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Eliès Still Holding Narrow Lead in Nail-biting First Leg Finish

The 52 solo skippers competing in the first leg of La Solitaire du Figaro are nearing the finish line at Coruna this evening, after a typically hard-fought leg which has seen some distinct strategic choices. Leading the fleet since Friday evening is Yann Eliès (Generali), returning to competition for the first time since miraculously surviving severe injury during the 2008-2009 Vendee Globe. The racing is close however, and in such a competitive class nothing will be certain until the very end. Estimated time for the first finishers is from 19H00 local time.

As the fleet reached the middle of the Bay of Biscay last night the frontrunners could be divided into three groups: those following the rhumb-line, direct route in the centre, with smaller packs further out to the west and to the south. As they awaited the arrival of the next weather front it almost resembled a line-up for a re-start, with much depending on how the changing conditions were played. When the front hit it brought up to 25 knots of wind from the south-west and torrential rain, together with swells of a metre and more ˆ robust, testing conditions for the fleet, but manageable nonetheless. Some relief was soon forthcoming as the breeze turned into the north-west, giving the skippers a slightly easier downhill run to the coast of Spain, at times planning along at 13 or 14 knots under spinnaker.

It has been a vintage leg of this classic race, with all the ingredients for which it has become famous. In such conditions the skippers cannot hope to be competitive under automatic pilot, and so stay on deck to steer and trim by hand, even after two days practically without sleep. Small wonder the accompanying official boats report that VHFs have remained practically silent. The suspense is also there  as to who will come out ahead,  the gamblers who have gone far out to the west, hoping to get the new breeze earlier and trading extra distance for better pressure and slightly easier seas, or the small but select group in the south, hoping that enduring cross seas is a worthwhile price to pay for a better angle to the finish?

So far the group to the south seems to have fared better, and Eliès has managed to protect his narrow lead, though at times with up to a dozen boats within five miles of him, and the closest less than 2 miles in his wake. As the breeze moderates nearer the finish it will start to look like a very tight margin indeed. Of the international skippers, Nigel King has at times been the most westward of the fleet, and in the middle of the rankings, but will be relieved to see that in terms of boat speed he has been competitive. At the back of the fleet fellow British skipper Jonny Malbon (Artemis) will doubtless be reflecting on his climb up the steep learning curve he anticipated in Lorient,  but no skipper could wish for a finer leg in which to make their debut.

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