Three up-and-coming young British sailors are about to take on the best French solo racers

Pictured above: Sam Goodchild (left) and Nick Cherry

Their French opponents have nicknamed them ‘la crème anglaise’. Young British solo sailors Sam Goodchild (22), Henry Bomby (21) and Nick Cherry (27) have been talented-spotted and trained to attempt to take on the top French racers in what is widely considered the toughest single-handed race there is.

The three are taking part in La Solitaire du Figaro, the offshore race between Brittany, Spain and Normandy, raced in 30ft one-design Beneteau Figaro 2s. This is where the great heroes of French offshore racing have made their name.

More importantly, perhaps, it is a prime training ground for the Vendée Globe. Four out of five winners of the solo round the world race have previously been Figaro victors.

It is for this reason that the Artemis Offshore Academy has been funding training and a modest living for an annual group of aspiring solo sailors. The Figaro circuit, so the reasoning goes, is the place for single-handers to learn to fight hard and become ultra competitive.

Without this backing, it’s a nigh impossible task on this side of the Channel to raise sponsorship for an ongoing Figaro campaign: the races have a tiny hardcore of fans – my guess is that regular followers in the UK number only in the hundreds. Its demands and achivements are little understood.

I count myself among those who didn’t really get the Figaro at all until I covered it last year. Finally I had some insight into its exceptionally gruelling intensity. Sailors can finish 15th out of 40 – an excellent result that would look lacklustre or even poor to the public here – and yet be only a few hours or more likely a few minutes behind the leader.

In this sense, the Figaro is more like Tour de France cycle racing than a typical sailing event. To see the true picture you have to be prepared to look behind the position tables at the time separations.

Only then can you get the faintest impression of how any and every mistake punishes. This is no place for the weak.

I was astonished last year by the tales of sailors starving themselves in the hope of remain hungry enough to devour their prey. I heard tales of people staying at the helm day and night, occasionally stupefied by lack of sleep and allegedly wearing nappies to avoid salt water sores.

So how will the Brits get on? Nick Cherry and Henry Bomby are so-called rookies, and will join a subset ranking of first-timers. Sam Goodchild did the race last year and will be expecting to do better than his 34th position out of 49 entries.

All three have been working hard all winter to hone their short-handed skills. Goodchild and Cherry competed in the two-handed transatlantic AG2R in April and I talked to them last month about their training. They had been working on boatspeed alongside such top solo sailors as Thomas Ruyant and Isabelle Joschke.

“In short races we weren’t so bad and in the longer races Sam was giving them a run for their money. He is a bit further down the road than me,” says Cherry. “In the longer races it comes down to experience. That’s partly sleep management and also knowing when to back down.”

“It’s been hugely beneficial to have coaching,” comments Sam Goodchild. “I didn’t have much of that when I was growing up. It’s helpful to have someone watching from a RIB and commenting and taking photos of how you’re sailing and talking it over with you.

“In these boats there are such small differences in how you sail. But you also need to find out where you’re limits are because if you make a small mistake you pay for it.”

The stories of physical and mental hardship that come back from this race are something else. There’s no doubt that it toughens up habitual sailors and some of the top French stars have a seeming addiction to it that almost entirely takes over their lives.

Both Nick Cherry and Sam Goodchild are looking for sponsors to take them on after the Artemis Academy support ends. I asked how much it costs to do a Figaro campaign. “If you own the boat, about €40,000 a year,” estimates Goodchild.

“To charter a boat would cost €25-30,000 and if you wanted to do all the major events and do training, pay for media and work at it full time, that’s €100-150,000 a year. But there are rumours that some French guys are spending €300,000.”

Happily for the leading French sailors, the race is well understood by sponsors and the public, and the budgets they have allow them to spend plenty of time on training.

There’s no doubt that if the ultimate ambition is a top result in the Vendée Globe – Goodchild and Cherry both say this is the case –  La Solitaire du Figaro is one of the best ways to get match fit.

The days are probably over when a newcomer such as Ellen MacArthur could race in her first circumnavigation and come 2nd in the Vendée Globe. The standard is higher. The adventurers and endurance sailors are now outnumbered by these hungry-like-the-wolf ‘Figarists’.

Following this race shows who is likely to rise to the top in future. Could it be the ‘crème anglaise’?

You can find out by following them here.