International sailing stars gear up for challenging classic
Since it was first run in 1925, the Royal Ocean Racing Club's biennial Rolex Fastnet Race has earned a reputation for being one of the toughest events in the international yacht racing calendar. This has come about from the brutal conditions it can occasionally throw at competitors, as well as the complexity of the race course. Over the 608 mile long course, crews must negotiate tidal gates off the numerous headlands along the English south coast, as well as the open ocean as they cross the Celtic Sea to the Fastnet Rock, 10.8 nautical miles off the coast of southwest Ireland, before returning around the outside (west side) of the Scilly Isles to the finish in Plymouth.
The Rolex Fastnet Race this year has attracted A-list sailors from around the world, and the strongest international line-up of grand prix race yachts amongst the 300 boats setting sail from Cowestomorrow, Sunday 9th August. Peppered throughout the fleet are stars from the America's Cup, plus the Volvo Ocean Race and Vendee Globe round the world races.
Racing out on her own for line honours will be property developer Mike Slade's 100ft supermaxi, ICAP Leopard. Given the relatively light forecast, Boat Captain Chris Sherlock says that breaking the record of 1 day 20 hours 18 minutes, ICAP Leopard set in the 2007 Rolex Fastnet Race, is looking unlikely, but he remains hopeful. "It is a British summer – anything could happen! I wouldn’t write it off. We don't need that much wind to average 14 or 15 knots."
To optimise their boat to the conditions, they have had to shed a couple of crew and a sail, relieving them of about one tonne in weight in total. They will still have 24 crewon board, an all-star cast including New Zealander Brad Jackson, watch captain on the winning boats in the last two Volvo Ocean Races and from the America's Cup, Emirates Team New Zealand tactician, Ray Davies. "We have a few boys on board to give it our best shot," continues Sherlock. "When we come up against Wild Oats and Alfa in the Rolex Sydney Hobart this year they will have an equally good crew, so we have invested heavily there."
A new feature of this race are the IRC Mini Maxis and STP65s, the very latest breed of grand prix race boat and the battle between the four of these will be one to watch.
Making the voyage from the US is the 2007 Rolex Sydney Hobart winner, the STP65 Rosebud/Team DYT owned by Roger Sturgeon, which this week won this class at Cowes Week. The very newest is Beau Geste, a Farr-designed 80ft IRC boat owned by Hong Kong-based Karl Kwok and with an international team led by America's Cup helmsman Gavin Brady.
Favourite in this heavyweight bout is probably the 72ft Ran 2 belonging to Skype founder Niklas Zennström, featuring many of the UK's top professional sailors led by Volvo Ocean Race veteran Tim Powell. Ran 2 has made the trip up from the Mediterranean especially to compete in this race as has Luna Rossa, the STP65 sailed by Prada owner Patricio Bertelli's Italian America's Cup team. She features among her crew five-time Olympic medallist and Volvo Ocean Race winner, Torben Grael.
Torben Grael has competed in the race twice before when the Rolex Fastnet Race was part of the Admiral's Cup and in 1995 won overall on Medina. "It is a very traditional race which is sometimes pretty hard. The worst one was 30 years ago, so it is special long race. There are difficulties with the tide and sometimes quite strong winds."
For this race Grael is standing in for another well known Brazilian Olympian, Robert Schiedt and he only sailed on Luna Rossa for the first time this week. "I think light winds are not the boat's speciality but she should be competitive still," says Grael."We will see what the forecast is for tomorrow. It has been bouncing a little bit – very light and then a little better. I hope we have enough wind to keep going."
For the singlehanded sailors who competed over last winter in the non-stop round the world race, the Vendee Globe, the Rolex Fastnet Race is a sprint. Among the line-up is 2004-5 Vendee Globe winner Vincent Riou sailing on his old boat, now Arnaud Boissieres' Akena Verandas, while 2005-6 Volvo Ocean Race winning skipper Mike Sanderson is reunited with his IMOCA 60, Pindar. Favourite is expected to be Seb Josse on board BT IMOCA 60, who won this class in the race two handed with Riou in 2007.
Other household names competing in this class are Dee Caffari, the first woman to sail around the world singlehanded non-stop in both directions, sailing Aviva, and Sam Davies, who was fourth home as well as being first British skipper and first woman in the last Vendee Globe.
"The Rolex Fastnet Race is one of the most respected races in the world," says Davies, who has swapped her Vendee Globe steed Roxy for the more powerful Artemis Ocean Racing. "It comes in a list of great races that I am proud to have taken part in along with the Vendee Globe, the Rolex Sydney Hobart and the Figaro. I remember when I was really young never imagining I'd even sail across the Channel and the Fastnet Race was something I was overawed by."
