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ALAN ROBERTS : "I LOVE THIS SEASON" - interview for tip and shaft

Britain’s Alan Roberts starts his fifth season in the Figaro fleet in the best shape yet. A working partnership with three times winner Jérémie Beyou which will run through until the conclusion of June’s 50th La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro is firing on all cylinders. Although there is no form book for the Sardinha Cup, the first ever races for the new foil assisted Figaro Beneteau 3, Beyou and Roberts are surely one of the strongest pairings. Tip & Shaft caught up with Alan Roberts the day before the highly anticipated first Figaro Beneteau 3 offshore races started.

You are nearly ready for the start, after all the work that has gone in since you got your boats, what shape are you in?

There are always a million and one things to do, dealing with the teething problems, small things to do with the manufacturing of the boat but between Jérémie and I we have been as controlled and logical as we could be, methodical in our processes from the time we got the boats to making sure we get the most hours on the water and equally and the most time in the workshop, utilising the two boats to be able to do that. We are in a good place with both boats. Physically we are in a good place too, we have done a lot of training. We train together, a lot of physical training. We have been doing everything together. I have been living with him in fact.

Jérémie’s strength and fitness has always been highlighted as a reflection of his professional approach to the sport, so who is fitter and stronger?

That is interesting. (laughs) I would say I am fitter but he is a bigger guy. If he wants to try and beat me he goes on bench presses, he will say ‘we need to be doing bench presses’, (laughs) but I am only a few kilos off him. Percentage wise I think I win. Jérémie is very fit and so it is great to be with a like minded skipper who thinks like me, that that part of it is very important. I am so impressed with how professional he is as a sportsman.

So have you realised a notable upturn in any part of your approach or processes as a result?

I have always been methodical and quite professional in the way I go about things but it is so nice to see how someone else goes about things. And the main thing I have learned is about how he runs his team. It is the model IMOCA 60 programme really. It has been interesting to see that from the inside. I am learning a lot, he has the experience and you just see where that comes in.

From your insider’s viewpoint, what makes him as ‘winner?

There are so many little things. We spend so long discussing the little things and that is the advantage of living together. The day does not end when you leave the boat at six or seven o’clock. When you sit down to dinner you are discussing something, over breakfast there is something. Even when you are doing sport, it is a never ended process of improvement and open mindedness. He is just devoted to every area. He is very religious about the whole sport. He is from a very different set up as he has a team and has mostly had a team around him and I have always been a bit of a lone ranger. His ability to depend on other people allows him to take his mind off something and devote his focus on something else. If anything I have been too controlling in the past because I have always done all the boat work myself. On the boat – he drives pretty hard, he is a perfectionist. If we screw up he wants to know why and says we cant be doing this but he is quite emotional when it is going good he is happy and when it is bad it is bad, outgoingly emotional. That is down to his rigor on the water and his sheer competitiveness. He drives and never stops. He gets upset when it goes wrong but does not stay upset and does something about it.

And where do you think you rank among the whole fleet?

It is really interesting. It is very rare that you go to a race and just don’t know who the top ten boats are going to be. This will be the first time all the groups are competing together, the Lorientais, the Vendéens, the Vallée des Fous (Port La Forêt), it will be so interesting to see what the different groups have focused on, what has been advantageous. Will there be a speed edge? A sail design edge? There has not been one boat standing out. One day one guy will be going quick another day it will be someone else.

What have you seen different in terms of the approaches of the different duos?

Everyone has been very open but I think we have just scratched the surface and there is a huge amount to learn. We see a variety of rig sets ups and how people are going to be sailing in this race. There are so many areas to work on and there has been only so much time to work on. I have talked a lot with Neal Mcdonald, Stu Bannatyne and Mike Sanderson about the set up, it is good to have these outside sources to discuss theories and ideas. There is the classic, simple conversation: ‘when the breeze picks up do you rake the rig back or forward?’ Everyone seems split on the ideas, and it is interesting. A dinghy you rake the rig back in the breeze like a windsurfer and the big yachts you rake the rig forward. It is these different aero and hydro dynamic things as soon as the boat starts to heel. On the pontoon with Yann Eliès and Franck Cammas and Jérémie and they all have different ideas. Everyone has been open, a lot more than ever before. I suspect they will shut down more when we see what works for different people.

Where have the set ups appeared most visibly different? And where is the Doyle package compared with North? Obviously you are sailing on Jérémie’s boat this time and can see the North ideas?

