Anne Beauge / Biotherm / The Ocean Race
The Ocean Race: the rookie racer on Biotherm
When Alan Roberts arrived in Itajaí ahead of leg 4, he had yet to sail on Biotherm. The British sailor (with a Brazilian mother) is one of the new intake to have joined skipper Paul Meilhat for Leg 4 of The Ocean Race. As Roberts points out, though, he’s got plenty of sea miles on board other IMOCAs. “I've sailed quite a few of them now, ranging from Hugo Boss with Alex Thomson, to Absolute Dreamer with Yann Eliès and lately with Romain Attanasio in an older boat. So, not my first time in IMOCAs, but first time doing this race and the first time on this boat.”
As a nine-time participant in the French solo Figaro circuit, clocking up more than 70,000 solo offshore miles along the way, Roberts is fluent in the French language and the French offshore sailing culture, and was already well known to Meilhat. “We’ve raced against each other and Paul has come down a lot to do training with me on my boat. So it's kind of nice to get the invite come and sail with him.”
Aged 33, Roberts can still just about remember when this race used to be called the Whitbread Round The World Race. “It’s probably the reason I came into this world. I was very lucky, my father worked on a number of projects in offshore racing, including the Whitbread. A lot of my friends from the International 14 [high performance 14ft dinghy class] ended up doing the race. I've got memories of going down to Southampton when I was young, going up the rigs of the boats and seeing all the guys getting ready. I guess fundamentally that's what drove me into this, it’s what gave me the appetite to go into this world of offshore racing.
“So it's really cool to now have an opportunity, especially because I had tried to get involved in the past. But I’m a small build, and the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking for this kind of sailing was that you needed to be 100 kilos or more to race these boats effectively. People used to tell me, if you’re going to be on board, you’d better be the skipper.”
Not the most encouraging advice, so rather than try to fight the Anglo-Saxon mentality, Roberts set his course in a different direction. He was determined to prove himself as an offshore contender by blooding himself in the world of solo Figaro racing. “
I just wanted to prove everyone wrong, I guess. So I’ve been in France for 10 years now, and I understand the culture. Not just the culture of the French but of the Breton culture. You see many of the heroes of the French offshore racing scene, and they’re small. They’re not big people, but it hasn’t held them back from achieving great things in big races. You don’t need to be 100kg to race these boats effectively.”
As to his role on board for Leg 4, Roberts will be running the weather, the navigation and the strategy. “Paul and I will be bouncing ideas off each other, and we have two people on watch at any point in time. So we’ve got to be able to do everything really. There’s a lot of trimming, making sure you’re on the right heading and that your sail selection is correct at all times.”
Roberts expects Leg 4 up the Atlantic to be primarily a test of speed and so it has come to pass, with 11th Hour Racing Team, Team Malizia and Biotherm exiting the doldrums reasonably close to each other and now sprinting north in stable trade wind conditions.
The thing that Roberts has been most looking forward to is learning from his teammates. One of the other first-timers on Biotherm brings great experience from previous editions of the race - Marie Riou. “The girls on board, you know, they're great sailors. And it's really cool to be able to to share these experiences with them because I do a lot of singlehanded sailing where it’s only me making the decisions. With more people on board, I think you can accelerate learning process. It's interesting to see the way different people tackle all these problems that we face.”
He has also been taking advantage of conversations with an old family friend and veteran of multiple Whitbreads and Volvo Ocean Races, Neal MacDonald. “I’ve learned a huge amount from Neal, we’re in pretty regular contact. But in the end he says you’ve got to get out there and remember that even if it’s The Ocean Race on an IMOCA, it's still just sailing.”