Similar to the IMOCA 60s, but smaller, are the Class 40s. The 19 strong line-up includes Portimao Global Ocean Race winner, German Boris Hermann on his new Beluga Racer. But the favourite is certainly Italian Velux 5 Oceans winner, Giovanni Soldini and his Telecom Italia, who this year won both legs of the class' Les Sables-Horta-Les Sables two-handed race. Soldini is sailing the Rolex Fastnet Race four up with Italian America's Cup sailors Pietro d'Ali and Corrado Rossignoli.
"The Rolex Fastnet Race is a very historical race for us," says Soldini. "I heard about this race when I was a little boy. It is a difficult and tactical race - all the problems with the tide and quite often there can be a low pressure and a front during the course." He adds that he is not looking forward to the light conditions forecast as his boat, Telecom Italia prefers stronger breeze. "The weather conditions are changing every day. Some days they tell you it will be 10-12 knots - that is okay. Other days it tell you it is 4 knots – that is not okay!"
While the high profile international grand prix race boats grab the headlines, the bulk of the fleet remains the smaller handicap classes and with the race sailed under the RORC's IRC rating system, any of these is in with a chance. Among them is the 2005 winner, and one of the smallest boats in the fleet, Jean-Yves Chateau's Nicholson 33, Iromiguy as well as the new Tonnerre de Breskens of 2001 winner Piet Vroon.
This year's race marks the 30th anniversary of the disastrous 1979 race when 15 competitors lost their lives in mountainous seas as the fleet floundered in storm-force winds. The chances of a repeat of this incident have been greatly reduced over the intervening years. For example, today all 302 boats are fitted with EPIRBs, GPS and tracking units so that the organisers know exactly where they are at any moment in time.
Commodore of the RORC, Andrew McIrvine comments on how the safety aspects of the Rolex Fastnet Race have improved: "At the least half the crew and the skipper have had to do the qualifying miles. They have to do a sea survival course and a first aid course. They have got into a liferaft and turn it upside down and turn it the right way up again, so they know how things work. But probably the most important thing that people really didn't understand [in 1979] –they thought it was safer to climb into the liferaft rather than stay on their boat even though it had a broken mast or it had rolled over a few times. A liferaft is only something you step up into when you absolutely know your boat is wrecked and is going to sink.
"We know so much about the weather. In 1979 the weather came completely out of the blue. Today we have very accurate weather forecasting and that was why we were able to make the changes two years ago and say wait 24 hours. And of course all the way around you can be picking up the weather forecast on your iPhone. Navigation is much safer today. GPS wasn't there [in 1979]. Back then we were using RDF and you plotted a big triangle on the chart."
In addition this year the forecast is looking relatively benign. According to meteorologist Chris Tibbs the most wind competitors are likely to see in this year's race is 20 knots.
"The main feature is the ridge of high pressure up through the central Channel," says Tibbs. "Also we have a small area of low pressure approaching western Ireland tomorrow afternoon. The start will therefore be in a light northerly gradient wind, so hopefully we'll get a light sea breeze to get the boats away." Tibbs says that the boats getting down Channel will coincide with the depression moving across Ireland swinging the wind into the southwest bringing 15-20 knots on Monday lunchtime. "There will be a small cold front on Monday afternoon and then it is going to be a light to moderate wind beat from Lands End across to the rock." Past the Rock the high pressure reasserts itself over the race course to provide a light northwesterly to get the boats back to Plymouth. "For any slow boats, there is another low pressure expected on Thursday or Friday swinging the wind round to the southwest to bring the last boats home."
The warning signal for the first start on the Royal Yacht Squadron line, off Cowes, Isle of Wight, will be at 1150 BST with the Open 60s leading out of the Solent followed by the small IRC classes, the Class 40 start at 1340 BST, the biggest boats at 1400 and finally the multihulls.
Following on from the success of the games accompanying other major offshore races, so the RORC this year for the first time have introduced the 'Virtual Fastnet Race' game. In this, competitors from around the world can take part in their own on-line race in a standard 40 footer starting from the south side of the Isle of Wight (to avoid congestion at the Needles). With around 500,000 people having already played the round the world race games, the RORC are confident of achieving high participation for their race. As of Thursday, already 11,000 virtual competitors had signed up.
To play, visit the Virtual Fastnet Race visit http://fastnet.rorc.org
Further information about the RORC and the Rolex Fastnet Race including a provisional entry list may be found at fastnet.rorc.org and competitors are encouraged to keep a close eye on these web pages since all administrative documentation and race notices will be posted there.