Roberta Holden – first North American woman to race in France’s grueling Solitaire du Figaro-is not what one might expect. The soft-spoken 23-year-old Canadian has a compact frame and a modest, almost shy demeanor. Only gradually does her iron will and limitless enthusiasm for offshore racing show through. Yet, this is a sailor who hand-steered the lion’s share of a 600-mile solo race – four days and nights without autopilot or instruments. Little more than a day later, she didn’t hesitate to head out for another 230 miles of singlehanding, although her electronics still weren’t back in working order; and this coming spring and summer, she has every intention of returning to France to carry on where she left off.
Last November, Holden was awarded the Gerry Roufs trophy as the Canadian Yachting Association’s Offshore Sailor of the Year-a particularly appropriate honor considering that the late Roufs (lost at sea during the 1996-’97 Vendée Globe) got his start in solo sailing as the first North American to race in the Figaro. Besides being the classic “training grounds” of French professional racing, the Figaro one-design circuit (a mix of crewed, double-handed, and solo races) is an immensely popular sporting series in its own right. Yet despite being the principle pathway into the upper ranks of ocean racing in France, aspiring singlehanders from our side the Atlantic have scarcely been knocking down the doors for a crack at it. Among other things, I was curious to find out why not.
Holden grew up sailing in the junior program of the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club in British Columbia, and from age 18 had focused on the 2000 Olympics in the International Europe Class (women’s single-handed dinghy). However, her campaign ended unexpectedly when another sailor, Beth Calkin, qualified to represent Canada at the Olympics on the strength of an 8th-place finish at the Europe World Championships in January ’99.Changed direction
Homeward bound from Sydney after a disappointing Worlds, Holden made a stop in New Zealand that changed the direction of her sailing career. “I knew I’d like offshore racing,” she explained. “It’s always been something that interested me, but I guess I felt that it was just too big a thing to be, well, real. But I was in Auckland in February ’99 when the Around Alone boats stopped there, and I learned that the people [solo sailors] were real people – that this wasn’t something too radical for me.”
Back in Vancouver, Holden soon identified the Figaro as an ideal avenue into the singlehanding game. “I didn’t know a whole lot about it [the Figaro] when I started looking into singlehanding racing on the Internet and in sailing magazines, but once I found out about it, I thought there’s definitely the way to start.”
At the same time, Holden recognized that a Figaro campaign might be too much of a leap for someone with no offshore racing whatsoever. To gain experience and beef up her resume, she signed on for two legs of Sir Robin Knox-Johnson’s Clipper Challenge – a ’round-the-world race in matched 65-footers that caters to paying crew. The adventure included a passage across the south Atlantic from Capetown to Rio. From the moment she joined the yacht, Holden recalls being in her element. “The first night out of Durban we hit quite a lot of wind, and nine out of 14 crew were seasick, so five people were left to run the boat – we were pretty under-crewed. That was actually the most fun I had – big wind and lots to do.”
One of the lucky few who never gets seasick, Holden joked that “my parents took me offshore when I was one year old, and maybe that helped.” In any event, with a several thousand offshore miles to supplement her dinghy racing experience, the next step was the Figaro class itself.
Asked whether being a woman might have helped her gain admission to France’s government-sponsored offshore training program in Brittany, Holden allowed that it had. As she explained, “Sailors [are chosen] based on their CVs and recommendations. [But] the guys at Finistère Course au Large are really trying to promote Internationals, and they’re trying to promote females in sailing. They just said ‘no problem, come on over.”More prerequisites
Of course, getting the initial go-ahead was merely a foot in the door. Facility with the French language is vital, and in this respect Holden had a good start thanks to years of French-immersion schooling (French and English are both official languages in Canada). All the same, it wasn’t really enough. “French immersion helped to a certain extent,” she explained, “but when you get over there you realize how limited our French education system really is.”
Given her limited “sailing French,” Holden opted to begin with several weeks at Damian Foxall’s short-handed racing school in Ireland before moving on to the Finistère Course au Large, a government-sponsored offshore racing school for Figaro sailors. “Going directly to France would have been a bit difficult because of the language barrier,” she observed, “and it was good to get to know the boat first.”
Initially, Holden had anticipated sailing the double-handed Transat AG2R with a young English woman, Lorna Graham. However, Graham’s sponsorship fell through, and, in retrospect, Holden feels this was probably for the best. Neither woman would have had much experience aboard the 30-foot Figaro boat, and the first few days of the AG2R were among the roughest in the race’s history.
Then there was the matter of chartering a Figaro boat. Holden’s family is extremely supportive and not without resources, but by any measure it’s a formidable financial challenge to get into this sort of racing without major corporate sponsorship. Some last-minute support arranged by a family friend with interest in a French winery, Domaine de Régusse, provided Holden with the funding to charter a boat from Foxall – not to mention a sponsor’s name to paint on the boom.
So how much does it cost? Holden estimated that “For a French sailor with local support systems, you’d probably need – absolute minimum – about $60,000 Canadian (approximately $40,000 U.S.). But that would be minimum; like living on your boat every day.” Nevertheless, a determined North American sailor could probably do a Figaro for around $50,000. By way of contrast, the professional French sailors typically budget about $150,000 U.S., which covers not only the sailor’s salary, but a shore crew (almost essential), travel and boat transport, plus some new sails, repairs, charter fees, etc.
In return, the sponsors get an amazing amount of exposure. Holden was blown away by what she saw while the Transat AG2R was underway. “Television reports, color pictures on the front pages of newspapers and magazines … You’re in line at the supermarket and you hear people discussing the Transat. It’s incredible; everyday people all know what’s going on.”
