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Cécile Laguette on Figuring Out the Figaro

Cécile Laguette on Figuring Out the Figaro

We first ran into French sailor Cécile Laguette during the last Volvo Ocean Race when she was working as one of the technical shore crew members of the Race’s Boatyard – the outfit responsible for servicing each of the six one-design VO65 yachts at each stopover.

While that was a role that played to her strengths as an engineer and naval architect, Cécile is an ocean racer at heart and was hoping against hope for a call from the Team SCA management who had named her as their official under-30 reserve sailor. Unfortunately though, she didn’t get her chance to become a Volvo Ocean Race competitor that time around.

She is determined to take part in the next VOR however and last year she moved back to France to launch her own campaign to compete on the Classe Figaro Bénéteau circuit, the highlight of which is that most venerated of French singlehanded offshore races, the legendary Solitaire Bompard - Le Figaro.

So far it has been a far from easy ride for Cécile but she has raised enough for a boat and some expert training. We tracked her down recently in France and asked her to give us an update on how her campaign was going.

Let me give you some background on the Classe Figaro Bénéteau circuit. It was created more than 26 years ago by some ‘crazy’ Frenchmen. Now, every year between March and September, 40 or more solo skippers race against each other across six offshore events. The highlight event is the prestigious Solitaire Bompard - Le Figaro race, which is one month of racing taking place in between France, Spain and the United Kingdom, split into four legs of around 500 nautical miles each.

The Classe Figaro Bénéteau yacht is a 35-foot one-design originating back in 1990. These days we are racing on second generation boats called Figaro IIs.

Sailors who do well on this circuit generally go on to have very successful sailing careers - Vendée Globe, Jules Verne Trophy, Volvo Ocean Race, even the America’s Cup. That’s great news for me because what I’m looking for is to race against the best, become a better sailor and to be able to keep on learning.

To say it’s a very competitive circuit would be a gigantic understatement. It seems like most of the guys and girls racing these boats have been doing so for over 10 years. Not only they are amazing singlehanded offshore sailors, but sailing the boats fast comes as second nature to them. In a one-design class like this, experience is everything. There are no design differences between boats, so it’s all down to our own performances, how we manage ourselves on the water and how well we run our campaigns.

Why, you might ask, did a rookie solo sailor like me want to put myself up against these experienced French skippers? Well, it’s my absolute dream to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race and for the entire nine months of the last race I plotted and schemed what I could do to become a better sailor and get a place on a team to race in the 2017-18 edition.

I love every aspect of the Volvo Ocean Race: the mental and physical challenges; being part of a team; going through the build-up of the campaign; the training on the water and in the gym; the race itself - being able to share the amazing offshore moments, the tough challenges, the victories, with your team mates. To be able to do all that while you are racing around the world is something I thrive to experience. Taking part in the selection trials with Team SCA last time and working on the last race has only reinforced my conviction.

So, in September 2015, after 10 years of living overseas – mostly in New Zealand – I moved back to France and began to try to work out how I was going to break into the Figaro Class. I knew my learning curve in single-handed-sailing was going to be very steep. Sometimes that’s the best way to learn, but, believe me, it has proved to be a way tougher challenge that I could ever have imagined.

Here is a breakdown of what I worked out I needed to achieve in the five months before the first race:

  1. Find a boat
  2. Find a training centre
  3. Find a sponsor
  4. Learn to sail the boat
  5. Learn how to sail single-handed
  6. Find a gym and begin my physical training regime 
  7. Start organising the logistics for the seven months of racing
  8. Enter all the races
  9. Come up with a communication plan for my campaign
  10. Become an expert on the weather, tides and currents in the areas I would be racing 
  11. Work out how to maintain the boat 
  12. Organise sails for the season

It was a daunting list but somehow over the winter I managed to get most of it done. Most importantly, I chartered a boat and got myself accepted at the best training centre - the Pôle Finistère Course au Large in Port la Forêt in Brittany. It’s where so many of the French sailing legends have come out of.  As well as on-the-water coaching, they also provide gym training and on-shore courses. Perfect!

