Seventh into Caen

Phil Sharp on his impressive Solitaire du Figaro opener

Wednesday August 3rd 2011, Author: James Boyd, Location: France

This morning Phil Sharp has just emerged from 16 hours of sleep, many of which were on his boat, moored up in downtown Caen, until he emerged at 2am as some of the tailenders were pitching up from the first leg of La Solitaire du Figaro and he was sentient enough to find out where his gear was and where he was staying...

The end of the first leg of the effective world championship of singlehanded offshore racing ended in Ouistreham on the Normandy coast, but then the skippers had to pass through a giant lock (where the Yacht Club in Ouistreham kindly laid on food for the skippers) before spending 1.5 hours motoring up the canal to their berths for the remainder of this week in the centre of Caen. As one might imagine this was the last straw for the skippers, exhausted after 48 hours at sea with virtually no sleep. “It was quite stupid of me to do that, because I was on the boat going along at 6 knots, surrounded by a lot of other boats,” admits Sharp. “You get to the finish and my body just shuts down on me. You do those last few miles and then you have all that excitement once you’ve passed the finish line – but it was just game over...”

Part of the problem is that Sharp’s budget for La Solitaire du Figaro doesn’t run to having his own shore crew following him from stopover to stopover over the course of this month-long race and the Artemis Offshore Academy, while they have helped Sharp a great deal in getting him to the start line, don’t have enough resource following the race to include him in this. One can’t help feeling, given his seventh place finish, 15 minutes and 4 seconds adrift of the winner and less than four minutes from second place on this first leg, it is time for some generous benefactor to step in to give Sharp the support and resource he clearly deserves.

Finishing just over 48 hours after they left Perros Guirec on the north Brittany coast on a course that took them up to a mark to the southwest of Plymouth then along the Devonshire and Dorset coasts before rounding Needles Fairway buoy and heading back to France, the 47 Figaros completed the course faster than the routing prior to the start was indicating.

The fleet had a surprisingly fast run across the English Channel towards Plymouth, broad reaching in wind that got up to around 18 knots. The wind dropped considerably on the approach to this mark which they reached around midnight, with Sharp at this point mid-fleet in around 25th place. But the boats were fortunate that there was still enough pressure to keep them moving and usefully this enabled them to make the potentially challenging tidal gates along the south coast of the UK.

“We were expecting to anchor off Portland and maybe off Start Point, but we managed to make those gates,” recalls Sharp. “The wind was fairly light at night, so there ended up being a massive line of boats with no wind behind them. Going around Start Point, the fleet was going progressively higher, so it was quite difficult to make some good way while trying to move up the fleet. You were just getting pushed a bit further offshore all the time.”

Sharp says at this stage the wind was more backed than he had expected and this put them on to more of a reach than a run and around Start Point the conditions enabled him to put the pilot on and get some sleep. By sleep, we don’t mean a full eight hours. Sharp reckons that during this entire leg he had about five or six catnaps each of around 15 minutes, so 1.5 hours in two days.

“I was fairly happy with that,” says Sharp. “Usually I have problems sleeping on the first night, but I did shut my eyes, so I kept a little bit in the bag. In fact by the end of the Channel crossing, I had to put my head down because I couldn’t make any rational decisions any more. I think I was quite tired when I set off because I had to do a lot of boat prep as well. I only had about four hours sleep the night before the race - that didn’t help and that is billed against you.”

It was on the passage up the English south coast that Sharp managed to get from mid-fleet up to fifth place by the final sched on Monday. So how did he manage this? “I didn’t go high with everyone else at night - I went a bit lower because I knew the breeze was going to get light and veer,” he explains. “And I knew that the sea breeze would come in in Lyme Bay slightly offshore and the current would change later offshore as well – it was going to go against us. So I stayed offshore and got the first breeze when it came in.” Adrien Hardy and Gildas Morvan similarly benefitted from this tactic.

“When the sea breeze came in, I knew in amongst it then, so I had a new surge of adrenalin to stay there. And it was quite rewarding. The boat seemed pretty fast downwind, or the spinnaker seems good for VMGing. I managed to stay with them for the whole day. And on the reach back across the Channel - Fred Duthil was the only person who got past me. He seems very quick in reaching conditions.”

The return journey back across the Channel was exciting with the skippers trying to go as high as possible with their symmetrical spinnakers.

But then during the second night, just as they were off Barfleur on the northeast tip of the Cherbourg peninsula, the wind disappeared.

“It was a very difficult night,” says Sharp. “The breeze shut down - you had a little bit of local breeze that came in for different parts of the fleet. It ended up being better to the east, whereas the guys to the west had to anchor for a while. Fortunately I didn’t have to anchor. I knew it would be a bit of a mission to get it down and back up again in 40-50m...”

The tide turning foul at around midnight but this ended up benefitting them as it created a little apparent wind and Sharp says that he managed to get the spinnaker flying and was able to edge south. At that point he says he was right beside Fabien Delahaye, the eventual winner of leg one.

Shouldn't he have stuck with the local man? “I managed to start moving before he did and I think he saw me with a spinnaker up, and I heard this crashing and banging on his boat as I think he was getting everything set up – there were only three or four boats moving in the fleet at this stage – and then he was going quite deep against the tide, whereas I was going more with the tide, and it turned out that being against the tide worked because although he was going slower, he had better VMG. The reason why he and Gildas [Morvan] made a lot of ground was that they gybed earlier to go south on the new breeze.”

Once the tide turned favourable again then the race turned into more or less a procession for the rest of course. At one point Sharp says he had managed to get in front of Thomas Rouxel and Jeremie Beyou but then he got nailed when some weed became entangled around his yacht’s keel. “It dropped two knots of boat speed. So it took me about 10-15 minutes, hanging upside down from the guardrail by my feet, with a weed stick to get that off and by the time I got up to speed again both Rouxel and [Nicolas] Lunven had overtaken me.”

Given that the delta between him in seventh at the finish line and second placed Gildas Morvan was less than four minutes one can see how even small set-backs in a race like this can have huge repercussions on the results.

“At the end of the day I was massively pleased to get into the top 10, but I was frustrated because I knew I could have ended up being closer to the top at the finish,” admits Sharp. “But I couldn’t hope for a better start in terms of time.”

There remains one slight embarrassment which will no doubt cause some chortling in the fleet: “There was a problem with the gear box and sometimes it wouldn’t start in neutral. The first night when I tried to charge, it broke the seal. Even though when I stopped running the engine that morning before it was sealed, it was in neutral and fine and I left it in the exact same position, but when I restarted it later on, the prop moved. So that broke the seal. I knew I had a problem before the race, but the owner of the boat seemed to think it was fine, it was just a problem with pushing the throttle handle in. But now I think it is internal, so I have to get that fixed before the next leg...”

This is to go before the jury this afternoon and when we’ll find out about the penalty he is due to receive.

Still, a fine start to this four leg solo marathon, at the time of writing at least, and if he can keep this up then Sharp will be in with a good chance of finishing substantially better than the 'top half of the fleet' that most of the four Brits taking part are aiming for.

Latest Comments

  • James Boyd 03/08/2011 - 17:12

    We understand Phil has since been penalised 20 minutes for the engine seal breakage. We believe that drops him to 21st place

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