Why do French Figaro racers do so well in other offshore racing disciplines? British sailor Alan Roberts talks through some transferable skills with Andy Rice
French Figaro sailors, whether they’re currently on the circuit or former Figaro skippers who cut their teeth in the class years ago, seem to do very well in the fully-crewed offshore world. So what makes them so good? British sailor Alan Roberts has spent the past decade immersing himself in French offshore racing culture, learning by competing against the best of the best in the Figaro scene as he works his way towards a Vendée Globe campaign.
Roberts is in demand as a very effective consultant on fully-crewed offshore racing projects where he tends to operate in the tactician or navigator role. The short-handed nature of the Figaro forces a sailor to set strict priorities about what’s the most important focus at any given moment of a race. It also teaches a level of intensity and focus that he feels is often missing from the mentality of many offshore sailors.
According to Roberts, every second and every metre of advantage counts, and knowing how to up the intensity and maintain that level of focus are key skills that he aims to impart to every team that he works with. Here are his five tips for resetting your offshore racing priorities for greater success on the race course.
As a Figaro sailor you’re forced to face up to your priorities all the time. Over time you become very good at quickly filtering through the job list to focus on the things that are going to make the biggest difference.
Planning ahead is the most critical skill. There’s never enough time, so the more you think through the scenarios in advance, the better you’ll be in the heat of the moment. It’s also about bringing a higher level of intensity and urgency to your sailing.
In long, offshore races there’s a tendency to fall into a more relaxed pattern, which means you can start to miss important details. Over time this can compound into a significant loss of time and distance. Every moment, every wave matters.
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Share the plan
When I come aboard a boat as a navigator, I bring along details of the weather forecast, our likely routing on the course, and an overall game plan for the race. It’s important to involve the whole team so that everyone gets a chance to contribute and talk through how and when things are done.
It’s also vital to run daily briefings in the lead up to the race and make sure everyone has the latest version of the documents. A simple PDF highlighting the key points is a really good way of sharing the plan with everyone on the boat. It means every crewmember can anticipate the likely next move rather than waiting to be told what to do.
Figaro sailors can do any job on the boat. That’s part of what makes a team of Figaro sailors so strong in a race like the Fastnet. They can float in and out of different roles because they’re great multitaskers.
Most keelboat sailors tend to be much more specialised in their skill set, but a great way to overcome this is to dedicate part of your training sessions to swapping roles on the boat. How often does a driver go up to the bow? Or a bowman step into the mainsail trimmer’s role?
Communication and expectation are two really important factors a whole team needs to understand. Swapping roles during a training session can really improve communication and expectation and make sure everyone is working more cohesively as a unit.
There’s no substitute for focused time on the water, but something that’s almost as good and which you can do pretty much anytime, anywhere – even in the car or on the train – is visualisation. Running through a mental simulation of different scenarios is a really effective way of practising even when you’re nowhere near the boat. It’s something you can do as an individual, perhaps thinking through the detail of how you prepare the Code 0 for a hoist, for example. Or it can be a visualisation process between the whole team, whether it’s face-to-face or even on a midweek Zoom call to talk through various manoeuvres and the crew choreography.
Risk: reward ratio
Just because somebody else won a race with a certain strategy or manoeuvre doesn’t mean you could have done exactly the same. With a cold front about to hit the fleet, maybe they waited until just 10 minutes beforehand to reef the mainsail and change to a heavy-weather jib. A well drilled team can afford to leave it that late. But if you fumble the reef and get caught out with full mainsail in 35 knots of wind, it could end your race. So discuss and agree on your risk:reward ratio so you have a shared response to a changing scenario. The more training, the more experience, the better you know your boat, the more cold fronts you’ve been through, the more you can turn the dial on this risk:reward ratio. Set your expectations to reasonable limits for your abilities and skill levels. Sail up to, but not beyond, your limits.
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