Will the latest generation of talented young British solo racers be able to emulate cycling and finally crack French dominance in the solo one-design discipline Le Figaro?
Over the last five years there has been a concerted push by the British to break the French stronghold of solo sailing thanks to the Artemis Offshore Academy. Here the pick of promising young solo sailors are trained up in the 33ft strict one-design Bénéteau Figaro II class. Standout recruits are entered into the French Figaro circuit and the cauldron of solo racing proving grounds, La Solitaire du Figaro.
‘Le Figaro’ is the most credible route for those aiming for the elite stage of solo sailing, the Vendee Globe. Once the most promising rookies pass out of the Artemis academy, it is crucial they find the support to take them further.
In the last few weeks there has been title sponsorship announcements from British companies supporting three rising stars, graduates of the academy. So once again there should be eight Brits competing in the Figaro class this year.
Henry Bomby (24) is a comparative veteran of the Artemis squad having competed in the last three Figaro circuits with the backing of chef Mitch Tonk – who’s seafood restaurant chain Rockfish is once again sponsoring the Devonian sailor.
Magma Structures meanwhile, a leader of carbon fibre technology that is currently producing the largest carbon masts in the world in Portsmouth, has leant its backing to Alan Roberts. Roberts, aged 25, is a national champion in three dinghy classes, plus a naval architect with experience in building lightweight composite boats.
Also competing will be one of the UK’s hottest young talents, Sam Matson. Despite last year being his first Figaro, Matson was the standout Brit with a 15th placing overall, only narrowly missing out on the overall rookie victory. Matson, 24, grew up in Exmouth sailing cadets, lasers and 29ers before two-hand racing with his father on their Dufour.
Another Devon sailor who will appreciate the Figaro stopover in Torbay this year, Matson will be sailing under the colours of footwear brand Chatham Marine.
From Figaro to Volvo and back
The only Brit to have won the rookie division was Jack Boutell in 2013. Boutell, 24, from Southampton, returns to the Figaro circuit this year, and will come brimming with experience and confidence after a recent stint with the Dongfeng Racing Team on the Volvo Ocean Race.
Solo Figaro sailors make up the backbone of the Dongfeng team. Boutell worked as shore crew for the first two legs where he impressed skipper Charles Caudrelier enough to invite him to race the third leg onboard.
“Jack has great potential and a motivation that is rare, especially for his age – he is mature beyond his years,” said Caudrelier, who won the Figaro Rookie class in 1999 and the overall race in 2004. “I have no doubt that he has the potential to be the first non-French sailor to win the Solitaire du Figaro race.”
That is some backing by the skipper who has impressed the yacht racing world with his ability to mould a winning team from Figaro sailors and Chinese rookies.
“I know in my mind that experience racing the Figaro is a big part of the reason Dongfeng crew are currently joint leaders in the Volvo Ocean Race overall standings,” said Boutell. “So for me, the Classe Figaro Bénéteau circuit is the best place to push myself, build on my experiences and put me in good stead for future Volvo Ocean Race and Vendée Globe campaigns.”
Boutell has backing from GAC Pindar, Artemis the Artemis Offshore Academy and new partner Team Concise but a title sponsor is still to be confirmed.
Other Brits competing in La Solitaire include Nick Cherry on Redshift, a natural sailing talent, likable character and past Artemis scholar. Cherry has spent the winter training with Bomby and the French Figaro sailors in Lorient. Plus there will be this year’s crop of hot Artemis academy rookies Andrew Baker, Rob Bunce, and Robin Elsey.
There are multiple events through the season in the Figaro circuit, opening with the 196nm Solo Basse Normandie www.solo-bassenormandie.fr on the 26 March. The gruelling 2185-mile La Solitaire starts on May 31 from Bordeaux with stops in Sanxenxo, Concarneau, Torbay, and finishing in Dieppe.
Expect a prize duel between Figaro heavyweights Jeremy Beyou, last year’s La Solitaire winner who is aiming to become the only person to win the event four times, and two-time winner Yann Elies. “For the young [French] guys, the ones to watch are Corentin Horeau [Bretagne Credit Mutuel Performance] and Charlie Dalin [Macif],” Henry Bomby tells me. “Second and third last year, they will be looking to get within the mix again.”
Cracking French dominance may be edging ever closer to reality for the Brits – after all it’s been achieved in cycling with the Tour de France, so why not? Sam Goodchild has the top result to date with an 11th overall.
With the quality and experience of some of the French sailors so high, the podium will most likely remain unthreatened, but a top 10 finish is a distinct possibility for one of these young rising British stars.