TIGHT RACING AS A CLOSELY PACKED FLEET
SEARCHES FOR THE LAYLINE TO THE SPANISH COAST
The 52nd edition of La Solitaire Du Figaro 2021 kicked off to a spectacular start yesterday in Port of Saint-Nazaire. Crowds lined the docks of the race village as the skippers and their teams made their final preparations. After being introduced individually on stage, each skipper, one by one left the dock to loud applause and the cheers of their supporters.
An old naval city, the main harbor of Saint-Nazaire is accessed through a lock system. In here the Figaro 3’s docked together and as the water dropped, the lock gates opened, the crowds again cheered, a Bagpiper serenaded the fleet from an overlooking balcony, the boats headed out to the starting area, to do battle right in front of the harbor walls.
It was a tricky start for the 34 strong fleet of Figaro Beneteau 3s, which includes 12 Bizuths (Rookies) and internationals from Ireland, England, Spain and the United States. Held right in the main channel, a ripping tide on the turn was one major factor for the skippers to contend with. The breeze was a fresh westerly of about 10 to 12 knots. The first start was a general recall and the second an all clear. On the pin end, the French Veteran Gilde Mahé, Breizh Cola, took a flying start with American, Jesse Fielding, Opportunity – State Street Marathon Sailing, just inside him out of the blocks. There was the expected pile up on the committee boat as the skippers tried to balance the current and clear air without being pushed over the line. Though the pin end provided a clear track off the starting line, it was those slightly more to the middle of the fleet that were in the best position to play both the shifts and the current and it was Benoît Mariette, Génération Senioriales leading around the first mark. Alexis Thomas, La Charente Maritime was first Bizuth in 4th, with Francesca Clapcich, Fearless – State Street Marathon Sailing rounding in 21st and Jesse Fielding, Opportunity – State Street Marathon Sailing in 26th. As is the case with the Figaro fleet, there were seconds in it and both US sailors were still in very good company.
This second leg was a short 7-mile blast with the A2 ‘Grand Spi’, and one where boat handling and close-quarter tactics could win quick places before the long boat speed race destined for the legs ahead. Clapcich, took this opportunity and came out strong, climbing through the pack to 18th with the fleet still very close together. British/Brazilian Skipper Alan Roberts, Seacat Services was lying in 27th and Irish Skipper, Tom Dolan in 22nd for the beginning of this quick spinnaker run, however both these seasoned Figaroists are in the top running for the ViVi Trophy for best international and also a spot on the podium. Both sailors are known for their skill in climbing back up the fleet and undoubtably boat speed, offshore tactics and endurance will see these skippers at the front of the pack in due course, already as this report comes out this morning, they’ve been solidly climbing. The same can be said for Xavier Macaire, Groupe Snef, who this morning is up to 11th and a top running for a podium this year.
The next rounding was a peel to the Gennaker, a slightly complicated maneuver with such a tight pack which saw some of the fleet catch up in the rabble and spat out the back. However throughout the fleet, everything was still at play for with Bizuth Alexis Thomas, La Charente Maritime in 4th and one of the most experienced French skippers Alexis Loison, Region Normandie in 29th. With all the boats rounding by 1900 local time, this close racing was sure to ensure not much sleep was going to be had by anyone. The 20-mile reaching leg was a bit of a drag race with no real tactical maneuver and boat speed being the name of the game as the expected right shift in the wind lifted the fleet up to the Les Beoufs Cardinal and the boats on the inside benefitted from a current acceleration.
Les Beoufs at 2100 it was a Spinnaker run down to Cardinal Rochbonne with transitions and a number of gybes getting the fleet to the rounding at about 0300 on 23.08.21. From here they headed into the big Spinnaker run of the race, down through the Bay of Biscay and towards the coast of Spain. This leg is set to be all about boat speed and timing the gybes with the shifts and the layline. As we check in the fleet this morning, two gybes have already taken place, which are in close keeping with the prediction models. What the fleet will be looking for now is the movement of the high pressure ridge out from Bordeaux which will give a veering wind direction to its west, setting the fleet up to gybe on the layline, expected in the early hours of the 24th. The fleet is still closely packed with a few outliers, and Tom Laperche, Bretagne – CMB Performance holding the lead. Hunting on the inside and likely hoping to catch the inside benefit of the anticipated shift, is Tom Dolan, Smurfitt Kappa and Eric Peron, French Touch. Francesca Clapcich is not far off their tale. Alan Roberts, Seacat Services on an almost parallel line on the right-hand side of the pack, it will be interesting to see who plays it correctly. Jesse Fielding lies just behind the main pack and is holding good boat speed.
