Of course it had come down to this final 24 hour sprint. After 9 days at sea racing across 1400 miles, there was only an 11 minute and 14 second difference between me and Pierre. We now had 130 miles to decide the rookie title.
Having finished leg three on Tuesday afternoon, I had 24 hours until the start of the final leg. Recovery was key, every second counted and the moment I arrived back at the hotel I slept solidly for 15 hours until the following morning. I knew having slept for this long it would help me get through this final night of the solitaire, but I now had 9 hours until the start and the pressure was on to prepare everything in time.
The course took us north round the island of Yeu and straight back to La Rochelle. In the little time I had to prepare, it looked like there were going to be two important areas on this leg. Three hours after the start when a right shift in the breeze would happen (with the dying thermal breeze of the daytime) and 10 miles from the finish when the wind was due to completely shutdown.
There were hundreds of boats who came out to watch the start, from the big spectator boats to the small rubber dinghies they were another thing to worry about hitting. After I had done some practise maneuvers in a steady 10 knots of wind we got underway with the first start. I made a huge mistake on this and was one of the last boats to cross the start line, but thankfully the start was recalled and I was given a second chance.
This time I made sure it went well and I had a great start. The wind shifted a little to the left and I went round the first mark in 10th place and a few places ahead of Pierre. We continued round the inshore course set for the spectators to watch before passing under the huge bridge connecting the isIand of Ré to mainland France. As the sun set beautifully over the horizon, now was the time for the first race changer.
As if on a timer, the breeze swung from north-west to north-east as the last rays of light were dying away, marking the end of the days thermal breezes. The fleet tacked, now able to point and sail directly to the island of Yeu. I set the boat up for the new conditions and found I had good speed compared to the boats around me. With not much more I could do to help the boat sail herself I spent as much time sleeping as I could.
By the early hours of the morning we were approaching Yeu and I could hoist my spinnaker to begin to track round the island. I was in the front group of boats who had managed to pull out a mile lead on the rest of the fleet and as we reached the halfway stage of the leg I was feeling confident I could hold this position to the finish.
It was a wild array of maneuvers to sail round the island, a gybe followed by a very tricky round up with the spinnaker and then finally to drop the spinnaker and replace it with the genoa. I was exhausted by the time we had left Yeu behind us and were pointing towards La Rochelle ; but I was still in the front group with a one mile lead over Pierre.
Throughout the day I was really struggling for speed and what was originally a mile lead turned into 200 metres. Being this close too each other must have switched something on in our brains as we were catching up the boats in front at an amazing rate, pushing each other to go faster. I would be happy to finish this leg in 9th place, but if I could do that and win first rookie it would be an unbelievable leg.
The breeze slowly began to shutdown as the afternoon wore on but we managed to continue to make headway to La Rochelle at snails pace. With only 15 miles to the finish it was exhausting to think how slowly these miles would go by in such a light breeze and with the proximity of the fleet, no chance to rest.
The breezed shifted around a lot and I managed to sneak past Yoann Richomme who was currently fighting to win the event overall. Our spinnakers were up again as we slid past the island of Ré and into the bay, just a few more miles from the finish.
The adrenalin was pumping now and any thoughts of wanting to sleep were gone which made things easier as we got closer. I had to put in a few very light wind gybes to make sure I was still sailing as fast as possible to the finish which had finally appeared on the horizon. I heard the first few boats calling in to the race committee on the radio that they were approaching the finish line and breathed a sigh of relief. Pierre couldn’t catch me now, I had secured my top rookie position, the 3rd one for the Artemis Offshore Academy in 4 years.
I crossed the finish line and stood there simply smiling. I had finished my first Solitaire and it felt like an amazing achievement. After the measurers had come onboard to check my engine seals were ok Charles jumped onboard ,congratulated me and helped put the sails away and motor into the harbour.
To finish my final leg on such a high note made it even better when I arrived on the dock and it was an amazing atmosphere with the whole team and my family there. I was pulled into some hasty interviews in french and english before being given some bottles of champagne to spray everywhere …. thank you Pol Roger!
It felt like everything was over when I arrived on the dock but in the back of my mind I knew that is wasn’t. There was lots of media obligations in the day followed by two separated prize givings, which were great because I could relive the moments I had during the last month of racing.
The overall prize giving was an event to behold, a theatre room packed out with people watching us receive our prizes. There were many emotional speeches from the french sailors which you didn’t even have to understand what they were saying to know that they were just grateful for what everyone has done for them to get this point in their sailing careers. I had my own time on stage and it was a chance to congratulate everyone for their achievements and thank who has helped me along to way as well.
So what is next for me? My dream of winning the Vendée Globe is one small step closer and I am a much more experienced solo sailor than I was three years ago when I first started my offshore sailing career.
The sponsorship hunt is now on, my time with the Artemis Offshore Academy is up and in order for me to continue solo offshore sailing I will need to find my own partners. For the next few months I will be hard at work in the office to achieve this, enticing people in to this amazing adventure sport. The Vendée Globe has never been won by a British sailor, quite unbelievable given the British history in solo sailing and it is something that can be achieved.
I would like to thank everyone who has got me past the finish line of the La Solitaire Bompard- Le Figaro. The team at the academy working behind the scenes at the solitaire to make sure everything ran smoothly- Joan maintaining the boats, Jack assisting our sports preparations and Charles managing the entire project and British team. My parents who have supported me throughout my sailing career.
There is also a big thank you to be said to the sponsors. The partners Elliot Brown Watches, Pol Roger Champagne, Kilchoman Whiskey, Musto, Marlow and Spinlock who I look forward to showing round my Figaro this week in Cowes Week. They have all provided resources for the academy and myself to improve my sailing and work towards my races.
Artemis fund management have shown their support of British solo offshore sailing for ten years. They formed to core of the academy and without them I would have never had the opportunity three years ago to get involved with offshore sailing. It is to Artemis I owe a huge thank you for their support of myself and the other British sailors. Sadly, they will be parting ways with the academy this year after ten successful years.
For now it is onwards and upwards….