It has been a few days since I finished my last race ahead of the Solitaire du Figaro and one of the most surprising things I’ve found is how long it takes your body to recover from a race. The last race wasn’t partially physically demanding (was a bit of a drift off), but mentally it was intense and I am still feeling pretty drained. These smaller races are not as full on as an offshore leg where you are able to get some good periods of rest, but also they are all action like short day course racing. Racing on the Figaro circuit is somewhere between the two, like middle distance in running - it’s not a sprint and it’s not pure endurance! Successful self-management is essential to a good Figaro race and these are some of the challenges we face during a race – as well as the sailing.
1) Lack of sleep Having gone two days with running on a couple of 10 minute naps or no real sleep at all, your body needs to be in good physical condition to keep going without thinking as you start to fatigue. During a race you have to pick your times to sleep tactically. I’ve found good times to sleep are: - When the auto-pilot can steer the boat well (if not better than you!) - If you are in clear ocean space. It may seem obvious, but sleeping through rocks or right next to competitors or shipping lanes is not the safest. - When you are totally F*****d! You keep head nodding and waking up with the boat 50 deg off course. You also have to consider before the race when it is going to be best to stay awake and sail the boat hard (or during if changing conditions), ensuring you are rested and fresh for these points in the course to try to make the biggest gains possible. 2) Nutrition No matter how hard you try, you never feel like it is possible to get enough food in you. - You tend to eat different stuff from your normal diet when at sea due to what you can carry. It is much easier to carry freeze dry and boil in the bag race food with some treats than it is to have full meals - they are also a lot easier to cook just needing a kettle. - I find it hard to eat enough when racing. If you think that during a normal day (sailing five hours or so and eight hours sleep) you will need to consume 4-5000 calories and if you’re active for the full 24 hours and not sleeping, you should be consuming as many as 6-8000 calories – so as you can imagine even eating constantly this is pretty hard to do! - Hydration is key and I tend to drink a mixture of electrolyte drinks and water, preferably avoiding caffeine based drinks until the end of the leg to avoid the associated low after the high.
3) Physical / mental fatigue, - A light wind leg could have you not leave the helm at all as you tack/ gybe in-between gaps just big enough to get your boat through (and sometimes not even that). - A heavy wind leg could see you not leave the helm, as the pilot cannot control the boat in the wind and large sea states we could see - not forgetting the battering you could take as thrown/ washed around the boat trying to either sit at the helm station, change the headsail or even just move around. - During a race with variable winds, you could be required to make multiple sail configuration with changes different techniques/combinations requiring different amounts of energy to change and sail with. An example of this is a line peel of head sail vs tack peel vs reefing main or for trim genoa on a reach vs small kite vs big kite with ballast
The main difference between the Solitaire du Figaro and the races I have done so far is that the Solitaire is made up of four sailing legs back to back, with a short rest time in between. The time between legs will not be enough to fully recharge our batteries, so energy must be spent carefully from the start of the event …. eight days before the starting gun sounds right to the finish a month later. All of the points above (and many more that I’m sure I have missed) are factors within a race that must be controlled and balanced. This combined, with the physical, mental and competitive elements of the race makes the Solitaire du Figaro a pretty bloody tough event. I guess that is what attracts the top solo sailors to the start line, some using the Solitaire as a training race for their larger IMOCA60 and Vendée Globe campaigns. It take a long time to master this balance of resting, pushing and refuelling the body, not to the in-depth knowledge of the race course and the Figaro is take to become a serious competitor. Take Yann Elies for example, it took him 13 years to win his first Solitaire du Figaro – then he won it twice in a row!
For now, I am looking forward to this challenge. The Solitaire du Figaro is so different to anything I have done before in my life.