Xavier Macaire (Groupe SNEF) won the gruelling first stage of the 52nd La Solitaire du Figaro in style, with an astounding lead of 47 minutes. He crossed the finish line at Lorient at 0827CEST this morning, completing the 627 miles opening leg from Saint Nazaire in 3 days, 14 hours, 30 minutes and 21 seconds.
By contrast, last year the first 24 boats – more than half the fleet – finished their first leg within three quarters of an hour. Nevertheless, further down the fleet competitors this year enjoyed plenty of the characteristically tight racing for which this event is renowned. In a super-close finish Irish skipper Tom Dolan (Smurfit Kappa - Kingspan), who was fifth overall last year, finished the opening leg in 10th place, equalling his 2020 performance. Following a mediocre start, Dolan picked up an impressive seven places on the long beat to Lorient after rounding the Los Farallones buoy off the NW coast of Spain.
Macaire demonstrated mastery over his rivals throughout this first stage, in both downwind and upwind conditions. Closing the Los Farallones buoy he sailed almost half a knot faster in heavy downwind conditions to take a 10-minute lead when rounding the mark.
He then protected and extended his lead throughout the tough upwind leg across the Bay of Biscay, before splitting tacks away from the leading pack during the final night in a move that almost doubled his lead. In a race in which the overall results depend on the cumulative time, it was a move that puts him in a commanding position at the head of the fleet.
The 40-year-old, who sails with Team Vendée Formation, is one of the most experienced skippers, competing for the 11th time. He also won the opening stage last year, but by a margin of only 95 seconds, and finished in overall podium positions in both the 2013 and 2015 races.
Xavier got the bug for sailing early on, when he went out on his father’s boat. He learnt how to race in various clubs, moving from dinghies to racing cruisers and then the 420 class and the Tour de France Sailing Race. A skilled craftsman, Xavier learnt his trade building boats and using composites and acquired a lot of knowledge at some of the leading yards, such as Composite Work, Latitude 46 and Amel.
However, he was really keen to race in offshore events. In 2008, at the age of 27, he bought the boat of his dreams: a Pogo 2 for the Transat 6.50 race to Brazil. On his first attempt, he finished third. Aboard this boat, Xavier took part in nine races, winning six times, with an additional two podium spots and a remarkable twelfth place under jury rig. Following on from this success, he entered the Figaro circuit in 2011. In 2015, he was crowned French solo offshore racing champion and runner up in 2019. Due to his enthusiasm and determination, the French gave him the nickname of the Wild Piglet Boar.
“What a leg! It was what we were promised,” Macaire said after the finish. “It was a great leg. It started to play out in the night from Monday to Tuesday, after Rochebonne. After that, I continued to gain, I gave it my all. “I had a little scare after the Farallones buoy: upwind, I was sailing a little lower than the rear pack. I wondered if it was going to be okay but I managed to reposition. Timing the wind shifts in relation to the exclusion zones wasn’t easy either, but in the end it went well. “I was super comfortable under the spinnaker on the descent, super in sync with the boat, it was great. It was about speed, I was really fast downwind. Afterwards, upwind, I was not in contact, so we don’t really know if my speed was really better, or if the weather system helped. Now I have to keep a cool head – this is just the beginning and much more will happen in the next steps.”
During the final night at sea Pierre Quiroga (Skipper MACIF 2019) also extended his lead over the rest of the fleet, taking second place, 41 minutes ahead of Tom Laperche (Bretagne – CMB Performance). This gives the top two boats a lead of a size that’s rarely seen in this normally very close fleet.
In contrast to the first finishers, positions 8, 9 and 10 could hardly have been closer. With four miles to go, three boats, including the leading rookie, Gaston Morvan (Bretagne – CMB Espoir), top international skipper, Tom Dolan (Smurfit Kappa – Kingspan), and first woman skipper, Elodie Bonafous (Bretagne – CMB Océane), were less than 200 metres apart.
