Four of Britain's up and coming solo sailors are getting a harsh lesson in how to fight on the water

The French insist that
La Solitaire du Figaro is the toughest single-handed race there is, more gruelling
in its intensity and more cruel in its results than even the Vendée Globe.

It is in this offshore
race between Brittany, Normandy, Ireland and Biscay, raced in 30ft one-design
Beneteau Figaro 2s, that the great heroes of French offshore racing have made
their name – Michel Desjoyeaux, Alain Gautier, Loick Peyron and Jean Le Cam
among many others. And this year, for the first time since the event began in
1979 a group of British sailors is here to see if they have what it takes.

Sam Goodchild, Conrad
Humphreys, Nigel King and Phil Sharp are pitting themselves against some of the
most talented and hard-driving French sailors. In Conrad Humphreys’s words,
they are competing “because this is one of the pathways to the Vendée
Globe. Because of its intensity this where people learn how to fight on the
water. The UK won’t produce a Vendée winner until we adopt the same

Having already done a
successful Vendée Globe in 2004 in Motorola, it’s a brave move for Humphreys to
line up here. The competition is pitilessly close.

On paper his results
in the first two legs look lacklustre. When I talked to him at the race stop in
Dun Laoghaire yesterday he was still smarting after a mistake in the last few
hours of the three-day leg from Caen had put him 40th in a fleet of 46 boats.

He agrees it doesn’t
look good, but says: “You’ve got to look at two things in this race. It’s
a little bit like the Tour de France: there’s where you are in the fleet but
also where you are in time. I gave away 40 minutes in the first leg and two
hours in the second after 116 hours of racing. If I make some of that deficit
up in another leg it could look completely different. Whether you are 1st or
20th can be the difference of only one mile.”

Indeed, so minuscule
are the differences in speed and performance that on the leg to Dun Laoghaire
the leading 20 sailors were separated by only 40 minutes.

Nonetheless, the top
sailors have a habit of coming out at the front. The leader into Ireland, and a
favourite to win overall, is 2005 Figaro champion and Vendee Globe sailor
Jeremie Beyou. He is the first to admit that success in the Figaro race follows
an arduous apprenticeship.

“It is difficult.
When I won it had taken me nine years thinking about the Figaro every day.
That’s the price you have to pay. But when I came back again in 2009, instead
of six or seven fast boats there were 15 or 20. I won two legs but I finished
12th. I needed more time to train.”

“You can be the
sharpest sailor and never win,” he adds, “because you have to be
fast, in shape and train hard and after that the first 10 places are a mental

The mental game,
according to Beyou, is the ability to keep fighting despite setbacks. “You
always have to keep in mind that you can lead the fleet at any time but that
every time you go round a headland or change a sail the other guys can come
back and you might have to be strong and do the job over again. And that lasts
from the first minute to the last.”

Conrad Humphreys
admits he’s found this one of the hardest aspects of the race to learn.
“In [a leg of] three days you go through a whole set of emotions, from joy
to disappointment to frustration and anger. Learning to live with that
intensity of racing is what gives these guys the edge.”

Of the four British sailors
in the race, the one who has been doing best and who is most feared by the
other race ‘bizuths’ or rookies is 28-year-old Phil Sharp. He is lying 18th,
only 1 hour 29 minutes behind the leader after two legs.

The Channel Islands
sailor (his self-portrait looking very tired, above) already has a name for
finishing 4th in the Mini Transat Race and winning in a Class 40 in the Route
du Rhum. He is seen as the most promising and intense, the meanest fighting
machine of the British group.

“I like Phil
Sharp. He has the profile of a Figaro sailor,” comments Jeremei Beyou. And
what does that look like?

“Strong and
stiff,” says Beyou. “He is a fighter.”

“I’m really
pleased with things. I didn’t know how I’d do so it’s really encouraging,”
Phil Sharp comments.

I ask him what he
thinks gives him gives him the edge. “Experience, knowing when the
weather’s going to change, when it’s dangerous to go inshore and when it’s
advantageous and I’ve got a race plan.

“But it is 90% a
mental game. It’s about the ability to look positively and get back on top of
the game and take a different approach if you make a mistake. And about setting
milestones so you can stay on a positive note. If you don’t you won’t settle
and be at harmony with the boat and you’re likely to make bad decisions.”

While Sharp and
Humphreys are doing well, however, this race has been a disappointment for the
two other British sailors, Nigel King and Sam Goodchild. Goodchild, a
relatively nipper aged just 21, was selected above 28-year-old Phil Sharp for
the Artemis Offshore Academy. There wasn’t much between them on results while
training, but it was felt that, being younger and much less experienced,
Goodchild would get most out of competing in this race.

But bad luck and
errors have effectively put him and Nigel King out of the running for a top 10
place and both are unhappily coming to terms with it.

“It’s not really
how I imagined it,” Goodchild says sadly.

He tells of how he
ripped his big spinnaker on the first leg, “began leaking places” and
finished 5 fours behind the leader. In the Figaro that is a massive margin. In
one 48-hour leg Goodchild’s hopes of a decent overall result were in tatters.

On leg two, it got
worse and he now lies 7 hours adrift. “I started over the line, went the
wrong way in the middle and spent the rest of the race catching up. It’s the
most frustrated I’ve ever been on a boat.”

Goodchild keeps
repeating his morose perspective on the race. “I can’t say I’ve had two
bad legs of the Figaro because I’ve never had a good one yet.”

Also bitterly
disappointed but putting on a cheerful face is Nigel King, a well-established
Figaro sailor who competed in 2009. He is 39th out of 46 and lying an
irrecoverable 5 hours 36 minutes hours behind Beyou.

“I’ve had a
terrible race. I was really sick on the first leg. I had been taking
antibiotics that didn’t agree with me. Too much information I know, but I spent
most of the leg either sleeping or on the toilet. Then I went into the second
leg tired and dehydrated.

“I don’t want to
use that as an excuse because I consider it poor preparation. I neglected to
take care of an illness the previous week, and there is all the medical advice
I could need here. But the hard thing is that I’m not like other guys coming
back here and taking up where they left off. I’m going backwards.”

For Phil Sharp, the
prize of top rookie is definitely within reach, possibly even an top 10 place.
In France, incidentally, the top rookie award is perceived as a huge clue to a
sailor’s talents and career prospects. “Some of the best sailors have won
it, guys like Armel Le Cleac’h and Nicholas Lunven,” confirms Jeremie
Beyou. “For Phil it would be a very important victory.”

You can follow the
race on the excellent event website,

Photo: Portrait of solo sailor Phil Sharp