It’s hard to know what’s more intense – sailing a 24 hour race through rough seas, huge tide and gusting winds against some of the best solo sailors in the world, or having your faced glued to a computer screen for 24 hours, tracking the progress of the Artemis Offshore Academy’s British Figaro fleet during their first race of the season. Both activities are similar in the fact that both solo skippers and trackers must strategically plan when to maneuver, eat, rest and use the loo. For the skippers this is because of weather, the competition and having 33ft of carbon fibre to control. For the armchair spectators, it’s because the tracker is updated every 10 minutes, and every 10 minutes Northern Irish solo sailor Andrew Baker, affectionately known as Hammy, upped the anti in the 188 mile Solo Basse Normandie – the first race of his solo Figaro racing career.
Starting and finishing in Granville, France on Friday 27th March, the Solo Basse Normandie course was intensely physical with a barrage of weather and tide to boot. Add to that a last minute course change the night before the start, and the race was a real opener to the Classe Figaro Bénéteau season for both seasoned competitors and newcomers to the Figaro circuit alike. With 30 to 40 knots forecast as the fleet passed through the Alderney Race, the decision was made to avoid the notoriously tidal and rocky area in such high winds. Originally spanning 196 miles between Granville and Cherbourg, France, the Solo Basse Normandie course took 24 skippers 188 miles from Granville to Roche Gautier, around Jersey and to a mark just north of St Malo before finishing in Granville on Saturday 28th March. Although the course was changed to avoid the more difficult areas of the course, they were mistaken if they thought it would be any easier: “ The race was tricky for sure, I got not a lot of sleep, the racing was tight and there were a lot of tactical elements to think about. The wind shifts were doing the complete opposite to what you wanted them to do with the tide, so it was a bit of a gamble at times as to what was going to pay off. It was definitely tiring, both physically and mentally. The weather was also very variable; we had sun, rain, thunderstorms and a lot of wind at times. It was really good for a first race for us Rookies though, we really got a feel for it all” explained Andrew.
Competing in his first solo offshore Figaro race, Andrew was up against some of the best sailors racing in the class. That coupled with a last minute course change, Andrew and all six Rookies were feeling a little apprehensive ahead of the start: “I was feeling a bit nervous as we were preparing on the docks. It was a bit more difficult to get to sleep than usual, but I went to bed early and still managed to get around seven hours. We had a change in course due to the heavy forecast for the weekend, so the night before our first race we were almost starting our planning from scratch. Although the course change was a bit of a curve ball, it made me reassess where I should be pushing hardest round the course and where I should rest. The new course was a lot more physical, with more marks to round between a lot of straight line speed sailing – it’s a drag race, great for my learning.”
Despite his last minute nerves, Andrew took the race in his stride. After a good start on the line, he found himself chasing the middle of the pack as the fleet sailed into the night: “The first night was pretty hard, there was a lot of tight reaching and it was quite foggy, so it was quite easy to get lost in yourself. I had to rely on what all of the instruments onboard were telling me as you couldn’t see any other boats. On the last beat to the finish line, a big shift came in but there was a lot of tide coming the other way, which made it a bit of a tactical nightmare.”
As the race unfolded, Andrew found himself embroiled in an intense Rookie on Rookie battle, the six Figaro freshman occupying positions 18 to 24 on the leaderboard. Due to the nature of Figaro racing, the new kids on the block were never far away from the leaders, despite sailing at the back of the pack. Minutes, if not seconds, separated all 24 the competitors over the line after 188 miles of racing: “I’ve learned about where I fit into the fleet,” Andrew explained on the dock. “I know I can be competitive and I can be fast, its making silly mistakes and making the wrong calls tactically that was letting me down. I felt like I was in the mix a few times in the race, and that I was competitive and no slower than any of the boats around me. It’s now going to be about ironing out those silly mistakes.
I’m glad to be back on land, I’ve needed a shower since the first night when a wave came over the bow and went in through my kit so I’ve been a bit salty since then. I’ve been chewing strong minty gum through the race to try and keep myself awake, but it’s weird now, I don’t feel tired at all. I feel like I’m in a weird kind of daze.”
Andrew finished the Solo Basse Normandie 20th overall and 3rd Rookie. The Rookie division is a well-documented division of the fleet for first timers to the Figaro class. Usually made up of around eight Figaro freshman, some French and some British trained by the Artemis Offshore Academy, it’s the ambition of all of the Rookies competing on the circuit to win the coveted Solitaire du Figaro ‘Bizuth’ prize – Academy skipper Jack Bouttell became the first British skipper to win this accolade in 2013. The Rookie division is highly competitive, with every sailor looking to make a name for himself and earning yourself a spot, preferably at the top, of the “ones to watch” podium is the best way to do it.
Double Solitaire du Figaro winner Yann Elies (Groupe Queguiner – Leucemie Espoir) took Solo Basse Normandie line honors by a whisker, just 18 seconds ahead of second place Charlie Dalin (Skipper Macif 2015). Their finish set the precedent for the rest of the rankings, with just seconds separating 24 rankings on the overall score board after 188 miles and over 24 hours of racing. A real baptism of fire to kick start the season.
Andrew’s next race, the Solo Mâitre Coq start mid-April from Les Sables, d’Olonne – home of the Vendée Globe.
The Solo Basse Normandie results:
- Yann Elies, Queguiner Leucémie Espoir
- Charlie Dalin, Skipper Macif 2015
- Thierry Chabagny, GEDIMAT
- Paul Meilhat, SMA
- Sebastien Simon/Bretagne Credit Mutuel Espoir
- Alain Gautier, GENERALI
- Gwénolé Gahinet, SAFRAN – Guy Cotten
- Isabelle Joschke, GENERALI Horizon Mixité
- Nick Cherry, Redshift
- Jack Bouttell, GAC Concise
- Yoann Richomme, SKIPPER MACIF 2014
- Sam Matson, Chatham
- Henry Bomby, Rockfish Red
- Adrien Hardy, AGIR RECOUVREMENT – 1d, 6h, 9m
- Corentin Horeau, BRETAGNE CREDIT MUTUEL Performance
- Alan Roberts, MAGMA STRUCTURES
- Alexis Loison, GROUPE FIVA – 1d, 6h, 8m
- Robin Elsey*, ARTEMIS 43
- Benoît Mariette*, ENTREPOSE
- Andrew Baker*, ARTEMIS 23
- Martin Le Pape*, OVIMPEX Secours Populaire
- Claire Pruvot, PORT DE CAEN OUISTREHAM
- Rob Bunce*, ARTEMIS 37
- Sophie Faguet*, REGION BASSE-NORMANDIE