Ouistreham beach, off Caen on France’s Normandy coast, this afternoon gave the 32 solo skippers starting first stage of the 54th La Solitaire du Figaro Paprec a purposeful but relatively straight forward send off on a 610 nautical miles leg which passes down the English Channel – which they giant slalom across three times before turning northwest to the popular, pretty haven of Kinsale on Ireland’s south coast.
On his third participation young Gaston Morvan (Région Bretagne CMB), broke the start line first and built a decent lead around a short upwind-downwind inshore course which was contested in a northwesterly 12-15kts of breeze with gusts to 18 or 20.
The tall, powerful 26-year-old, whose father Gildas was one of the most prolific and consistently successful Figaro sailors of the last three decades, earned the Trophée Windchaser by Bollé for his start and the Paprec Trophy for leading round the first circuit.
The moderate to fresh breeze was both shifty and puffy, keeping the solo racers on their toes from the gun, for sure blowing away the built up nerves and stress of a week of countdown, waiting in Caen city, with an immediate surge of adrenalin.
A sharp rain shower was heralded by a sudden drop in the wind but as soon as the little front blew over the fleet were heading out into the Channel, heeled sharply.
The first cross-channel section Sunday afternoon and evening should be something of a speed race to Nab Tower in a heading, fading breeze where the leaders will likely stay south, outside of the Isle of Wight unless there is enough north in the breeze to make it through the Solent on one tack with the new, favourable tide.
The course crosses back to Les Jument des Haux off Paimpol on the north Brittany coast where the long climb through the Scillies to the Fastnet begins, passing the tip of Lands End. The leaders should be into Kinsale first thing Thursday morning.
Early on the stage out of the bay this afternoon a collision occurred between Loison and Hugo Dahlenne (YC de Saint Lunaire), the top Bizuth prospect. Neither skipper was injured and damage is described as ‘not performance affecting’
A true Figaro ‘full fat, no holds barred’ edition
This 54th edition of the pinnacle French annual solo offshore race – the first of five editions to be sponsored by giant French recycling and alternative energy group Paprec – comprises three long stages, all over 600 miles (usually four days four nights) – totalling 1850 nautical miles. After the Kinsale opener which starts with tiring tidal, coastal, channel sections moving into a more open offshore stage up the Celtic Sea, the 630 miles second leg goes to Roscoff via a passage up the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man and down into the mouth of Bristol Channel round Land’s End to the Bay of Morlaix.
And before the finish in Piriac sur Mer there is a big, ‘standard issue’ open, offshore across the Bay of Biscay and back. Race Director Yann Chateau, an accomplished offshore racer in his own right, has drawn a course which maximises time on the water, minimises recovery periods to a sensible level and which should fully test all of the different key attributes required by a deserved winner.
Of the young guns, on paper one of the outstanding talents is Le Havre’s 28 year old Guillaume Pirouelle (Région Normandie). The former 470 Olympic campaigner, a youth European champion in the class, was second overall last year and won the second stage and has just won the Solo Concarneau Guy Cotten. Gaston Morvan shows great promise and is consistently in the top group, fifth overall in 2022, but is still looking for his first stage win but could make it on to the overall podium this edition.
Corentin Horeau, 34, returns for his seventh La Solitaire du Figaro. After a six year break Horeau came back in 2021 and has finished eighth and 13th but is very much on form this year. He races now in the colours of Banque Populaire who are back in La Solitaire du Figaro Paprec and won the early season Solo Maire CoQ. And Alexis Loison is back for his 17th La Solitaire at the age of 38 with a new sponsor Groupe REEL. He is the veritable Jedi master in the Channel tides and currents and has been sailing fast. Has has finished fourth twice and many times in the top ten.