Reports from on the water say that the weather is fine and pretty much in line with the models. It’s a calm day with the wind strengthening to a low 20 knots at the end of the day. It will continue to strengthen during the night until l the fleet reaches the Spanish coast tomorrow morning in 20-25 knots and a short sea 1m50 / 2m which will make for some challenging and wet conditions. Currently the fleet is slightly ahead of the routings.
A BRISK AND BITTER UPWIND LEG AHEAD
After a mild first night with light winds, reports from the fleet were that the skippers had taken the opportunity to steal some sleep while the conditions allowed as they began to prepare for the stronger winds due to fill in as they headed in the direction of the Spanish coast. The first 24 hours saw the fleet moving together under spinnaker and still remaining very compact, a small number were falling behind in the boat speed race, but still there remained only 10 miles between the leaders and the back of the fleet.
The pack hit the layline for the Bouée Cardinale Ouest "Ouest Farallones" off the coast of Spain at about 2300 last night, with the most northerly boat Marc Mallerat - CTB, Controles Techniqie de Voile, the first to gybe, Jesse Fielding - Opportunity – State Street Marathon a close second to make the call. As the rest of the fleet headed south, the wind had already increased to a steady North Easterly.
As we check in this morning the leader of the fleet has changed to Xavier Macaire – Groupe Snef, who is approximately 7-miles from the mark. In the middle of a still tightly compact fleet, Francesca Clapcich is now up to a comfortable 19th meaning she’s been able to keep the boat moving at good pace and had positioned her well to take the final shift for the layline with the group. As to be expected in this sort of drag race, and these windier conditions where the more experienced skippers will step into their own, the back of the fleet has stretched out somewhat with Jesse Fielding – Opportunity – State Street Marathon 30 miles behind the leader in 31st position.
Overnight, the wind built to solid 20 knots and the conditions onboard were likely very wet and demanding. And the real battle still lies ahead as the fleet rounds the most southerly mark. From here they face a long, almost 300 mile trek up wind to Lorient as well as the prospect of a shut down on Thursday morning if they can’t keep up with the pace – potentially lengthening the final hours of this leg.
Which route to take through the exclusion zones on the upwind stretch will be the biggest tactical decision the fleets mind’s. Paired with the forecasted wind models from the race pre-start, the skippers will be analyzing their current wind conditions to help them decide what strategy to employ.
The conditions predicted for the start of the upwind today are a brisk 20/25 knots gusting to 30+ at points throughout the day. The sea state will be short 2 metres – making for messy and challenging upwind conditions.
TIME FOR TACTICS
As we check in with the Figaro fleet this morning, Xavier Macaire, Groupe Snef still holds the lead on this upwind climb to the finish. But the pack is hot on his tale, with Pierre Quiroga, Skipper Macif 2019 a short distance of 2.3 miles behind and the rest trailing not far off.
The rankings in the pack have changed a bit as with the conditions and the point of sail. The Figaro’s are a sluggish boat in these sort of breezy upwind conditions and the more experienced skippers are proving that they know how to make the boats move. Irish Skipper Tom Dolan climbed to the 12th position and British/Brazilian Skipper Alan Roberts moved up to 17th, both of whom had been sitting outside the top 20 until now. We can only expect that the fleet will continue to shift around considerably over the next 24 hours as the race becomes more and more tactical. Skippers will have to make an increased number of tacks through the exclusion zones. This is the opportunity for any of the skippers who are stuck at the back of the drag race to climb back up through the fleet, the race is far from over and they know it.
Meanwhile there is a battle of the Bizuths (Rookies) just at the back of the pack. Estelle Greck, Respimer and Francesca Clapcich, Fearless – State Street Marathon are ranked one after the other with 0.2 of a mile in the distance. Clapcich is out on the left and Greck sits on a more central line just at the rear of the main pack. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Jesse Feilding, Opportunity – State Street Marathon Sailing is not far behind and is maintaining good speed, which will increase his chances for moving up through the pack. Spain’s Pep Costa, Cybele Vacances – Team Play To B is just ahead.
The entire fleet had rounded the southern mark by about 1100 yesterday morning. Going around the skippers would have been ‘battening down the hatches’, running routings and planning for this current section where strategy will really come into play. Every skipper will have a plan in mind, but in this sort of one design racing it’s vital to keep your head out of the boat and notice what the others are doing. We’re going to see a lot of the pack moving together, trying to out tack one another, but undoubtably we can expect a few outliers to make some bold calls and take some risks too.
