The Solitaire du Figaro, originally called the Course de l’Aurore until 1980, was created in 1970 by Jean-Louis Guillemard and Jean-Michel Barrault.
In 1980, Le Figaro newspaper bought the event and it has carried the name ever since.
Its founders wanted to create a solo race with two stages and without assistance for the skippers which was open to both professionals and amateurs. Over the years, it has become one of the most prestigious sailing races in France, and is considered the ‘unofficial world championship’ of solo offshore sailing.
The race historically starts from France with a total course between 1,500 and 2,000 miles. The first twelve participants had to cross the Bay of Biscay twice, from Brest to Laredo (then Santander in 1971), before going back to Pornic. Two years later a third stage was added to include a Channel crossing and even the Irish Sea before the Bay of Biscay. The race continued to develop with with four stages between France, Ireland and Spain introduced in 1977.
Half a decade since it was launched, the race has created some of France’s top offshore sailors, and it celebrates its 50thanniversary with a new boat equipped with foils and almost 50 skippers including novices, aficionados and six former winners. The 2019 course is more than 2,000 miles between Nantes, Kinsale (Ireland), Roscoff and Dieppe and is the longest in the races history.
This is an unusual, but hugely successful, high end sailing event. It is unusual on two points. The first being that it is sailed in strictly One Design Boats (all the same) of 32 foot in length (9.75metres) by just one person, over four offshore legs (out of sight of land). The second point is that it is scored/ranked by totalling the elapsed time of each boat on each leg to see who has the shortest time for all four legs. In other multiple race events a points system is normally used which doesn’t take into account the gaps in time between the boats as they finish each leg.
Solo offshore racing is a really tough sport. It is not just about sailing the fastest, you have to go the right way and, probably the most complicated element is to keep yourself going.
Each leg lasts on average 72 hours; that’s three full days and nights at sea on your own. This year the first leg starts in Nantes on the West coast of France and takes the fleet to the Fastnet Rock in West Cork before sailing East along the coastline past Clear Island, Baltimore, Glandore, CourtmacSherry, The Old Head and into the Bandon River to the finish line in front of Kinsale’s Charles Fort. This is a tough leg because once away from the French coast the skippers are out into the Atlantic for two days in small boats away from shelter.
When they get tired they don’t just stop and sleep it off and get going again, because that would mean that the boat would be drifting around whilst the skipper was asleep. Remember there is just one person on each boat, and it’s a race, so in many ways if you could go three days without sleep you could beat anyone who did sleep. But humans can’t manage without sleep for that amount of time, so the skippers take catnaps from time to time during the day when conditions permit it. On average the skippers will have slept for a total of roughly 2 hours in every 24 hours in little bites of 15- 20 minutes.
When they are asleep the electronic autopilot steers the boat. The autopilot is quite good at steering the boat quickly, it is quite sophisticated. It is not as good as a fresh human skipper but it is better than a really tired one. Part of the skill set required in the race is to be able to decide when is the right moment to get some sleep and when it is important to stay awake. The ability to make the right decisions at the right time comes from experience and a cool head during difficult times.
Motivation is really important, and as everyone knows when you are fresh it is easy to be enthusiastic about things, make good decisions, be alert, react quickly, but when you start to get tired everyone knows the motivation to do things drops away and we get a bit lazy, unenthusiastic and decide to put things off, until later. But this is a race and the conditions on board a boat are the same for everyone in the race and so the skipper that stays motivated longest may well do the best.
As well as a physical game this is also a real mental game. It is really tough and it hurts a lot to keep yourself going and concentrate when you haven’t slept properly for a couple of days and the conditions are difficult. Often when skippers get tired they try and stay close to other boats in the race as it is easier to judge your speed relative to another boat. When you are isolated on your own on the ocean, you might think you are going well but you have no real reference to be sure, and nine times out of ten, a boat on its own loses ground on the leaders.
Interestingly on the first leg the hardest part, sailing along the coast, is at the end of the leg when you are the most tired. It is the hardest part because there are rocks, wind shadows, tides and less open water around you and you need to be alert. This is an exciting time because you are close to the finish and everyone is tired and so mistakes are made but places can be gained if you have managed yourself well, slept enough and are fresh enough for the end.
Remember, the Figaro is not just a race to Kinsale, there are four legs in total, and there are only three days before the fleet leaves Kinsale again to sail the second leg. That means that when the skippers are in Kinsale they will be doing a lot of sleeping and eating and wont be seen much as they prepare themselves to do it again on Leg 2, 3 and 4.
As the race continues the accumulated fatigue gets worse and worse and more and more mistakes are made. Everyone’s goal is to finish every leg and to minimise the losses with the leaders on time.
Experience pays, fitness and recovery techniques are important, a good diet is really important and for sure a cool head and a long term approach is really important.
There are six countries (France, Switzerland, Ireland, Italy, United Kingdom and New Zealand) competing in this year’s race. Amongst then are six previous winners as well as five women skippers competing.
Hull length: 9.75 m
Waterline length: 9 m
Max beam: 3,47 m
Deep: 2,5 m
Light displacement: 2 900 kg
Mainsail: 39,5 m²
Genoa: 30,5 m²
Large spinnaker area: 105 m²
Large top rigging spinnaker area: 78 m²
Gennak code 5: 65 m²
Mast: 13,76 m
This year the event celebrates its 50th year. The kind of boat used over that long period has changed to reflect advances in boat design and boat building technology. Since the early 1990s all boats have been built by just one builder, Bénéteau, the biggest sailing boat and power boat builders in the world. Their first boat was called the Figaro Bénéteau One Design and was used until 2002 when it was replaced by the Figaro Bénéteau 2 which was used until 2018. This year not only is the event celebrating its 50thbirthday but there is a new class, the Figaro Bénéteau 3 making its debut. At time of writing there were 48 boats entered in the competition.
The Figaro Bénéteau 3, is a very fast boat and features a new system compared to most sailing boats; foils. These are like small curved keels that stick out the side of the boat and when it is going fast they produce more power for the boat allowing it to go even faster. When it is windy they are capable of sailing at speeds greater than 20 knots for extended periods of time; that is as fast as a decent motor boat. But remember, these boats are powered just by the wind and the waves.