And Ireland’s Tom Dolan (Smurfit Kappa-Kingspan) has worked hard to become a regular fixture near the front of the peloton. He was seventh last year and fifth in 2020 and has the potential finish on the podium. Briton Alan Roberts is, of course, engaged in an IMOCA programme and misses the race for the first time in ten years. There are five women racing this year including Élodie Bonafous (Queguiner La Vie en Rose) who finished eighth last year and was third on the last leg last year, the first female to do so since Clare Francis. Bonafous already has a 2028 Vendée Globe programme under way with her sponsors Queguiner which supported Yann Eliès on the 2016-17 race.
Overseas, non French
As well as Dolan and Swiss skipper Nils Palmieri (Teamwork) there are four other international racers. Susann Beucke (This Race is Female), (read https://www.lasolitaire.com/en/blog/categories/news) Germany’s 49er FX Olympic silver medallist in Tokyo, returns for her second challenge, more experienced – not least after time with the Holcim-PRB team winning Leg 2 of The Ocean Race – she has hopes of a solid, competitive race.
Celtic adventurer 61 year old Piers Copham has designs on the 2028 Vendée Globe with the Voiles des Anges charity which supports bereaved parents and families who lose infant children. Brit David Paul (Just A Drop) is into his third race, aiming to finish every leg with a decent performance to build a platform for the future. And Kiwi Ben Beasley (Ocean Attitude) 23 is one of the ten rookies competing this year for the Beneteau Trophée. (https://www.lasolitaire.com/en/post/kiwi-rookie-beasley-ready-to-take-on-la-solitaire-du-figaro-paprec)
Corentin Horeau (Banque Populaire): “I don’t care if people say I’m one of the favourites. I try to do my race without looking too much at others as I have been doing since the start of the season. I will try to stick to my course, favorite or not favorite. Last year, I think I was in the favorites and I was 13th. We’ll see at the end. The first stage will be a real Figaro stage. You have to get into the top group. There will be twists everywhere. We will try to take pleasure in seeing the others come back individually or come back in the groups. I think there will be a lot of lead changes. We do not really know what it will be like when we arrive in Ireland. We are really in a pure and hard stage of Solitaire.”
Tom Dolan (IRL) Smurfit Kappa-Kingspan: “The big question is between The Needles and the mark at Jument des Heaux no one really knows what will be going on there, if there might be a sea breeze coming in from England. The thing is of there is sea breeze we might end up getting stuck for six hours (as the sea breeze would kill the gradient) with no wind. I feel grand.”
Alexis Loison (Groupe REEL): “Most of all you have to have a clear weather picture in your head it’s important. It’s not going to be simple, just like every start of La Solitaire. You can break it down, there is a coastal part where the land influences the wind, and a lot of current all the same. Even if for the moment we have small tidal coefficients, they will increase quickly. And then the strong current can lead to many possible stop-starts. And in terms of weather, there are quite a few small phenomena that pass with very dynamic fronts which are often poorly detailed by the models. There is a real element of uncertainty, you might see a boat be 500 meters next to you which flies away in a puff, a gust that you don’t get will have to have your eyes open. And above all, believe in your options. I am aiming for a podium, at the minimum.”
Elodie Bonafous (Queguiner La Vie en Rose): “I am ready. Everything is on board the boat, I have plenty of good things to eat, I have the weather forecast and clear ideas. I can’t wait to leave. We are always afraid of having forgotten something, but the stress I had was more positive stress that boosts me. I feel fit. It ended well last year, started well this year. I’ve worked a lot mentally so I want to be pushing even more, to be at sea every night and give my all. The Solo Guy Cotten, after my recovery from injury, was quite positive so I remain on target for my objectives for the start of the season. The general objective is to finish ideally in the Top 5 to do better than last year. I hope to repeat and be back on the podium, and most of all not to make big mistake, not to take too long, not to take too many risks risky or burn myself out at the start of the race. The first stage is like a series of little coastal courses where there are currents and local effects. I like that. There will be a lot happening in terms of the weather, which will be very uncertain. I’m starting with more experience so I think it can be an advantage to be able to remain lucid and be able to make good decisions towards the end of the legs We will see.”