La Solitaire Afflelou Le Figaro, the undisputed star event of the Figaro Bénéteau circuit, starts today with an incredible line up of some of world's leading single-handed sailors. The first of four races that make up the month long event will start off Caen and head for Crosshaven in Ireland for the first race.
The 415 mile leg comprises a Channel crossing followed by the course along the south coast of Britain and a further crossing, that of the Celtic Sea to the Bay of Cork. The forecast shows light wind conditions, which together with the strong currents means we could see some early gaps build and then just as quickly disappear.
Among the favourites for the 2007 edition of the race we find three previous winners, all Frenchmen: Nicolas TROUSSEL (Financo) in 2006, Michel DESJOYEAUX (Foncia) in 1998 and 1992, and Eric DROUGLAZET (Luisina) in 2001. The top three ranked last year will return having won the majority of the Figaro Bénéteau Class II sailing events since last year: TROUSSEL, Thierry CHABAGNY (FRA) sailing Brossard, and Gerald VENIARD (FRA) on Scutum and will be hustling for the top positions. Some of the regular winning Figaro sailors have moved on to prepare Open 60 campaigns such as the French quartet of Kito DE PAVANT (Groupe Bel), Jeremy BEYOU (Delta Dore), Armel LE CLÉAC'H (Brit Air) and Charles CAUDRELIER (Bostik), to mention just a few, leaving room for a new wave of young and competitive sailors.
Among the newcomers or rookies, we find three contenders from Great Britain and Ireland: James BIRD sailing on GFI Group has been preparing for his Solitaire debut since December and is joined by fellow Brit Nigel KING (Nigel King Yachting), who finished as the first rookie in the Afflelou Prologue race held on Sunday, and finally Paul O'RIAIN (sailing on City Jet) from Dublin in Ireland.
Some of the regular contenders have been performing increasingly well. Both France's Jeanne GREGOIRE (Banque Populaire) and Britain's Liz WARDLEY (Sojasun) return with well-prepared boats and good performances over the year. Frenchman Frederic DUTHIL (Distinxion) won the opening Prologue Afflelou race on Sunday and is aiming for a top ten slot in this year's event. 'This is a competitive fleet and a very open leg that could see any one of twenty five of these sailors finish in a top ten spot,' added Race Director Jaques CARAËS.
Flat seas and good conditions are expected for the start. The first leg can be split into four parts: a 35 mile run that starts in the Bay of Seine to the first main mark, the Norfolk Beacon, just off the Marcouff islands, to be left to starboard. The sailors then follow the Cotentin coastline, leaving the Barfleur point behind to set off across the English Channel.
The second part of this first leg involves a 70-mile crossing of the English Channel, running perpendicular to the cargo ship lanes in order to reach the Fairway mark to the west of the Isle of Wight, the famous landing buoy on the Needles channel, which must be left to starboard.
The next part, sailing along the English coast, will be technical due to the varied coastline along the south coast, particularly with the large open bays and the very strong currents. The competitors leave the shallows of Portland Bill to rejoin Star Point, and then briefly enter into the bay of Plymouth leaving the imposing Eddystone lighthouse to port and head for the southernmost point of England, Cape Lizard. There is another delicate passage to be negotiated where the turning tides can build significant gaps between the sailors. Then there remains a further 20 miles to sail before reaching Lands End and Longship lighthouse.
The final part of the leg involves some 140 miles across the Celtic sea to reach the port of Crosshaven in Ireland. This is likely to be a very technical leg requiring some quick reactions to gain as much as possible out of both the wind conditions and the currents.
The weather forecast for the start predicts some 5 to 10 knots of northeasterly breeze to see the fleet up the Contentin coastline and this could increase slightly with the thermal breeze effects leading up to Barfleur point. The wind should be on the beam for the Channel crossing, so reaching conditions for the crossing as the wind is then due to gradually drop on the approach to the Fairway mark just West of the Isle of Wight. The fleet is due to round this mark at some point during the day on Wednesday and once rounded the wind should veer to the east (3 to 6 knots). Together with the turning tide and strong coefficient, the light breeze will work against the fleet. The wind is forecast then to veer round to the northwest by north on Wednesday evening so the fleet can foresee heading upwind along the south coast of Britain. Once the fleet passes Cape Lizard the wind is due to be head on so it will be an uphill stint across the Celtic Sea.
'We will no doubt see the positions change quite a few times along the South Coast of England with the transition to the east, northeast wind rounding to the west, northwest. Those who have the best tactics and are most reactive to the conditions will make the most gains. This should be an elimination race; every time you miss a new weather situation you can loose places,' explains Sylvain MONDON from Météo France.
All that remains is for the 50 skippers to study the different weather forecasts and prepare their strategy.