The legendary Michel Desjoyeaux says the Figaro Series is the hardest race in the world. Matthew Shehan finds out why
“This is the hardest race – not to win, just to do. Winning is something else,” says Michel Desjoyeaux. “For me, the Figaro is harder than the Vendée Globe.” It is a bold statement about an annual single-handed coastal series that involves four offshore legs of around 500 miles apiece, each designed to take around three to four days to complete. But when Desjoyeaux speaks, the solo sailing scene listens.
La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, attracted a big fleet of 47 entries, including a spectacular gathering of the most decorated and accomplished solo sailors, but is still a world apart from the 28,000-mile, non-stop, 100-day round-the-world marathon.
In France, the 54-year-old Desjoyeaux is a national hero. He is the only person to have won the Vendée Globe more than once, taking victories in 2001 and 2008. He is not alone in thinking that this is harder, though. There are plenty of other French A-list offshore sailors who point to winning the Figaro as their proudest moment.
“People always expect me to say that the Vendée Globe is my best victory,” said Alain Gautier, who won the solo around the world race in 1992. “For me, it’s not. Winning the first leg of the 1983 Figaro into Kinsale when I was 21 was my proudest moment as I crossed the line ahead of one of my sailing heroes, Philippe Poupon.”
A scroll down the list of winners in both events reveals a close connection between the two races. Five of the eight Vendée winners have been Figaro champions. All but one have been Figaro competitors. Both Desjoyeaux and Gautier have won the Figaro outright; Desjoyeaux three times from 13 events, Gautier once from 17. The numbers speak volumes. The bottom line is clear: winning the Figaro is always hard, no matter how many times you have tried.
“It took me nine editions of the race before I won it,” said three-time Figaro winner Jérémie Beyou, whose long-term project lies with the 2020 Vendée Globe aboard his radical new IMOCA 60 Charal. So why was he, and so many like him, back in a boat a fraction of the size he is used to, in a race that could deliver potentially embarrassing results?
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“This is a very special event,” he explains. “It is an irresistible challenge because the Figaro boats are identical and so you know how you are really doing compared to your competitors.
“It’s a very personal race and it’s very intense. There are times when you doubt yourself and want to give up. Times when you think: I’m better than this, I’m not happy with being so far behind, I don’t need this, I want to turn on the engine and head home. But every day is like this in the Vendée Globe. So the Figaro is good training for that. You have to learn to cope with the highs and lows.”
Others, like Gildas Morvan, have shown even more commitment to the Brittany-based race. With 22 races under his belt and six leg wins, he is one of the longest serving Figaro sailors, yet he has never won overall. “It’s hard to explain why it is such a big pull, but it is like a love affair,” he said.
Event director Mathieu Sarrot has a different theory. “It’s a drug – a good drug, but one for masochists,” he says with a smile. While his work is ashore, he has followed 25 races, and is also clearly hooked.
Up against the world’s best
Going into the 2019 Figaro Series, top French star Yann Eliès had won the event three times from 19 attempts. “If you miss out racing for a season it takes years to get back to the front,” he says. “It takes a long time to get to the stage to be ready but just a few minutes to lose all your confidence. But for some it’s a brutal experience.
“In 1998 the first leg took six days. On the second leg, one boat sank near the coast and the skipper had to swim ashore and climb the cliffs with an injured arm, so this race can be very hard.”
The 50th anniversary marked a step change for the event with a brand new boat, the Beneteau Figaro 3. At 10.85m long, the new VPLP-designed, production built monohull is roughly the same size as her predecessor, the Figaro 2, but she is significantly more powerful downwind.
Asymmetric spinnakers flown off a fixed bowsprit mark a move away from the conventional poles and symmetrical kites of the previous model that lasted 15 years. Plus, the new sailplan includes a Code 0.
But from the outside, the most obvious change is the retractable, curved daggerboards that extend out from the topsides like giant aquatic stabilisers, designed to provide righting moment on the leeward side at speed.
The combined effects of these changes, in addition to a more modern, faster hull form, has thrown conventional thinking out of the window. Far less is known about these boats than their predecessors, making it harder for skippers to plan their tactics and routing. Feel has become an important part of identifying the Figaro 3’s sweet spots.
“This is one of the reasons that there are so many top sailors this year,” offshore legend Loïck Peyron tells me. “We are like kids at Christmas with the new toys and we want to know what makes the new boats work. It’s also exciting to be discovering this at the same time as everyone else and it gives those of us who haven’t been in the Figaro for a long time a chance to see if we can beat the Figaro specialists.”
