More than a journey
"The name of this great game is ocean racing, and it is also known as the king of sports." So proclaimed Joseph Weston Martyr, the inspiration behind the creation of the Fastnet Race, supported by Rolex since 2001. Some 86 years after the first race was run, and whilst the evolution of both the event and yacht racing can only be described as immense, Martyr would be proud that his mantra stands as tall today as it did in 1925. Ocean racing remains a sport that emanates challenge, enthusiasm and adventure, as the popularity of this year's Rolex Fastnet Race, which currently stands at a record-setting 318 entries, proves.
Over its deep history, the Rolex Fastnet Race has seen almost everything: horrendous and humbling conditions, record-breaking triumphs, delight and despair and, in the process, the rise of faster, lighter, high-tech yachts. Sailors cut from every cloth: professional, Corinthian, celebrity and royal have been drawn to the challenge.
The start signal for first class in the 2011 edition will sound at 11.00 BST on Sunday 14 August. As the fleet head out to sea and with the current weather forecast uncertain, the crews, from all corners of the globe, will be sure of one thing only: a journey awaits.
Start from Cowes
The Isle of Wight welcomes an estimated 3,000 sailors for the start of this year's Rolex Fastnet Race. A figure swelled by the Royal Ocean Racing Club's (RORC) proactive and welcome decision not to include the non-IRC fleet of Volvo Open 70s, IMOCA 60s, Class 40s, and Multihulls within the initial entry limit of 300 yachts.
The organisers are understandably delighted with the response to this year's race as RORC Chief Executive Officer Eddie Warden Owen explained in yesterday's pre-event press conference: "The 2011 Rolex Fastnet Race is not just a record fleet, it is a fantastic quality of fleet from professional high-performance racing yachts to family-owned production yachts raced by Corinthian sailors. The biggest yacht is a 140-ft trimaran Maxi Banque Populaire (FRA) and the smallest is a 30-footer, Brightwork (GBR). It is an amazing array of yachts, quite outstanding."
The race's start point, the town of Cowes, is often considered the hub of British sailing. Its August sailing competition has run almost ever summer since 1826, with Cowes Week providing the perfect opportunity for many Rolex Fastnet entrants to hone their preparations for the 608-nautical mile race.
Fittingly, the most experienced campaigner in this year's fleet happens to hail from Cowes: Ken Newman will compete for an impressive 27th time, sailing onboard his Swan 46 Marinero (GBR). "Looking back over the years and having competed in innumerable long distance ocean races, for me the Fastnet is the best event in the racing calendar," explains the 82-year old who was part of Sir Edward Heath's Morning Cloud crew back in 1975.
"It's like four or five races put together, each one requiring difficult tactical decisions to be made," continues Newman, who first completed the course in 1957. Over the years, this veteran campaigner has witnessed enormous developments in the world of sailing and he believes the event has evolved accordingly: "The RORC has played an important role in responding to the tremendous changes that have occurred, highlighted by the super fast guys on the big boats. They have ensured that there is competition between all sizes of boats. It could be a big boat race or a small boat race. Everyone has a chance."
On the other end of the experience spectrum is Charlie Enright, skipper of the Reichel Pugh 65 Vanquish (USA), competing for the first time. The 26-year old American leads a crew of 18, whose average age is a tender 24. "Our project came to fruition in January, so we are new on the scene," reveals Enright, "we've been training together since May and entered a number of competitions including the Transatlantic Race. All proved to be light air races. Consequently, we've not seen a lot of heavy air, but we're ready." The Vanquish team was recruited through the internet with Enright sifting through 350 applications. "The requirements we were looking for were experience, but also work ethic, compatibility and a varied skilled set," he concludes.
Reaching Portland Bill
From Cowes, the route takes the fleet through The Solent past The Needles, the iconic rock formation marking the western end of the Isle of Wight, before moving on towards Portland Bill, perhaps the most significant of the many headlands the fleet will pass on the outward leg of the Rolex Fastnet.
In the light conditions of the1925 race, Jolie Brise, the first Fastnet Race winner, took around 28 hours to reach Portland Bill. She than accelerated towards The Manacles, thanks to a splendid easterly. Portland is famed for its tidal gate, a strategic point where crews have to make key tactical decisions. Whilst Jolie Brise's name will be forever etched in the Rolex Fastnet record books, her legacy continues well into 2011. The 45-foot Morwenna (GBR), a direct replica of the Le Havre pilot cutter, is taking part this year for the second time. She has a point to prove; despite the gallant efforts of her crew, she failed to finish the race in 2009.
