be very complicated but our weather guru Christian Dumard says as much as it sounds contradictory 'keep it simple' in this case sailing the boat fast in the most direct, shortest distance to the mark is the most simple that is usually a good strategy. But the choices are a bit wild, in the next 24 hours we will have a big choice to go east or west and then at Fastnet Rock it will all invert as we try to get across a ridge and back to France, but these boats, these sailors, I have never been more impressed by a group of sailors than these guys."