Alain Gautier agrees, and adds that the campaign costs also make this event and the new boat appealing. “Unlike an IMOCA campaign where a new boat is going to cost around €5 million, money doesn’t influence success in the Figaro class,” he said. “If you charter a boat you can do a season’s campaign for around €200,000 and be sailing against the world’s best.”
For the current Vendée Globe champion and local poster boy Armel Le Cléac’h, the new boat also means a return to some valuable hands-on training. “On the IMOCA and Ultime boats we rarely steer by hand, so the Figaro gives us the feel once again,” he explains.
“It’s easy to forget the feeling and how to achieve perfect balance aboard the big boats as there is so much else to control. Hand steering also puts you back in touch as you look at the clouds, feel the weather and the current.”
All of which has also helped to level the playing field this year across a fleet in which the skippers’ ages span almost 40 years. In general, there were two different approaches. The young guns were sailing by feel while using AIS to keep an eye on the big names to validate their own thinking. Meanwhile, the old hands were quick to adopt their own tried and tested offshore routines, yet they were also trying to unlearn what they knew made the Figaro 2 go quickly.
Helming for 24 hours
If the new boat was clearly one of the reasons for a big shake up in the results, the weather was another. The 545-mile opening leg from Nantes to Kinsale in Ireland saw Yoann Richomme, the 2018 Route du Rhum winner in the Class 40 fleet, take the first win, but only by one minute and 13 seconds ahead of Figaro rookie Tom Laperche.
Just under 22 minutes behind, Loïck Peyron was 6th. Three minutes further back Desjoyeaux was 8th. Then came Le Cléac’h in 11th. Such a closely packed fleet in an event which is all about aggregate time rather than points, is typical of this race. In previous events, seconds have often been the winning margin. Not this time…
The course for Leg 2 from Kinsale to Roscoff via the Isle of Man was changed at the last minute to avoid a forecast that included winds of up to 35-40 knots in the St George’s Channel. Instead, the fleet went east to Bishop Rock, then up to the Needles Fairway buoy to the west of the Isle of Wight, before then heading to the finish in Roscoff. But sending the fleet up the English Channel didn’t keep them sheltered.
“At one point we had a 40 knot squall that was only forecast to be 25 knots,” said Britain’s Will Harris, racing Hive Energy. “The big kite was up when the breeze hit and I wasn’t able to get it down. I’ve never dropped it in that kind of breeze and it would have been far too risky. So I ended up helming for 24 hours.
“Fortunately, because I thought it would be a windy period, I’d packed my pockets with food and snacks as I knew I wasn’t going to get any hot food. But the worrying thing was that we were all heading straight towards the TSS exclusion zone. Luckily, in the end we just missed it by about a mile.”
The 26 year old from Surrey made a name for himself in his first Figaro in 2016, winning the rookie prize for the highest-placed newcomer. This year, he was frequently punching above his weight once again.
A fast learner, he only took up keelboat sailing five years ago, but after his 2016 performance the French professionals saw his talent and invited him to join Pôle Finisterre in Port-la-Forêt, regarded as one of the best training establishments in offshore race training.
“I’ve spent the last six months living in Brittany, where I’ve been training with the likes of Yann Eliès, Armel Le Cléac’h and Michel Desjoyeaux,” he said. “It’s been incredibly useful. You have to be at a certain level before you can be a part of it, past the basics of navigation and avoiding rocks. You need to be looking at the finer details. It’s very intense training.
“You think that these sailors are untouchable and that they know all the answers, but they don’t, especially with this new boat. They still need to sleep, just like the rest of us, they’re just more efficient. And I learned it’s not simply about fitness. For example, I now have lists for everything so I don’t spend time fiddling around with settings, especially when I’m tired and not thinking as straight.”
Hitting the red zone
Sleep is a major topic in the Figaro. No one sleeps for more than 20 minutes at a time – they simply daren’t. The racing is so close and the difference between the performance of the boats so noticeable between the autopilot and hand steering that going for a kip costs places.
“You’ve got to know your limits, when you’re in the red and, more importantly, when you’re about to hit the red,” says British sailor Alan Roberts. “The red zone is where you’re hallucinating, you’re talking to yourself, you’re imagining things are going on and you’re seeing things in the water.
