Sailing: Davies single-minded in lonely pursuit of Figaro

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The Independent Online

Sam Davies is a strong individual who can hold her own in the demanding world of ocean racing, but the 28-year-old does like her pink T-shirt, monogrammed with her name and her boat sponsor and her pink-encrusted mobile, which she had permanently to her ear as she ran through last-minute checks before setting out last week on what could be, if not a career-defining month, a season-defining test.

Her yacht, new this year, is one of 42 identical Beneteau 33-footers raced by the solo skippers in the Figaro series.

This 34th edition is the longest so far, just under 2,000 miles for the four legs. They left Les Sables d'Olonne last week bound for Bilbao, where they arrived yesterday, and start for La Rochelle tomorrow. Then it is on to Dingle, in south-west Ireland, and back to St Nazaire.

Davies, the first British woman to take part since Clare Francis in 1975 and 1976, is part of a new generation of single-handers given not just public acclaim but extra boardroom credibility by Ellen MacArthur, Emma Richards and others.

Exhausted but elated after racing for 81 hours, Davies was 25th into Bilbao and fourth of the 10 rookies making their Figaro debut. "I think it will be about five years before I am as good as the guys at the front," she said. "I really need to work out how I can manage to sleep at the same time as making my boat go fast. That seems to be the biggest ingredient to doing well."

Those at the front were Yann Eliès, followed by Alain Gautier and Marc Thiercelin. One behind was solo ace and would-be America's Cup challenger Loick Peyron, back in 37th.

One of the catchphrases as MacArthur battled her way round the world was "single-handed, but never alone". Davies sees the Figaro slightly differently. Each leg will only take three or four days, there is not the isolation, or danger, of the Southern Ocean and there will often be other yachts in sight.

But there is not the constant contact with a shore base and she will only call another competitor to ask them to keep a watchful eye if she has to climb the mast or take to the water to clear anything wrapping itself round the keel or twin rudders.

"In many ways you are much more on your own, and that is one of the reasons I like this kind of racing,'' she says. "It forces you to do things on your own and that increases the sense of achievement.''

She trained hard to be ready for the physical demands of a race where sleep is snatched a few minutes at a time. She barely tips the scales at 55kgs - at St John's College, Cambridge, where she took a degree in engineering, she tried for the lightweight women's rowing eight - and for her first Figaro is trying only to make her mark in the "rookie" section. Even that includes some very experienced and talented sailors.

Davies is not committed only to single-handed sailing and says the Figaro is not a build-up to something else. She also enjoys being part of a crew. "I am pretty lucky, because it is like competing in two different sports,'' she says. "I feel you shouldn't just do one thing or the other and you can learn from both to improve at both.''

But for the next four weeks, with Earl Grey tea, Ryvita biscuits and sugary sweets the only comforts to supplement Pot Noodles and army rations, the struggle will be for Davies to be alone. At least she can look forward to the prize-giving party in St Nazaire on 23 August. It will be her 29th birthday.