The Solo Basse Normandie lived up to its reputation as one if the most tactical and challenging Figaro race courses. With a light forecast and strong tidal conditions, the racing took the fleet on a loop from Granville to Cherboug, via selected marks off St Malo, Sark, Alderney and Ouisteram. The forecast was dominated by the ridge of high pressure, which passed over the Channel Islands on Friday night. The calm winds and fierce tides meant the fleet having to keep close to the islands, hopping from rock to rock to avoid the worst of the flow.
We crossed the line at 1300 (French time) with UK’s Sam Goodchild and Nigel King both making good starts. I chose the Pin end of the line along with Phil Sharp. Sam led at the top mark and was on the pace upwind. We then reached off towards St Malo, trying to dodge the large amounts of kelp that collected endlessly on the keel and rudders. I sailed low on the reach and rounded the second mark in 10th place, with Phil just ahead and Nigel just behind. Sam had dropped to third, losing out slightly in the reaching conditions.
From here the fleet split, half opting to round Jersey to port, the other to starboard. My tactics were to head west of Jersey, fearing a wind shadow on the east. On the wind, we had to pass a large rocky outcrop south of Jersey and this meant short tacking in and out of the rocks. This was Archipelago Raid style, with a couple of French teams pushing there luck too far and hitting the shallow reefs. Sam Goodchild led our small breakaway fleet.
This was extreme navigation, with limits being pushed to avoid the tide. At times the difference between making a tiny gain or hitting a rock was marginal. I ran the IPad on deck with Navionics charts and Adrena on the computer down below as a back up. Trying to balance helming, and navigating in these waters was a huge challenge, and at times you just had to hold your breath as the tide carried you over the shallows.
Next up was Jersey and a spinnaker run to the Casquettes. I cut inside the reef off the south west of Jersey, which was no more than a cable wide. The move gained me two boats, just a measure of how close the racing is. We arrived at the Casquettes to rejoin the fleet as the eastern boats had already arrived but just missed the tidal gate.
We ghosted past the light house, just metres from the rocks with the tide running like a giant river. Gybing in the light winds trying to keep as close to the shore as possible. I’d been experiencing some autopilot issues, but it was on the leg passing Alderney when it stopped working. Crossing the stretch from the Casquettes to Alderney was breathtaking scenery, but very intimidating. The water was boiling, with whirl pools and large stoppers throwing the boat around. Just a couple of miles separated the fleet, but the tide was starting to flow hard around Alderney towards Cherbourg and the wind was dying. My pilot failed at the most dire moment, as I was being washed down tide between two large rocks. I considered starting my engine as the tide squeezed me through this narrow gap, but with no time, I just held my breath as the depth dropped 40m to just 3m! We got through the gap and I tied the helm off as I went to investigate the electrical problem. The six mile passage across the Alderney Race shot passed and there ahead was the lead pack becalmed off the Cherbourg peninsula. No more than a mile separated the fleet….incredible after 24hrs racing.
From here, I decided to stop in Cherbourg. We have a busy week ahead with the UK Nationals and I felt that I had got what I wanted out of the race. The new sails felt quick and the race had been a good test. I need to get the pilot fixed before we set off on Monday to race the offshore leg to Weymouth.
As I write Nigel, Phil and Sam are due in soon, and they look to have secured great result. Whilst I’m a bit sad not to have finished, I think the race has been a great test for the UK Figaroists. Next week, UK bound and a chance to see Vikki and the girls after a month in France.