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An Irish sailor does well

Tom Dolan celebrates in Kinsale


Tom Dolan was fairly tired when I talked to him at Kinsale Yacht Club after he had finished second in the first leg of this year’s Figaro Race sailing Smurfit Kappa into  Kinsale with a 14-minute advantage over what can be considered his normal rivals. It was a “tough leg” he told me, with complicated weather patterns creating many challenges and calling for strong decision-making, the best of which was his strategic move when the 32strong fleet passed through the Scilly Isles. That gave him an advantage heading for the Fastnet Rock, but it was “that big moment when you go your own way and the fleet goes another…”  – which all sailors will know about! We recalled that when I met him on the last Figaroa Race into Kinsale in 2019, he had not done well. “That was on my mind, there was a lot of pressure on me, I wanted to do well into Ireland this time.” And so he did.

It is good to see an Irish sailor doing well in the tough French Figaro Race. Solo sallor Tom finished second in the first leg of 610 nautical miles from Caen to Kinsale. The Figaro is the top solo offshore race in Europe. From County Meath, Tom Dolan moved to France several years ago to develop his international career. Sailing Smurfit Kappa the first leg result has put him in a good position for the rest of the 1,800 mile race which is due to finish, after a third leg, at Piriac-sur-Mer, France, around September 13. Listen to my interview with Tom Dolan on the website.

Just ‘on cue,’ Tom delivered his career best stage finish when, under the added pressure of being the ‘homecoming favourite’ he took second place on the 610 nautical miles La Solitaire du Figaro Paprec first leg from Caen into drizzly Kinsale this morning.

The result on the first step of the three-stage 1850 miles race to Piriac sur Mer on the French Atlantic coast, sets up Dolan for the rest of the event with a useful cushion – around 14 minutes – over what can be considered his normal rivals. With French rookie skippers Benoît Tuduri (CAPSO – En Cavale) and Julie Simon (DOUZE) unexpectedly taking first and third positions on their first La Solitaire, this is by far the best start by Dolan, skipper of Smurfit Kappa-Kingspan, on the annual pinnacle of French solo offshore racing which he is contesting for the sixth time. A key strategic move when the 32 strong fleet passed through the Scilly isles early yesterday gave Dolan the stage lead on the climb up to the Fastnet Rock which he rounded in the small hours of this morning in fourth place.
Whilst Tuduri and Simon, first and third to round, were seeing the iconic ocean racing milestone for their first ever time, the sailor who grew up in County Meath, Tom Dolan thinks he has been out to the rock around 30 times, mostly when he worked as a sailing instructor out of Baltimore.
When he crossed the finish line it was relief which was Dolan’s primary emotion. In truth he has no more local knowledge than is accumulated and disseminated through the fleet’s by coaching and support staff.
Being solo and with no outside assistance or communication, once on the ocean the skippers only get the most basic weather information and their position in the fleet from race direction.

“It was great coming into Kinsale, there were loads of people out to welcome me which was really touching.” grinned the exhausted Dolan, clearly ‘running on fumes.’ “I always feel more pressure on this leg ‘home’ to Ireland, it messes with your head because I want to do well. So there is a lot of relief. A lot. Earlier in the year when I found the race was coming to Kinsale I was immediately getting a bit nervous because there it is. coming to my ‘home’. I was worried and the last time we raced in here I did terrible.”

Tom Dolan sailing his yacht, Smurfit Kappa, into Kinsale to finished second in the first leg of the Figaro Race. Photos – Figaro Alexis Courcoux

Of his decision to stay east he said, “I had this huge wind shift to the left and tacked and was pointing at the Fastnet. I stacked the stuff, tidied the boat a bit and said to myself ‘right, who will be the first to tack but no one did. And of course it was night so I could not see anyone. I had a second thought to go back but it made no sense. And the tide was perfect for me.”
He summarise, “It was a really typical Figaro leg. We started a very shifty wind with the whole pack compacted up together and looking at each other, seizing each other up, and then doing maybe 50 tacks and sailed 100 miles to get to the first mark because the wind was shifting around so much. It was non stop all the time. And then at the Scillies the fleet exploded and opened up a bit. You are thinking you are great thinking you are awful, thinking you are doing great, thinking you are awful thinking you are great. You start imagining a great finish and reel yourself in..It was a really classic Figaro leg. And at one stage some of the favourites are 20 miles behind and they still catch up. I thought the lead over them would have been a bit more, but I’ll take it.”

Looking back at the intensity of the course he said, “I am tired. These two or three occluded fronts, so dying depressions, meant the wind was all over the place, never steady. It seems like it was never settled for more than fifteen minutes, so you really got small, snatched naps.”

One very interesting point he told me – he has given up “chocloate dinners” aboard. He said he had not been good previously at eating properly during a race voyage, but with advice and a better approach to the race, a good pyschology about the project, he was doing better so – less chocolate – more ‘proper food.’

Fair saiing to him for legs two and three of the race.

Tom MacSweeney

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