So far, the drag race continues with a long tack up the Bay of Biscay. There has been one tack that most skippers have taken to bring them closer to the direct route through the exclusion zones. Currently it looks like the bulk of the fleet should pass between the two exclusion zones, taking the central route. The general north-easterly wind will persist through today and the sea state will remain rough and as they move through the Bay of Biscay the wind will continue shifting left. At the end of the afternoon, the east-north-easterly flow returning to the north-north-east will weaken, reducing fleet progress towards the Breton coast. However, this easing will be short-lived as the north-easterly wind will return in the evening and allow them to accelerate for the last few miles. The final sprint will take place in a north-easterly wind of between 15 and 20 knots in a sea state that will have calmed. The first skippers are expected to finish early on Thursday with the whole fleet finishing the first leg before midday.
STATE STREET MARATHON SAILING COMPLETES ITS
FIRST LEG OF LA SOLITAIRE DU FIGARO 2021
This afternoon State Street Marathon Sailing skippers Jesse Fielding and Francesca Clapcich successfully completed the first grueling leg of their first ever La Solitaire Du Figaro.
As predicted, this was a race that gave all the good stuff at the beginning and then dished out the punishment at the end. The sailors had a fantastic sleigh ride down to Spain, with spinnakers, sunshine and good breeze. Both the State Street Skippers sailed well in this first section, staying with the tightly knit pack and playing on the battle ground all the way south.
“I’m really happy about the downwind in strong breeze, I was pretty fast, I had a really good twenty-four hours, passing boats and it was fun! It was like sailing a Dinghy you know? So that was a really big up.” commented Clapcich from the dock this afternoon. “The run down to Spain, France to Spain, the sun was out, and we had some great sailing.” added Fielding, over the rail of the boat, still in his salty sailing gear.
But the fun couldn’t last for ever and as the boats rounded the southern-most mark the spinnakers came down the heel came on, as they faced a long painful climb back up to Lorient. Almost the whole way across the Bay of Biscay, the Figaros were sailing against an unrelenting breeze that never dropped below 20 knots, with gusts to up to 30. In a short sea, which was raising two-meter waves, discomfort, wetness and fatigue were a given.
Experienced skippers such as British Alan Roberts commented on the toughness of sailing the boats in such conditions, he’s worked hard on speed techniques in these scenarios and it showed as he took places on the upwind. In general, the heavy upwind conditions after the turning mark off La Coruña in northwest Spain favored the more experienced skippers.
As if battling 20+ knots upwind wasn’t enough – the fleet faced the challenge of navigating its way through three exclusion zones blocking their path to the finish line. This final section was all about picking the best and shortest lay line towards the Breton coast. “It was pretty long, and it was still tactical, we had a lot of strategy going on, especially to clear the exclusion zones, and in the end, it was taking fifteen times, stacking all the time, it’s tough, but it’s cool. I like this type of racing.” reflected Clapcich.
It was one of the most experienced skippers in the fleet, Xavier Macaire, Snef, who took the win on this first leg of the 52nd edition of La Solitaire Du Figaro. On his 11th participation in the race, Macabre has clearly proved that he has the ability to handle the enormous emotional pressure associated with leading a closely packed fleet for a long period. Last year he led around the Fastnet Rock and maintained a cool approach, winning stage 1 of the race by a margin of less than 100th of a second. This year his lead was more substantial and he held the rest of fleet off through the tactical toughness of the final section. Tom Dolan, Smurfit Kappa, took the Vivi trophy for best international in the first leg having climbed consistently through the fleet to a final 10th place this afternoon, 6.2 miles behind Macaire. Francesca Clapcich, crossed the line in 26th place. In the first half of the race, Francesca rocketed downwind maintaining a solid boat speed and taking places. In comparison, the challenging conditions of the long breezy upwind proved frustrating – still she held her own.Jesse Fielding came in at 32nd, successfully completing the first leg in good time. Not to be discouraged, a finish is always a win.
In the La Solitaire Du Figaro, there is no rest for the weary. The State Street Marathon Sailing skippers only have a few short days before the kick-off of the next stage on Sunday. Already they are thinking ahead, planning and moving forward. At the top of the team’s agenda is putting a strong focus on self-management and risk-management. “I’ll be focusing on what I’m doing to manage myself, sleep wise, food wise, otherwise you arrive, and you’re not refreshed, and you still need to be able to make decisions in the last one-hundred miles.” commented Clapcich, “The next leg is going to be completely different for sure, really coastal, a lot of strategy,” she added.
Adding that for the next leg, “Risk management remains important. In every scenario we find ourselves in – there is always something new. I want to continue managing what risk is on the table and accurately coming up with a pathway forward that makes the most sense from a performance standpoint, a tactical standpoint and an overall success viewpoint. That’s our biggest job out on the racecourse, and we need to keep taking that on, one decision at a time.”