“You’re so tired that when something comes over the radio you can’t string the words together to understand it and write it down. But you need to have been there to understand what you need to avoid because it’s hard to simulate.”
In a previous race it is said that one skipper woke up when his boat went aground on the sand. As he rushed up on deck he was convinced that he was doing a delivery with his girlfriend and panicked when he discovered that she wasn’t there.
Fearing that she had gone overboard, he dropped the sails, broke the seal on the engine and motored around and around to try and find her. The penny only dropped when he saw the dodger in the guardwires with the Figaro logo and his name on it.
By the time the fleet had arrived back in Roscoff, this time at the end of Leg 3, the cumulative effects of sleep deprivation meant that the effects of the red zone were starting to show through.
As skippers arrived at the dock, even the pros struggled to answer questions and left long pauses as they stared into the distance. If this had been any other major racing event you would put their behaviour down to team politics, diplomacy or mind games. But here, they were simply so tired, so mentally exhausted that thinking before speaking was a big effort.
Slowed by weed
Leg 3 had been long and, for many, frustrating with some major tidal gates. In particular, one at Alderney, where the infamous tidal race and a light breeze that was insufficient for the fleet to overcome the current, shut the door and only a handful made it through.
Weed was a big problem too. Carbon weed-flossing sticks were often insufficient to remove the clumps that wrapped around each yacht’s five foils. “At one point I had to stop the boat and go over the side to remove it as it had wrapped itself around the keel,” recalls Alain Gautier.
After a relentless and often windless Leg 3, the rankings were bad for many of the big names, now several hours off the pace. Overall race leader Yoann Richomme had lost 10 hours on this leg and saw his enormous lead hacked back to just 1hr 26 mins for the fourth and final leg. This would have been a decent margin by normal standards, but 2019 was turning out to be anything but normal.
For newcomers, a position on the podium was unlikely, but winning the rookie prize is a big first step in the Figaro. Even then, as an indication of just how different and difficult this event is, rookies aren’t always what you might think.
“On the face of it, with three round-the-world races under my belt including a Vendée Globe, it makes no sense to say that I’m a rookie. Yet for me the learning curve has been vertical,” said New Zealander Conrad Colman, who was racing Ethical Power.
“The reality is that, no matter where you have come from, be it the Vendée Globe, the Olympics or any other discipline within the sport, when you come to the Figaro for the first time you’re a rookie because you need to combine so many different types of racing. This year there were 11 rookie sailors.
The event is dominated by the French and while international sailors do take part, learning the language and the culture make the challenge of competing even tougher.
The 2019 Figaro Series in numbers
“The hard fact is that if you want to be even remotely competitive in the Figaro you have to come to France, you have to live here, you have to get involved with one of the training centres and you have to change your phone number to +33,” says former Figaro sailor and professional project manager Marcus Hutchinson of Vivi Resources.
“It requires a big commitment; you’ve got to be here full-time. To reflect this challenge and to encourage those who do make the commitment we have provided a new perpetual trophy this season, the Vivi trophy, which is for the first international skipper.”
As Leg 4 played out, there was continual intensity in a 500-mile needlematch across the Channel from Roscoff to the finish in Dieppe. The tactical challenges of working along the UK’s south coast with its notorious tidal gates and tricky headlands were made even tougher by a mixture of light winds, squalls, thunder, lightning, rain and fog.
Within the 47-boat fleet, the battles between the newcomers and some of the world’s most accomplished sailors continued to rage. La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro is like a one-design dinghy race, played out on a coastal course. Everyone knows it’s tough. There is no shame in being at the back; everyone has been there.
And be they rookies or rock stars, Desjoyeaux speaks for them all when he sums up the Figaro: “This is the best offshore school in the world. The one who wins will be the one who makes the least mistakes.”
And the winner is…
By the end of the final leg, the Figaro had at last played to form, with the bulk of the fleet finishing within one hour. But no one was able to eat into Yoann Richomme’s leading margin, giving the French skipper, also the 2016 overall winner, another Figaro victory.
“I am really moved. I never thought I’d win two. This was a really tough event,” he said. Meanwhile, British sailor Alan Roberts took the Vivi Trophy for the first international skipper, and Benjamin Schwartz earned the top rookie prize.
This article was first published in the August 2019 edition of Yachting World. The delayed 2020 Figaro Series is due to run from August 27 – September 20.