La Solitaire du Figaro
Setting out on his ninth challenge Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) is the top hope of the three British solo sailors who start the 53rd edition of La Solitaire du Figaro on Sunday off Saint Michel Chef Chef, a pretty seaside town on the south side of the Loire estuary opposite Saint Nazaire. David Paul, 26, (Just A Drop) returns for his second La Solitaire after a baptism by fire last year whilst La Solitaire first timer Piers Copham, 60, (Voile des Anges) is a business consultant who taught himself to sail as a child in the NW of Scotland, after tens of thousands of and is continuing a Mini650 program this season alongside his Figaro Benetau 3 training and racing.
Roberts, career best 9th in 2015, 11th in 2021 and 10th in 2020, has posted an encouraging set of consistent results so far this season, third in the Solo Maître Coq, fifth in the Le Havre All Mer Cup and tenth on the Solo Concarneau and believes he has everything in place to mount a realistic challenge for overall victory or a place on the podium.
Even though he is on a tight budget compared with his leading French counterparts, Roberts has built himself a small support team to relieve some of the stress and pressure on shore by fine tuning and managing his logistics and schedule, not least to maximise his rest and recovery times, as well as on shore meteo and strategy support from Volvo Round the World winners Jules Salter and French based Jack Bouttell, an experienced Figarist who last raced the 2020 edition. Salter advises on big picture meteo forecasting whilst Bouttell is like an on-shore, remote co-skipper, a second brain to back up on small scale timings and developments.
“From the previous years I know what I want and need and so I am very lucky these people will help out.” Says Roberts.
He has worked with navigator Salter all this season. “It reduces the stress of unknown factors. He does the ‘weather story’ painting the picture at 3 days, 2 days 1 day before and pre-start. He focuses on the weather and Jack and I talk sail changes, local effects and routings, where I should rest.” Enthuses Roberts.
“This year I am going out thinking I can win the event or finish on the podium.” He contends, “ I am going to go out and sail the weather rather than the fleet, my bias is towards the weather than racing the fleet. On a three leg race like this there will be more skippers in contention on the last leg than a classic four stage Solitaire. I think we will see more people taking more aggressive options. With Jules and Jack supporting me on shore remotely, if we think there are options to be exploited I will go for it. I am not saying I will be extreme but I want to be punching into the gain features rather than being the more passive sailor I maybe am naturally.”
With his ninth start looming Sunday Roberts knows exactly what to expect and how to approach the race.
“Listen, I just feel extremely privileged to be here, the hardest bit is always getting to the start line every year. Only once in these nine years have I had a deal signed year on year. I only got confirmation of my budget in April and my overall budget is a little less than last year, so it is still hand to mouth, I run things pretty lean anyway.”
“ I feel good, the boat feels ready, I have not done a huge amount of training I think that is a positive, I am not coming in over thinking it.”
But Roberts has a couple of cracked ribs which are not giving him too much pain and, ironically, he hopes they might bring him luck.
“All of my best results have come when I have been injured. I won my first Merlin UK nationals with a broken hand, maybe it’s a good omen.”
David Paul did his early dinghy sailing in and around London before taking to crewed IRC offshore racing from the Solent. Last year was his first year in the Figaro and on the 2021 Solitaire du Figaro he suffered a few too many technical problems to really make the mark he wanted. But his drive and passion are undimmed, and despite a budget he describes as ‘tiny’ he is ready to compete.
“It has been hard to get to the start line. I had some sponsorships and funding in place which fell apart and so I had to start afresh in April when I was really, really worried I might not be here.” Recalls Paul who at 26 is still one of the youngest sailors in the 34 strong field.
“Rooster Sailing have come in, Ocean Leisure came in and Just A Drop are back in and I have some other events which will make it all a bit more sustainable. I am happy to be here and ready to race. I have had very little time on the boat, a week of solid training and two smaller races. But here I am. If I can sail proactively and plan and execute well and feel on top of it, putting into practice the things I have learned last year then I will be content.” Paul asserts, “I have a number in my head, a finish I want to achieve but that is a secret, I am not telling anyone.”
Piers Copham is part of an ambitious project to get an IMOCA 60 into the Vendée Globe supporting Les Voiles des Anges, (Sails of the Angels) an initiative which is in essence a living memorial to infants who died. His boat carries the names of 100 such children and it gives parents and families an inspirational focal point, a story of endeavour and real challenges to follow. Racing in the last Mini Transat he was one of the three solo racers who carried on through the big storm which had all the remaining sailors heeding advice to take shelter.
He just arrived Monday from competing on the Mini Les Sables Azores 650 and is straight into his first La Solitaire du Figaro. Although he is British he has a Welsh grandfather, an Irish grandfather who was married to a German and he grew up in Scotland and he lives part time in France. And so his boat prominently features a variety of Celtic flags.
“I am supporting the Celtic nations!” he smiles, “I like competition but I am not sharp enough in my sailing to be really competitive. Here I am looking to learn, to develop and improve my results. Long term it is about racing solo around the world. The point is not if I will be last it is how last I will be!”