Phil Sharp talks to Sue Pelling about the crucial, closing stages of the Route du Rhum 14/11/06

Twenty-five year old Phil Sharp is currently leading Class 40 in the Route du Rhum. Sharp who made his name last year when he managed to claw his way up the fleet from virtually last place (on leg 2) to a creditable fourth overall in the Mini Transat has, without a sponsor or high performance racing sails, demonstrated his natural racing talent once again.

An average start to the Route du Rhum just over two weeks ago in St Malo provided the canny British sailor the perfect opportunity to exercise his spot-on tactical skills positioning himself exactly where he wanted to be – leading the fleet by day two of the race and knocking his closes rival – Gildas Morvan on Oyster Funds – off his perch. From there on he made significant daily gains and has consistently led Morvan by over 100 miles. However, the last couple of days in the lighter airs Sharp has seen his lead seriously threatened with just 58 miles between the two boats yesterday.

Chatting to from the boat this morning however, Sharp was sounding back on his usual happy form commenting: “Yes, I have to say I am feeling a lot better today because I’m beginning to widen the gap again.”

Sharp made mad significant gains overnight and with the wind forecast to come from the south things should only get better. Sharp continued: “?if I can get there [to the wind] first then hopefully I can widen the gap even more? I’m just going for VMG down the layline to get home as quickly as possible. There’s generally more wind down there, and slightly more west. I think the wind is set to go round – to back again, it’s now coming from the east or north-east but it’s going round to the north-west which means I’ll probably gybe out to the west.

“Morvan is now 100 miles behind. Even if he takes out 30 or 40 miles he’s got a lot of work to do. I know in the same conditions I can sail as fast as him, that’s all I need is to know, that I am in the same conditions than him, then I’m happy.”

In a very chatty mood this morning Sharp explained his incredibly scary experience during the big winds and a thunderstorm just three days after he’d made it into the lead. “I couldn’t believe what was happening because I would have thought that during a thunderstorm the wind may have got up to 30 maybe 40kts. Instead I had 60 knots of wind and it just wiped me out completely. I was pretty shaken after that. There was nothing I could do. The main was up and boat was flat on its side with the masthead in the water. She was over for a maximum of 5-10 minutes during the sustained gust.

“I destroyed my gennaker but fortunately I dived for the main and got that down as quick as I could and the boat righted itself. Then it just pelted down with rain, really hard rain that you had to take shelter from. It physically hurt to be outside in it. The duration was about an hour.

“It was an interesting experience because you hear all the stories from the Southern Ocean about how wild the wind is and it’s easy to think it can’t be that strong but when you actually get it you realise exactly how much power there is in the wind; it’s pretty frightening actually.”

Shaken from the incident Sharp slowly pulled himself together and as the wind finally abated he was able to get back on track again, losing a total of just 10-20 miles. Without a gennaker he struggled for a while but now, in the light airs (currently making just 4.5 knts) he has 102-mile lead with the spinnaker up. Joking about eating his breakfast while trimming the spinnaker and chatting on the phone Sharp said: “The wind speed right now is equal to my boatspeed which is quite fast for today – quite breathtaking in fact. It does mean however, my distant to arrival time is next Wednesday. No seriously it’ll probably be more like this Thursday morning. I can’t see myself doing more than 150 miles a day and I still have 300 miles to do. It’s really annoying because it feels like the finish is just a couple of hours away, it’s so close yet so far.”

Talking about how the Mini Transat and how it’s been an invaluable stepping stone into the Class 40 and the Route du Rhum Sharp confirmed how much he personally owes to that race although he did admit that the Mini Transat is a much lonelier race. “I felt really lonely in the Mini Transat but I haven’t felt that at all in this race. Whenever I feel bored or isolated I can just get on the phone. The Mini Transat is a great training ground. It pushes you to push the boat to the limit. The same applies but in a bigger way to the Class 40. With the Class 40 however, there’s much more to manage and you’ve got to look at things going wrong as well. If things go wrong on bigger boats they go wrong in a much bigger way and you have to back off earlier. Once this boat [Class 40] is up and planning it handles just like my Mini, you can just sail it like a dinghy but the good thing about the Class 40 is you have a choice of bunks below.”

On the subject of sleep, Sharp admits he does have a problem with sleep control having managed to break his alarm clock a few days ago. This led to a five-hour sleep on Sunday night which, although good for the body and soul, is not ideal during the crucial closing stages of a race that you happen to be leading. “I’m sure I can deal with it for the next couple of days. I think my dad rings me just to check I’m awake! What I am looking forward to however, is a big pizza – I have a sudden craving for pizza – deep crust and bubbling with four cheeses! Can’t wait.”