Not since 1998 when Damian Foxall of Ireland won the fourth, final stage of the race has a non French sailor taken a leg victory on La Solitaire du Figaro. British solo skipper Alan Roberts has given himself every chance of joining Foxall among the storied skippers who have won legs of the annual French solo multi stage classic. Indeed when the quietly determined and naturally talented 27 year old soloist competes on La Solitair URGO Le Figaro which starts Sunday June 4th with the gruelling 525 nautical miles first stage from Bordeaux to Gijon Roberts has a good chance of bettering the ninth place overall he scored in 2015, the best ever British result.
But three attempts at the legendary race, not least with a slightly disappointing 16th last year, have reinforced the understanding that high hopes and lofty expectations can be dashed in a few brutal minutes of the four stage race. Hard earned experiences, good and bad, have taught Roberts to hold fast to his personal goals but to keep an open mind when it comes to setting new high water marks. He is more philosophical but doubly determined after last year’s La Solitaire du Figaro. The combination of light winds and critical tidal gates in the Channel on Leg 1 pretty much shaped the hierarchy at the end of the race. Roberts was one of many who had their hopes dashed early on missing out on key tidal changes. From there it was truly an uphill battle with no realistic chance of breaking into the top 10 overall simply because of time lost on the race which is determined on elapsed time over all the legs.
But French based Roberts is back for his fourth attempt, a dedicated disciple of the race which has shaped the career of so many of France’s leading ocean racers and Vendée Globe winners. With a view very much to the long term and the goal of competing in the 2020 Vendée Globe Alan Roberts has a strong programme in place, armed with a Figaro 2 boat which is new to him and a new, excited and active sponsor in Seacat Services, a leading provider of offshore energy support vessels. And he has stepped up his activation, recently taking time out to take his sponsors cruising on the West Coast of Scotland on chartered 70 foot yacht.
Roberts is now more relaxed and comfortable in his skin as the fleet prepares in Bordeaux,
“It all feels more natural, I know the course, I know the way it works beforehand with so I’m feeling more relaxed. I know I have a good base level of experience.” He opens. “ I know I’ve done a lot less sailing this year than I have the other years because of buying the boat putting the boat to the workshop so I’m a little bit under sailed which isn’t ideal but priorities are priorities- you can’t be on the start line if you haven’t got the sponsors and the boat.”
“ I’m feeling good, I’ve done a good bit of training in Port La Foret, a bit of single handed training about four or five weeks. But I had the boat in the workshop through January and February and had it back to the gel coat, refaired the keel and so on and so that is all good for future years.”
Last year’s race was a bruising one but it yielded some positive outcomes: “ I learnt you’ve just got to keep going, you’ve got to finish. Last year I found a little bit more downwind speed which is good, coming from working with guys like Yannick Richomme (last year’s winner) and Nico Lunven. That comes with getting used to different spinnaker modes of sailing, a little bit of rudder and rudder trim.” “ The main thing is last year was that the first leg was the limiting leg, with the tide coming into Cowes, I think I was the first of the second bunch and I came in in seventeenth there and I finished overall sixteenth, so, after leg one that was realistically the best I could do.”
Roberts is well into the solo sailor’s virtuous circle, constantly seeking the best balance between looking for sponsors and activating their needs, setting up his Vendée Globe project and all that entails whilst still trying to maximise his training and racing time on the water to improve and deliver competitive goals.
“All of a sudden there is now only three years to set up for the Vendée Globe, next it’ll be two years. When the race finished it sounds like a long time four years but time marches on quickly. Just as with this year’s La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro Roberts goals for the solo non stop round the world race are realistic, based on his experience and what he knows he has the potential to achieve rather than pipedreams. “ Look at the guys that finished the last Vendée Globe and almost all of them have more experience than me and so you have to be realistic. I think you just have to get on the start line and then get around the world.”
Roberts is totally immersed in the French world of solo ocean racing, training out of Port La Foret, the centre which has produced Vendée Globe winners like Michel Desjoyeaux, Armel Le Cléac’h and the majority of recent La Solitaire winners like three times victors Jérémie Beyou and Yann Eliès. He has been fortunate to train and work alongside last year’s winner Yann Richomme and is widely recognised by the French experts as possessing all the skills and talent to break the top 5 in La Solitaire.
“ I do sit down before and write down the objectives for the whole year, what do I want to come out of the event with? But this one feels like a bit of a funny one for me because I’ve not done as much sailing as I want.” He muses, “ Ultimately I’m always here to learn. This is my fourth year and I still feel like a rookie in the fleet against when I compare myself to Yann and Jérémie who are coming into their 17th and 18th Figaros. Even like Charlie Dalin (favourite this year) he’s done several years of La Solitaire. You can’t give up, if it was easy I wouldn’t be here.”
“ Realistically I would say my level is between fifth and fifteenth and I think there’s a good bunch of us in that area. There’s probably about twenty boats that could be in that area, so best case I could be fifth. That’s the area I should be in.”