Having visited Paimpol the previous month on a training camp, I was looking forward to the few days rest in this quaint and scenic fishing village. We were staying in a hotel no more than 10 metres from the boat making it easy to prepare everything and spend more time resting. The race village was the busiest of all the stopovers due to the keen interest of the locals who knew a lot about the race.
On one evening a soirée was organised in the ruins of a nearby abbey. Wondering around the corridors and arches of the abbey allowed me to escape from the worries of starting the next leg of the solitaire for a few hours. It was also a rare oppertunity to explore and discover the history of one of the places we visited during the race.
But all too soon it was back to reality and on saturday afternoon I was on the pontoon ready for the start of the 3rd leg. Paimpol is a port which is left dry and far from any water for most of the day due to a huge tidal range of 12 metres. It was not until 5pm on saturday afternoon that we could leave the harbour to motor to the start line located past rocks and islands of this rugged coastline.
I had a good start but after a big windshift in the first 5 minutes of the race I was pushed right to the back of the fleet. A position I was used to after having to play ‘catch-up’ in the previous two legs aswell. We had a short coastal course to sail around before heading west around the French coast to La Rochelle. I found myself in a large group of boats to turn round one of these marks with my spinnaker still flying in the air. I dropped it as quickly as possible but it was to late and I was left in a heap with all my sails flapping. Another 5 boats sailed past.
Eventually we reached the final mark of the coastal course and I could set the boat up for the long upwind along the brittany coastline. The breeze was still up at around 22 knots and as we sailed into the more exposed seas, the waves built into a short steep chop causing the boat to slam and shake every few seconds.
I was still towards the back of the fleet sat on deck trimming the sails when I heard a bang behind me. Hugh (Another british rookie) had snapped his forestay (the metal wire holding up his mast) and I watched as his mast bent and wobbled in the choppy seas. With his mast now held up only by the halyard holding up his headsail, Hugh could do nothing but turn his boat round back towards Paimpol to release the tension in the mast and retire from the race. It was unfortunate for him that such a small thing as a wire can have such a detrimental effect on his whole Solitaire.
We carried on battering upwind into the first night and I slowly climbed my way back up the fleet tack by tack. By the morning, some more grey drizzle had set in and I remember thinking that this was enough grey drizzle for one solitaire and having a few angry words with the camera about it. But one thing kept me driving was that I had climbed my way back up to sitting next to Pierre again.
We matched pace for most of the second day, but by the afternoon I had managed to pass him and take a mile lead as we approached the very tidal island of Ouessant. This marked our turning point where we could start sailing south towards La Rochelle instead of West. The waves became very confused as we rounded the island and it was difficult to keep the boat driving forward as the breeze was decreasing.
I chose take a more offshore route further from the island along with most of the fleet. It was at this point that Pierre and a few others skirted inshore close to the rocks and managed to find some shelter from the tide. It was infuriating to watch all my hard work, eaking out a lead metre by metre to disappear in a matter of minutes.
I was finally south of the island and we had hoisted spinnakers in the dying breeze. The forecast was for the wind to stay very light for the next day or so and I looked at my electronic instrument panel to see it was a 178 miles until the next mark of the course. This was going to be very long and painful. I spent the next hour preparing for the light winds, moving all the equipment I had on the boat to the very front to help move the boat through the water and slackening the tension in the mast using a spanner.
Once it felt like I had squeezed as much speed out of the boat as possible, there was very little left to do so I spent the next few hours eating some dinner and sleeping. There was hardly a breath of wind as the sun set and we went into the second night.
I was separated from everyone else by this point; behind the group I had lost places to earlier and in front of the group who had followed me the wrong way. It becomes difficult to keep up with the pace of the fleet when isolated like this, as without another boat in sight it is easy to forget whom you are actually racing against.
But, thanks to AIS I could see the GPS positions of the other boats in front and I managed to hold my pace with then until the morning. We were now 100 miles from the next mark, the distance ever so slowly creeping down.
The wind was expected to fill in sometime in the afternoon. I set myself up for a gybe slightly later than the group in front and managed to catch this new breeze first, neutralising the losses I had made earlier and putting me within a mile of Pierre.
The breeze continued to increase filling in for the leaders first which spread the fleet out more. Before I knew it we were blast reaching with the spinnaker in 20 knots and I had been caught out. My boat was still setup for the light winds we had had for the past 24 hours. All my equipment in the front causing the front of the boat to dig into each wave sending water over the deck and back into the cockpit where I was still steering from in my non-waterproof thermals. As soon as I trusted the autopilot enough to steer the boat, I jumped downstairs and threw everything back as quickly as I could, throwing on some more waterproof clothes at the same time. I came back on deck and set to work on the task of putting tension back in the rig which was currently bending off to leeward in the wind, giving a horrible shape to the sails.
Finally, my boat was back up to speed and the miles were disappearing behind us as we sailed to the next mark. We arrived in the early hours of the morning and dropped our spinnakers to round the mark near the mouth of the River Geronde, the river to Bordeaux. Being caught out earlier with the new wind I had dropped back a little, in particular to Pierre who had rounded the mark an hour in front of me. It was a final 20 mile beat up to our destination of La Rochelle so the race was still far from over.
Being in such proximity to the land, the wind was constantly shifting in an unpredictable manner. All I could do was stay on the tack which pointed me closest to the finish line at La Rochelle. This strategy seemed to work quite well for me, and I found myself slowly gaining.
But, it was not until we reached the bay outside of La Rochelle that my real stroke of luck came. As the boats ahead entered, they were stopped in their tracks by the strong current flowing out of the bay. The boats behind, including me piled into the back of them leaving a big bunch of boats all making the slow procession to the finish. The side slackened, resulting in the top 25 boats finishing within and hour of each other and more importantly, me only finishing 16 minutes behind Pierre.
Having gone into this leg with a 27 minute lead on the rookies, I had gotten away with it in this leg by the skin of my teeth and now held on to a much more meagre lead of 11 minutes. As soon as I crossed the finish line I knew it was all going to come down to the final 4th leg….