After a lifetime of racing on fully crewed boats, it came as quite a culture shock to have the helming, trimming, navigating, tactics, sail changes, weather routing, performance, boat maintenance, and everything else, all suddenly be down to little old me. It was like going back to sailing school.

Imagine it – doing a windward-leeward race, solo, on a 10-metre boat, with 20 identical boats milling around you. Then take the same boat offshore for four days on a 500 nm race course - still solo but this time with 40 other identical boats. Two to three hours of sleep per 24-hour period is all you get and remember, no more than 15-minutes napping at a time, or you will lose ground on your competitors.

I can tell you, it isn’t good for morale and your self-esteem at the beginning! Especially when your training partners have raced those boats for the last five years, so you finish the training sessions in last place virtually all of the time. To top it off, the winter in Brittany is pretty rough. Between January and March this year we didn’t sail in anything below 20 knots with an outside temperature of 5°C. Sound appealing? Want to come join?

The good news is that I have now raced the first two events of the season and qualified for the biggest race in the calendar, the Solitaire Bompard- Le Figaro which starts on June 19 at Deauville on the northern coast of France.

Although I feel like I have achieved a lot since I started, I know the hardest challenge is still outstanding – finding some sponsors so that I can fund the whole thing. To give you an idea, a one-year campaign costs between €150,000 and €200,000 per year.

Those costs break down approximately like this:

  • Boat charter, €30,000
  • Purchase of new suit of racing sails, €30,000 
  • Maintenance, navigation software, other equipment, €30,000
  • Race entry fees (six races) and logistics, €60,000
  • We are already at €150,000 and that’s with no shore crew, no communication budget and no branding – the €200,000 mark isn’t far away. 

I have had to learn quickly about this new world of sponsorship: working out how best to pitch the project to companies, finding the right angle to approach them with and trying to get the right contacts to get a foot in the door in the first place. I have spent a huge amount of time sending emails, calling companies on the phone, and travelling to meetings. Looking for money for a sports project is a full time job in itself but at the same I am sailing and organising all the other aspects of the campaign too - talk about a busy schedule!

Having been out of France for 10 years and not being a big name in the world of sailing, I knew I had to somehow kick start the campaign in order to be able to convince sponsors to join me. I put all the savings I had towards the boat rental and then managed to raise €20,000 through a crowdfunding campaign and some private donations.

Putting my cards on the table though, I am writing this in May 2016, one month ahead of the biggest race of the season and I still haven’t found a title sponsor. That’s pretty stressful and needless to say it’s very tough going at the moment.

It can be difficult to explain to people outside of sailing why it costs so much and often they don’t comprehend how much work is involved in organising such a project. Right now, I seem to spend my time asking everyone for favours and making special arrangements for paying my bills. It’s not a nice situation to find yourself in. The hardest thing is not being able to focus 100 per cent on my preparation, my sailing and my on-the-water performance.

The cold hard facts are that I need another €40,000 to race the Solitaire, even if I cut down the costs to the absolute bare minimum - meaning no shore crew, buying second hand sails rather than new ones, no budget for accommodation and all the race logistics, and no money for changing anything on the boat. It’s getting more and more stressful every day as the start of the race rushes towards me.

At this stage you might be asking yourselves, why I haven’t I just called it a day? Because, the mantra of the solo offshore racer is NEVER, EVER, GIVE UP, so for me there’s no quitting. For sure, it isn’t easy every day. But I honestly believe that by trying my hardest, by staying positive and by continuing to move forward the best way I can, the situation will improve and I will have a great racing season in the Figaro class.

I have also had incredible support from companies like Marine Pool, C-tech and PROtect tapes, who have joined the project as technical suppliers. Friends have helped out too, with assistance on communicating the project to potential sponsors. Having so many people reminding you that what you are doing is amazing helps keeps the motivation up to carry on the hard work and to find the budget to do the race. Apparently it is all worth it afterwards, I bloody hope so anyway!

If you ever are nearby one of the Figaro events this year, I’ll be there, so come and say hello. I would love to share the project with you. Otherwise, maybe I will see you on the dock somewhere else one day - hopefully in Alicante in 2017 as I am about to set sail on the Volvo Ocean Race.

Fingers crossed!

Cécile

Find more information on Cécile’s campaign on her campaign website.

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