Sailing the Figaro is a singlehanded firedrill

The popularity of the Figaro Solo has motivated French company, NKE, to develop an autopilot software¬†for the boat used in the race, the 30-ft Beneteau Figaro. The software responds to varying windspeed, sea condition and points of sail in accordance to the boat’s features.

The Figaro Solo is a French singlehanded race consisting of four legs, each 400 miles long. Now in its 30th year, the race has grown so popular that more than 50 boats compete, likely because it’s raced in a one-design production boat – the 30-foot Beneteau Figaro. The intensity of this race has led to continuous refinements in three key areas-autopilot, water ballast, and electronic navigation – the combination of which requires cerebral as well as physical skills. A French company, NKE, has developed autopilot software for racing purposes, specifically with this boat in mind. The autopilot features an integrated gyrocompass, dual pilot controls in the helmsman’s port and starboard positions, and a remote control bleeper that hangs around his neck (which also puts the helm hard over and effectively stops the boat should the bleeper and helmsman ever be more than a boatlength from the processor and hence overboard).

NKE’s helm-response software has been optimized from endless testing and computer simulation of the boat sailing in different conditions. Integrating the boat’s physical properties with different boatspeeds, the pilot’s software reacts for each windspeed, sea condition, and point of sail (using inputs from the compass, speedo, and wind instruments). It calculates how quickly the boat is going to yaw or round up in a puff, bear away in a surf, etc., and can apply just the right amount of helm at just the right moment to keep the boat sailing a preset course or apparent wind angle with least use of the helm.

The skipper’s skills, however, are still better at anticipating which way the helm should be moved at any particular moment, and when he is not falling asleep he is always the fastest helmsman. Upwind, a helmsman can usually sail a boat closer to the wind and make sure it stays in the groove by anticipating when he is getting too close to the wind. When the boat is left to the pilot upwind, a slightly wider angle is always used to leave a bit of margin and keep the speed high. Reaching, or downwind in light air, the boat can often be left to its own devices under pilot; a good time for the helmsman to get some rest or pay attention to sail trim.

The water-ballast system is manually operated and is relatively straightforward, but for newcomers it takes a bit of getting used to. Ballast is required when sailing upwind in over eight knots true wind. The snorkel, a kind of reverse self bailer, is lowered through a through-hull fitting. Valves through an inlet manifold are arranged so as to fill the windward tank as the skipper works a handle in the double-action pump on the cockpit floor. The skipper can continue to steer and pump at the same time. Filling the windward tank from empty takes about seven minutes, depending on how fit you are.

Tacking equipment from side to side inside the boat (sails, food, drinking water, spares, toolbox, etc.) has always been allowed, but all safety gear, batteries, anchors, and chain are sealed in place and are only touched in emergencies. For all races, the class rules specify a maximum weight of loose equipment of 40 kgs. (90 lbs.) for inshore races and 80 kgs. (180 lbs.) offshore. Moving the gear makes a huge difference, and ingenious systems have been devised for optimizing the position of this weight as far outboard as possible. Many boats are arranged so that three or four stacking crates can contain everything; they are then stacked on special shelves against the side of the hull just ahead of the water-ballast tanks for upwind sailing, farther aft for windy downwind sailing, and alongside the mast in light air.

The hardest physical maneuver is tacking at the top of the wind range of the genoa. The whole operation, if you’re good, takes about 40 seconds from the moment the skipper at the helm decides that in 40 seconds he needs to be on the other tack. This sequence must be followed for best results: The skipper bears away a couple of degrees, presses AUTO on his autopilot, moves forward from the tiller, opens the ballast system transfer valve, and starts counting … two, three, four … eases the mainsheet as the weight of the water ballast falling to leeward makes the boat heel over … twelve, thirteen, fourteen … jumps down below and starts to heave the equipment crates to the leeward bunks, still counting … twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three … leaps back up on deck … twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty … water is in the leeward tank, close the cross-feed valve (easily forgotten!), holds his fingers on the appropriate two buttons on the autopilot (this has a preset tacking angle in it), the boat starts to luff up, blows the old genoa sheet and starts tugging in the new one as the boat slowly bears away onto the new tack.

Trim the sail in, check the main, watch the speed build, dive down below to finish moving the kit to windward, then get back on deck, check the jib, check the main, get back to the tiller and disengage the autopilot. Forty!

Now he’s steering again, catching his breath, looking around to spot the next windshift, and considering going through the whole process again. Anticipation is all, along with a bit of fitness and strength. How long does a tack on a Mumm 30 take?

Navigation in the tidal, rocky waters of Northern Europe over many days requires preparation. A typical leg of the Figaro race will have the skipper program up to 200 waypoints into his GPS. Every rock and navigation mark on every chart used by a Figaro sailor has a number written beside it that corresponds to the pre-programmed waypoint. In the middle of the third night, when you’re short-tacking against the tide in 25 knots of breeze and you haven’t had more than four hours sleep in bursts of 15 minutes since the start and you’re battling for the lead with five other boats, you can’t just slip down below and check your position every five minutes. You have to be able to pull up a range and bearing for every rock and hazard from your steering position. Differential GPS sets are the norm and many boats use chart plotter screens, either mounted on deck or that swing into view in the hatch.

In addition to the Figaro Race, the class organizes a circuit of grand prix events, consisting of both buoy and overnight races, all singlehanded. There are also several two-handed events, including a biennial transatlantic race. Prizemoney is as much as $30,000 for the big events, and cumulative performance goes toward an annual ranking. It’s a highly rewarding boat to learn to sail.

The 1999 Figaro Solo begins in August.

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