We are down a similar philosophy in terms of how we set up the boat through the wind range. North are deeper sails and our Doyles are flatter sails. There is some set up differences there. The optimum is somewhere between the two I think. That is ongoing. The Doyle kite is going well. The North big kite seems pretty good downwind and the smaller kite not quite as good, it is a bit deeper and more of an A4 than an A5. It is more of a VMG sail than a reaching sail. The gennakers are going to be key. I still can’t tell you who has it right. We have never felt bad on the Doyle gennaker.

So what will be the keys in terms of sail design and selection? In shorthanded it will be also about which sails are more versatile, that you can get up and down and sail with and cover wider wind angles, if you can stay on one sail and open up that wind angle. When we started the gennaker/Code Zero had two philosophies either it was going to be a light wind/upwind sail or it was a reachy sail and it now seems to have settled in between the two, and is more of a reachy sail than an upwind. It seems to work as an upwind sail in the light and quite cracked off. The rule allows quite a deep sail, 60-65 per cent mid girth, hard upwind it does not really work. Some people played around with smaller Code Zeros, specific upwind sails. With Doyle’s cable less technology in terms of the tension required in the sail and the weight of the sail, there is a definite advantage. I have a third version of the Zero which I will have for the Solo Maitre Coq. We are here to learn. And we will see very quickly this race who is going quick and at what angles and to see if there are any trends. I am on a first generation set of sails still. But this race we are on Jérémie’s boat on North Sails.

This is what the Olympic sailors would call a ‘process’ regatta where the learning is more important than the outcome?

The value in learning is huge as it will be the first time we have lined up all together and we will be able to see everyone’s set up in action, what people have learned in the different training groups. That is the most valuable learning straight off. The fact that we sail this time with two people on board allows the learning process to develop even more, you can bounce ideas off each other. But we will effectively have nine full days on the water, that is the equivalent of 27 days normal training days, so more time than we have actually done training up until now. That will be the biggest value of this race, time on the water and being able to debrief it with someone else afterwards and learning. It is a competition but it is the biggest learning opportunity before La Solitaire du Figaro. There is the Solo Maitre Coq which is basically 24 hours solo. So you sound very fired up and ready to roll?

I am loving this season. Totally. It is such an exciting atmosphere. Everyone is buzzing. Everyone is open and sharing. And the Doyle involvement is great. Stu and the guys have put a lot in. Stu will come out and spend more time with me. And this gives them a foot in the market. I approached them before this time last year. The new boat was the catalyst. It would have been a lot of work to bring them in with the old boat when all the sails were already optimised. Now it is a blank page. And I wanted to do something different from everyone else out there because I think it provides a psychological edge. I honestly think the Doyle guys have something different, something great in their Code Zero product. That was a driver. And the guys there are a great bunch. What they did with Alex Thomson has been great, they had the fastest boat in the last Vendée Globe, no question. The stuff they did with Rán, and the stuff they did with the big boats in the Hobart, quite a few people have started using their sails. And I have the connection through my dad who has used them on all the big rigs he has done, working with Robbie Doyle for more than 20 years, on the likes of Maltese Falcon and Black Pearl. It is interesting to see how they have developed over time.

You said in January that one of the fundamentals of this season with so much pre season training and learning and boat work is avoiding burn out before the season is half way over….

I have balanced the sport and the rest and made sure I have not overdone anything too much early on. I feel the best I have ever done going into a Figaro season, the most energised and the fittest. That is important to continue through now to La Solitaire as this is a two week event and then we have a week and a half off, we will be receiving the new sails and getting some time on the water. That will be my full race suit. At the moment I am on a test set. The idea was always to do two suits. And it is good to have brought the other ‘foreign’ guys on board with Doyles. The last two seasons were hard for me. 2017 I had a stomach issue having torn muscles and I had never taken a break after the year before. Last year I was recovering. This year I feel charged up, on it and in control and not in a recovery state.

So you carry on all the way through the year with Jérémie…

We work together all the way through up to La Solitaire. Then we still share preparateur, shore crew, all the preparation, we still live together, brief and debrief. It is the full package all the way through.

Why did he pick you?

I think because I have been on the circuit for a while and showed flashes of what I am capable of and he has always been very supportive. Last year was an amazing season for me – despite my La Solitaire result – I was mostly in the top 5 and top 10 – and he sees that, and sees someone who pushes really hard. He wants to be with someone who is up to date with how the fleet works and who has a different mind set, bringing a different expertise a bit more technical ideas from my dinghy background. He enjoys the Anglo Saxon philosophyas well and I think enjoyed and profited from some of that on the Volvo.

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