The Solitaire du Figaro, originally called the Course de l’Aurore until 1980, was created in 1970 by Jean-Louis Guillemard and Jean-Michel Barrault.
In 1980, Le Figaro newspaper bought the event and it has carried the name ever since.
Its founders wanted to create a solo race with two stages and without assistance for the skippers which was open to both professionals and amateurs. Over the years, it has become one of the most prestigious sailing races in France, and is considered the ‘unofficial world championship’ of solo offshore sailing.
The race historically starts from France with a total course between 1,500 and 2,000 miles. The first twelve participants had to cross the Bay of Biscay twice, from Brest to Laredo (then Santander in 1971), before going back to Pornic. Two years later a third stage was added to include a Channel crossing and even the Irish Sea before the Bay of Biscay. The race continued to develop with with four stages between France, Ireland and Spain introduced in 1977.
Over half a decade since it was launched, the race has created some of France’s top offshore sailors. In 2019, the latest generation foiling Figaro Beneteau 3 was introduced which elevated interest in the race once again.
Recognised as the unofficial world championships of solo offshore racing, the race is fiercely competitive. In 2020, as many as 30 skippers are expected on the start line in Saint-Brieuc in north-west France to take on 1,830 miles of Europe’s roughest waters, including some of world’s best ocean racers as well as ambitious young Rookies.
This year’s edition will include three classic stages of 500 miles or more, and one final 24-hour sprint, with the course taking just under a month to complete. Among the highlights, the Fastnet and Wolf Rock stand out on this racecourse that includes several Channel crossings, the need to deal with the shipping lanes and sandbanks all the way to Dunkirk, and then the rocks and tidal currents all the way down to Loire-Atlantique.
With few marks along the way, Race Director Francis Le Goff has created a very open course that will allow the solo skippers to find their own strategy. This looks like being a classic edition with an exciting finish at the mouth of the Loire river, in western France.
The Solitaire is sailed in strictly One Design Boats (all the same) of 32 foot in length (9.75metres) by just one person, over four offshore legs. It is scored/ranked by totalling the elapsed time of each boat on each leg to see who has the shortest time for all four legs. In other multiple race events a points system is normally used which doesn’t take into account the gaps in time between the boats as they finish each leg.
Leg 1: Saint-Brieuc to Saint-Brieuc. A 642-mile voyage to the Fastnet and back
The only waypoint in this first long leg will be the Fastnet Rock, which competitors will have to leave to starboard. It is going to be very open for the solo sailors from the start, with everyone attempting to find the right tactics and avoid the traps in the Channel and Celtic Sea. Once they have left Saint-Brieuc Bay, the skippers will head for Ireland while avoiding the rocks around the Scilly Isles and respecting the various shipping lanes (TSS) to the West of Cornwall on the way out and back. Anything is possible. They can go inside or outside the islands, so we can look forward to an exciting tactical game.
Leg 2: Saint-Brieuc to Dunkirk. 404 miles via the English coast
The soloists will have to watch out for all the shipping traffic and sandbanks in this leg. From Saint-Quay-Portrieux, the fleet will head for the Wolf Rock to the South West of Land’s End, and then make their way towards a waypoint close to Antifer light near Etretat before heading for the finish off Dunkirk.
This is a leg where keeping a clear head for the final few miles will be key to the outcome. In this second leg, it will all be very open between Wolf Rock and the Alabaster Coast of Normandy, but there will also be a lot of traps lying in store, such as the TSS, which means the room for manoeuvres will be limited all the way to Dunkirk.
There is also the cross-Channel shipping between Calais and Dover to manage, and then the tidal currents and sandbanks all the way to the finish. Competitors will have to manage their sleep and that is going to be vital in this leg for them to be able to stay fresh for the final stretch.
Leg 3: Dunkirk to Loire-Atlantique. A 492-mile coastal leg
There are going to be some great sights along the way in this third leg with a wide range of backdrops. The Opal, Alabaster, Mother-of-pearl coasts of Normandy and the Pink Granite coast and craggy cliffs at the tip of Brittany, the Megalithic Coast of Southern Brittany, the Love Coast and Jade Coast of the Loire Estuary area. So many brilliant things to see, yet the leg is full of hurdles: tricky headlands and capes, tidal currents, islands, rocks and fishermen to navigate. It will be 492 miles of high-tension sailing, with one eye on the charts, and the other on the sails with some sleepless nights ahead.
Stage 4: Loire-Atlantique to Loire-Atlantique. A 24-hour, 83-mile sprint between the islands for the Grand Finale
After three hard, testing stages, the solo sailors will have to draw deeply on their reserves for the final 24 hours of racing; a loop which will take them between the Ile d’Yeu before seeing them return to the Loire-Atlantique to crown the winner of this 51st edition.
Hull length: 9.75 m
Waterline length: 9 m
Max beam: 3,47 m
Deep: 2,5 m
Light displacement: 2 900 kg
Mainsail: 39,5 m²
Genoa: 30,5 m²
Large spinnaker area: 105 m²
Large top rigging spinnaker area: 78 m²
Gennak code 5: 65 m²
Mast: 13,76 m
The kind of boat used over the 51 years of La Solitaire has changed to reflect advances in boat design and boat building technology. Since the early 1990s all boats have been built by just one builder, Bénéteau, the biggest sailing boat and power boat builders in the world. Their first boat was called the Figaro Bénéteau One Design and was used until 2002 when it was replaced by the Figaro Bénéteau 2 which was used until 2018. This year not only is the event celebrating its 50thbirthday but there is a new class, the Figaro Bénéteau 3 making its debut. At time of writing there were 48 boats entered in the competition.
The Figaro Bénéteau 3, is a very fast boat and features a new system compared to most sailing boats; foils. These are like small curved keels that stick out the side of the boat and when it is going fast they produce more power for the boat allowing it to go even faster. When it is windy they are capable of sailing at speeds greater than 20 knots for extended periods of time; that is as fast as a decent motor boat. But remember, these boats are powered just by the wind and the waves.