Once she too was racing, Holden’s unique status as the only “international female” made her a particularly popular interview. “There were always microphones in front of my face when I came in,” she recalled. “Then I’d have to speak in my best French, and try to come up with something.” She admits, though, that she generally continued to think in English while sailing on her own.
During a demanding month and a half at the Finistère Course au Large, the on-water emphasis was solo boat handing. As a rookie, Holden said, “The hardest part of solo racing is the short course, round-the-buoys stuff. I find I get around the top mark, and remember to transfer the ballast for the next bottom mark, but my head is in the boat the whole time and I miss the wind shift. The top sailors have the boat handling down so well that its second nature, so they have time to look around and work on the tactics.” In addition, she recalls, “There were a lot of lectures about meteorology, weather routing, sports psychology, sleep management, and things like that.” Racing solo
Although the Figaro boats are raced from March through November in various fully crewed, short-handed and single-handed events, Holden’s program focused on the two high-profile solos: Porquerolles Figaro in the northwestern Mediterranean, and La Solitaire du Figaro on the Atlantic side.
The Porquerolles Figaro is a hectic two-week, 12-leg event with afternoon short-course exhibition races on the “lay-days” following pre-dawn finishes. From the park/resort at Isle de Porquerolles, the fleet races eastward into Spain and westward to Italy before returning to base.
“The longer legs are a true test of tactics in the unpredictable winds of the Mediterranean, and it is sound advice not to split from a fleet with such a depth of experience,” said Holden. The primary decision often came down to the inshore or offshore routes based on the geography of the coastline, the quadrant of the synoptic wind, the time of day, stability, etc. Many of the competitors know these waters like the backs of their hands, and it was easy to lose them after one bad decision. However, every leg of this race has been a weather-routing puzzle, with winds doing circles around the compass and large differences in wind speed over time and distance, so that even the best sailors have fallen victim to the conditions at some stage.
As evidenced by her result – 36th out of 42 with a best individual leg finish of 14th – Holden had her moments in the Porquerolles Figaro. However, her initiation in the main event was a test of fortitude more than anything else.
Course details vary from year to year, but Figaro 2000 covered 1,510 miles in four legs. Holden’s trials began when she severely sprained an ankle following a collision with a spectator boat at the start of leg 1. After four days at sea and a turnaround of less than 24 hours, her situation deteriorated further in leg 2 when engine and electrical problems, followed by a broken forestay, ultimately forced her to withdraw.
With the marathon 600-mile leg from France around Fastnet Rock to Falmouth coming up, patching up the boat took priority, and there was no real chance for the ankle to heal. By this point, friction had developed between Holden and her shore crew, making it difficult to accomplish repairs.
Holden nevertheless did fine through the opening stages of leg 3, sitting in 19th place at sundown on the first night, and still only five miles behind the leader come the following dawn. Soon after, however, she lost all electronics, including the autopilots, and again dropped down the standings. With characteristic understatement, Holden explained, “During the 600 miles I got maybe five or six hours [sleep] total. That leg was anticipated to be about two or three days, but we had a lot of light air. I sat in a hole for about 36 hours, so it turned into a much longer leg.”
The electronics were still down for the final leg, and, once again, a promising start was followed by a gradual slide down the standings as fatigue took its toll. Holden’s final ranking in her first Figaro was 47th out of 49. Competition at the top of the fleet was extremely close, with overall winner Pascal Bidégorry easing out to a four-hour cumulative lead, but the remainder of the top 10 within an hour of each another after more than 1,500 miles of racing. The “top rookie” performance was an unprecedented second overall by Armel Le Cleac’h, although this is not entirely surprising considering he’s the younger brother of the head instructor at the Finistère Course au Large.Looking ahead
For the hard-core young “Figarists,” campaigning these boats is pretty much a year-round activity. Racing begins in March and ends in November, while training continues throughout the winter months. Holden, however, has decided against such an all-out approach; at least for the time being. Instead, she hopes to accelerate her sailing education by teaming up with some of the expert Figaro sailors that she now counts among her friends. As she explained, “I’ll do two semesters [of university] now and go back in April to do the Spi Ouest crewed racing, a Cowes Week-type thing; then the double-handed round Brittany race, which is a mixture of long offshore legs and round-the-buoys races at every stopover. Then there’s a triple-handed race from Brittany to Wales and back, and then I’ll go single-handed again for the Porquerolles and the Figaro.”
Naturally, the plan hinges upon being able to charter or purchase a competitive boat, and this, in turn, will require a major sponsorship. Securing sponsorship has become Holden’s number-one winter project, and she’s enlisted the aid of a friend in the PR business to help with the search. Somewhat ironically (considering the stature of French wine exports), Domaine de Régusse – the winery that enabled Holden to race last season – has been discouraged from further participation due to new restrictions on alcohol-related sponsors at French sporting events.
Asked about the highlights of her Figaro experience, Holden replied, “I think just the satisfaction that you get racing single-handed, the actual sailing, the camaraderie with all the other sailors, and the great atmosphere – it was all so much fun.” As for her expectations for future Figaro seasons, she is soberly realistic: “The top 20 boats are so tightly matched that just to get up to that level would be an incredible goal. I don’t think my goal is to actually win it, [but] I’d like to get up there.”
Now back to being a student for the winter, Holden stays fit by lifting weights and indulging a passion for back-country skiing. As a major in geography, some of her courses such as oceanography and meteorology have obvious relevance to racing. In addition, she’s signed on for night school programs in marine electronics and diesel maintenance because, as she wryly observes, “I have to work on my weaknesses.”
So, given time for retrospection, was it really worth all the time, stress, and expense? Holden didn’t hesitate a moment before replying, “Yes, absolutely worthwhile. As soon as I’d finished the race I was looking forward to next year’s. All the lesson’s I’ve learned – I just want to put [them] into practice and correct things for the next one.”