Morvan maintained marginally better speed on the final sprint, to finish in eighth place and as the first rookie skipper. Bonafous crossed the line just 40 seconds later in ninth position, with Dolan taking 10th, only 59 seconds behind.
“Tenth is a good result,” says Dolan. “The group of boats behind me split in two and I didn’t know which to cover. One group got past, but apart from that, it was good. I had fairly good boat speed upwind and I chose the right tacks and stuck to the plan and it worked well. It was cool to be alongside Gildas Mahé as we train together. A pity I didn’t catch him, but I’ll get him next time.
“For me, it was important not to knock myself out on the first leg as that would mean spending your time trying to catch up. Time-wise, I am in touch with everyone, apart from Xavier. Mentally I was good and never cracked even after the bad start. I was pleased with the speed.
“It was good fun in the waves and gusts of 30 knots and some extreme broaches. There was a full moon, so that was good fun. I had the mast nearly in the water twice. It was not the hardest leg we’ve done. Upwind it was OK. We just had to trim the sails now and again and try to decide where to go.”
Like Dolan, Briton Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) had a slow start, before climbing up to 17th in the rankings a couple of times. However, he subsequently slipped back to 22nd at the finish, a disappointing result for the skipper who was ninth overall in 2015 and 10th last year.
“I didn’t have a good start and it was a difficult leg to pull back through, with a lot of straight line sailing,” Roberts said. “There was a little bit of opportunity to overtake at the end. After passing the exclusion zones we were expecting a 20-25 degree right hand wind shift. I placed myself for that, but the wind went the other way and the left hand side of the course paid off. Coming back upwind we still had strong wind and two metre waves, with a five second period, so it was pretty uncomfortable with the boat slamming hard. I went quite well in that – it felt like I had good boat speed and was moving forward in the fleet. That was good, especially as we may have more of it in the next leg. Although it’s not the result I was hoping for, and the leader got away, I’m still in contention for the top 5 or top 10 - and there’s still a lot of racing left to go.”
Further down the fleet, competing in her first solo offshore race, Italian/American Francesca Clapcich (Fearless – State Street Marathon Sailing) finished 26th. However, she remained in contact with the back of the pack throughout.
“I feel good,” Clapcich said after docking. “I did a few good things, but quite a lot of mistakes, so minimizing the mistakes will be the goal for the next legs. I can be there with the fleet. Maybe I don’t have the same speed upwind, but in other situations, I was pretty fast. When you need to recover it’s quite hard.
“This is my first Solitaire. Being able to race is really good. I’ll debrief tomorrow and see what I can do better. I love the challenge. It’s really hard. You’re by yourself with a one-design boat. Everyone is pushing hard all the time. You need to be able to manage yourself.”
Stage 2 of the 52nd La Solitaire du Figaro, which takes the fleet on a 490 mile course from Lorient to Fecamp, starts on Sunday August 29.
Stage 1 rankings and elapsed times
1 Xavier Macaire (Groupe SNEF) – 3D 14H 30M 21S
2 Pierre Quiroga (Skipper Macif 2019) – 3D 15H 17M 36S
3 Tom Laperche (Bretagne - CMB Performance) – 3D 15H 58M 25S
4 Corentin Horeau (Mutuelle Bleue pour l’Institut Curie) – 3D 16H 6M 44S
5 Pierre Leboucher (GUYOT environnement - Ruban Rose) – 3D 16H 14M 16S
6 Alexis Loison (Region Normandie) – 3D 16H 29M 51S
7 Gildas Mahe (Breizh Cola) – 3D 16H 34M 40S
8 Gaston Morvan (Bretagne - CMB Espoir) – 3D 16H 44M 23S
9 Elodie Bonafous (Bretagne - CMB Oceane) – 3D 16H 45M 3S
10 Tom Dolan (Smurfit Kappa - Kingspan) – 3D 16H 46M 2S