Stuart Jenkins will skipper Morwenna in 2011, having been part of the crew last time around: "We aim to beat the time of six days, two hours and forty five minutes - set by Jolie Brise in the first ever Fastnet. I will have a crew of 11 and we will have to work harder than the others as our rig is heavy and we have no winches."
The iconic Fastnet Rock
Following on from Portland Bill, the fleet will move on past Start Point, the Lizard and Land's End, where the sense of detachment from land will become reality. From here the fleet heads out in the open Celtic Sea, fully exposed to whatever the Atlantic weather systems have in store. The challenge is to reach the Fastnet Rock as quickly as possible and begin the leg back to Plymouth.
The first boat to round the Fastnet Rock could well be on track for the line honours title - though there is still the return trip across a fickle Celtic Sea to navigate. The fastest yacht on the water is set to be the aforementioned Maxi Banque Populaire whilst the battle to be speediest monohull yacht is most likely to be between George David's in-form Ramber 100 (USA) and current line honours and race record holder, ICAP Leopard (GBR), owned and skippered by the charismatic Mike Slade. A rivalry that will be resumed on Sunday.
Following an impressive season, David is optimistic: "We're looking forward to it. The weather forecast suggests that we should have wind for the race. There is disagreement about the direction with different forecast models, but it looks as though we should have some velocity of 12-20 knots, maybe more. It is a wonderful race with great locations."
David has his own special recollection of the race's iconic turning point: "I recall the spectacular moment for us in 2007 when we got around the (Fastnet) Rock ahead of ICAP Leopard by three seconds. We squeezed them off and didn't let them inside. It has been a wonderful campaign this year and we think we could have a shot at the record, but we will see how things go. My first concern when racing is that to win, first you have to finish."
The current race record, set by ICAP Leopard, stands at 44 hours, 18 minutes, achieved in 2007, only the eighth time the record has been broken since 1925.
Ross Field has winning experience at the Rolex Fastnet Race, having set a line honours record in 1999 with the 80-foot maxi RF Yachting (NZL). Record-breaking is not on Field's radar this time around. A more protracted race lies ahead. The New Zealander will be sailing the Class 40 BSL (Hupane) (NZL), with his son Campbell and is enthusiastic about the challenge: "I've always been interested in short-handed sailing. We've done about 60 hours on the boat. The race is learning curve against good Class 40 sailors; if we come in the middle of the fleet then we will be happy." Twenty Class 40 yachts are expected to participate.
For son Campbell the family partnership is a fruitful one: "It is no different to sailing with anyone else, there are a lot of benefits and we know each other very well. We've done a lot of offshore and inshore sailing together. We are new in the class and we decided to enter this race with a very strong field to see where we are compared to the experienced and successful teams."
Plymouth awaits finishers
The race's arrival point is Plymouth, one of Britain's most proud and significant naval cities: from its role in the expeditions of Sir Francis Drake to its strategic position during the two World Wars. For some competitors, arriving in Plymouth will be particularly significant. Take Nigel Passmore, campaigning the J/133 Apollo 3 (GBR). "For a Plymouth-based sailor it brings two main feelings," reveals Passmore, "first, you have to sail past your home port on the way to the rock, and then second, it is a great feeling when you enter Plymouth Sound with familiar sights and a sense of achievement."
Passmore completed his debut Rolex Fastnet Race in 2009 at the helm of the TP52 Apollo. This year promises to be somewhat different aboard Apollo 3, as he explained: "With hot running water, heating, comfortable berths and furling sails, the race will be a far cry from the bare minimum blast on the TP52. Sailing with a crew of just seven will be a good test for us. We are all west-country based and I guess the biggest wish will be to see the Fastnet Rock in all its glory as last time it was shrouded in mist."
Another Plymouth yacht is the X-332 X-Rated (GBR). "Last time we were doing well until we were caught on the wrong side of a shift off the Scillies (Isles) and then were becalmed after rounding the Rock," explains owner Charles Gurney. "The crew this time comprises four of the five who did it in 2009 and three others. I am delighted to have Beth Matthews as part of the team. Her inclusion is noteworthy as she is 15 years old; Beth has become an invaluable member of the crew both helming and trimming the main."
The main trophy for overall victory in the Rolex Fastnet is the Fastnet Challenge Cup. In addition, there are more than 30 other trophies that will be awarded at the prize giving on Friday, 19 August at the historic Royal Citadel. The Citadel, home to the 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, overlooks Plymouth Sound and Sutton Harbour, where the majority of the fleet will berth.