The decisive leg for the Figaro Safran-Guy Cotten

The decisive leg for the Figaro Safran-Guy Cotten

The decisive leg for the Figaro Safran-Guy Cotten

At 1700hrs (French time) on Sunday, Gwénolé Gahinet and the 35* other competitors in the Solitaire du Figaro – Eric Bompard cachemire started the fourth leg to Cherbourg-Octeville at the end of which the winner of the 45th edition will be crowned. After three weeks of racing, Gahinet, the skipper of Safran-Guy Cotten, still has some energy in reserve. This last 490-mile leg promises to be a new challenge with two Channel crossings and a coastal stretch along England where many meteorological uncertainties await. The competition is more open than ever. For Gahinet, the goal is not only to maintain his lead of the Bénéteau rookie ranking, but to try and finish in the top ten overall. The young sailor knows he has three and a half days of racing to create a surprise and overtake his rivals.

Vital minutes that can make all the difference

At 1430hrs, the fleet left the pontoons of Les Sables d’Olonne after a three-day stopover in the famous Vendée port that welcomes the Vendée Globe every four years. For the first time in this Solitaire du Figaro, Gahinet admitted to doing his sums: “I’m pretty calm about the general nature of this 4th leg, because it’s a lot like the third leg,” Gahinet said. “The only difference is that now I have to keep in mind the leadership of rookie ranking because I’m only 32 minutes ahead of Sam Matson (Artemis 21). I don’t know if it will change the way I sail but I’ll have to keep an eye on my opponents. If I see that Sam is right behind me, I’ll watch him closely and cover him. But I’m not going to forget about my overall ranking,” Gahinet, who is in 13th place overall, 1 hour 30 minutes from 10th place, added. “There will be plenty of opportunities in this particular stage in England. I think that competitors like Thierry Chabagny (Gedimat) and Gildas Morvan (Cercle Vert) didn’t come on La Solitaire to finish 10th or 11th. They’ll be trying every option they can to climb the leaderboard and that could favour me. This is going to challenge me from every angle. I’m pretty calm normally but I’ll probably have to face dilemmas and I may be tempted to roll the dice…It will be exciting and revealing of our different characters.”

In the Breton broth

As forecast, there was good wind for start. In a west-north-west wind of 18-20 knots, the competitors set off on an 8-mile coastal route before heading to Chaussée de Sein, onto Ushant and then Lizard Point, at the southernmost tip of the England. “We are starting with the nearly 20 knots of wind: it will be an energetic beginning before the wind turns south and softens off Belle-Ile,” the skipper of Safran-Guy Cotten said. “We have to leave Chaussée de Sein and Ushant to starboard and this could get a bit hectic because there is a big swell forecast and there’s always a lot of current. It won’t be easy, we’ll have to stay wide awake and not do anything stupid, especially as it will be late night.” Apart from a few sail changes – the big or small spinnaker – the crossing of the Channel, in a beautiful breeze, should not create difficulties for competitors. “We will curve to the east of the most direct route. It will be quick.”

Where anything can happen

It is then that the leg gets complicated with about 135 miles of coastal navigation between Lizard Point and the Needles Fairway buoy, west of the Isle of Wight. Upwind in an east-north-easterly breeze, the competitors will have to deal with a ridge of high pressure in the day on Wednesday that will make for weak winds along the coast. “This is where anything can happen,” Gahinet said. “There are several options including a quite radical one. The routes we can take along the coast from the start of Plymouth bay are then very open. The option to pass south of the Casquets TSS to get more wind could be interesting but it’s a risky decision, you have be prepared to lose on that one…Finally, this is the moment that could decide La Solitaire 2014.” After turning around the Needles Fairway mark, Gahinet will begin his sixth and final crossing of the English Channel to the tip of the Cotentin. The overall winner of the 45th edition of La Solitaire will be crowned in Cherbourg-Octeville after what promises to be a thrilling final leg.

* After the abandonments of Joan Ahrweiller (Basse Normandie) and Claire Pruvot (Port de Caen Ouistreham), there are only 36 competitors still in the race.