We all knew this first leg was going to be a tough one. But, having never competed in a Solitaire leg before, it was impossible to know exactly how tough. This 500+ mile monster included a channel crossing and a traverse of the entire Southern England coastline… twice. Having been at the startline in Deauville for 2 weeks already, we couldn’t be more ready to go.
It was an amazing buildup to the start, Deauville put on a great show which brought out the spectators in numbers. We each left the docks right in the heart of Deauville one by one to the cheers of the onlookers. Trying to wave at everyone whilst not crashing the boat was the first challenge, but everyone made it out safely to the startline and hosted sails in preparation for the start. At 1300 on 19th July, we were off in glorious sunshine and a light 5 knot breeze. A small inshore course took us past the beach to allow people to watch parade of boats set off from the shore. After a good start, I quickly found myself sailing into a patch of no wind and dropping into the main bunch of the fleet. This made it challenging to keep clear of the 10 or so boats all trying to go round the same mark. A boat smashed into the back of my boat and after a quick shouting match in franglais we worked out it was his fault and he had to do a 360.
The inshore course complete without (too much) drama and we were off across the channel. I was sat in 27th place at this point, not where I wanted to be, but I knew I just had to keep it in my head that this was only the start. As predicted, the sunshine quickly disappeared to be replaced by 30 knots and a kind of grey drizzle – typically found when sailing towards England. As nightfall came, we were able to hoist our spinnakers and blasted north across the channel at maximum Figaro speed of 16knots.
Once at the coast we turned east passing the south side of the Isle of Wight. We were hard on the breeze by this point, smashing upwind in 30 knots through the pitch black night. The fleet was still close together by this point and I was regularly ducking behind boats as we tacked up the coast, offering little opportunity to sleep. The wet, windy and drizzly conditions didn’t subside until the following evening. After a couple of good tactical decisions with the tide, I had pulled up to around 15th. We rounded Start point in glorious sunshine as we went into the second night. Little did we know the following morning a split in the fleet would define the whole race.
The breeze was down to about 5 knots by the time it was light again. I was sat directly West of the boats behind me and a little to the north of those in front. All of a sudden a quick gust of breeze came before the wind died completely. The whole fleet was left bobbing about and started being pushed back east by the flowing tide. When the breeze did fill back in, the boats infront caught it first and I lost sight of them. I carried on with the boats behind, who I could see, towards Lizard Point.
We arrived at perfect timing, the tide sucked us round the headland towards Wolf Rock in the west. I was leading the whole pack I was with, but where was the rest of the fleet? The twice daily rankings list was eventually called to us at 1300 over the radio : “First place, Artemis 77 Will Harris”. I couldn’t believe it when they called it out, I was leading the Solitaire. The rest of the fleet must have got it wrong I thought to myself.
We carried on up to Wolf Rock, the breeze still very light at this point and shifting to the south. As the afternoon went on, I noticed a line of breeze on the horizon to the south making its way towards me. When it arrived, I already had my spinnaker ready and hoisted it straight way as I approached Wolf Rock. A bit later on I thought I had spotted Wolf Rock in the distance, but realised it seemed to be moving. I quickly went to check my computer and realised to was another Figaro, heading back east from Wolf Rock. I knew immediately I had made a huge tactical error, the boats who had sailed further south caught the new breeze first and effectively sailed round us. They must have gained 15 miles on the boats who went inshore, including me.
Now back in mid-fleet, we rounded Wolf Rock and headed back along the English Coastline towards Cowes. We reached Lizard Point as the night set in and just as the tide turned against us. With very little breeze as this point, I was forced to sail in close to the rocks of the headland. More grey drizzle came in, reducing visibility to little more than the length of the boat. All you could hear was the sound of the waves crashing into the very nearby rocks.
This was the most difficult night of the Solitaire for me. The rain meant I couldn’t use the computer mousepad – my hands were so wet. All my maps and positions of other boats were there but I couldn’t use them. I had no idea where I was and could do little but guess where the rocks were by the sound of the waves. The wind had completely died by this point and I was just drifting around helplessly. Thankfully, I saw the light of another boat appear out of the darkness. I followed the boat for the rest of the night, staying within 10 metres of it and hoping they knew where they were going better than I did. I stayed on deck all night in the pouring rain and by the morning I was exhausted.
The wind filled in again from the south, a light 10 knot breeze and we carried on past Lizard Point. I set the boat on course and whet downstairs to fix the computer. I must have dozed off while doing this because I woke up with my head on the chart table and the Race Directors calling me on the radio – concerned that I was going off course. Quickly, I jumped on deck to see the boats around me had hoisted their spinnakers. I grabbed mine and hoisted it as quickly as possible before calling the Race Directors to tell them I was ok. I went to look at the damage on the computer and saw I had slept for about half an hour and lost about a mile to the boats around me. It was a sickening feeling to realise this, but I knew I had to just get on with it and keep trying to sail as fast as possible.
The drizzle slowly disappeared and the sun came out as we neared Portland Bill. I was pleased with how fast I was sailing with the spinnaker and managed to catch up the mile I had lost earlier. We arrived at Portland Bill in time to catch the fast flowing easting tide driving us along towards the finish. The race directors had decided to shorten the course to the Needles at this point as we were heading into our 4th night. A ranking call determined I was in 20th place and first rookie, with Pierre Quiroga another Rookie some 2 miles behind me. Now with only 20 miles to the finish, the wind began to drop off. The sky was full of bizarrely shaped clouds, and with a forecast for very light winds I knew this would be a difficult last night.
In the darkness, we could hear and see the bolts of lightning lighting up the dead calm sea for a split second at a time. Every so often, a sudden torrential rain shower would pass over, bringing 2 or 3 knots of wind for a few minutes. I could hear the sound of the rain on the sea well before it arrived so prepared the boat as much as possible for the new breeze. Pierre was catching up with me all the time and with 5 miles before the finish he was 100 metres behind me.
A new breeze filled in from the north and we were able to hoist spinnakers again. Pierre was much faster than me with this angle of wind, and despite my best efforts he crossed the finish line 5 minutes ahead of me. I crossed the finish line and handed the boat straight over to Joan (Artemis boat captain) to motor the 2 hours back to Cowes before collapsing in the forecabin.
This first leg of the Solitaire was a big ‘wake up’ call for me. None of the 3 pre-races we had done earlier in the season could have prepared me for something like that. Going into the leg I thought I had prepared for most of the skills of offshore sailing, but it was clear I still had a lot more to learn.