Record-Breaking Conditions Ahead
The largest, most diverse fleet of racing boats ever assembled in the history of offshore yachting will set sail from Cowes, Isle of Wight, UK tomorrow in the Rolex Fastnet Race. As ever, the Royal Ocean Racing Club's biennial flagship event takes the fleet 608 miles along the south coast of the UK, across the Celtic Sea to the Fastnet Rock off southwest Ireland, before returning around the Scilly Isles to the finish in Plymouth. The event has a fearsome reputation following the 1979 race which was devastated by strong winds and seas resulting in 15 fatalities.
While the previous record entry was 303, this year 318 yachts are due to start, and the fleet is impressive in its size as well as its scope: from the 40 meter trimaran Maxi Banque Populaire (FRA) to the 9.1 meter Rogers 30, Bernie Bingham's Brightwork (GBR). The first gun for the multihulls will be fired at 1100 (BST) with the last start for the big canting-keel monohulls and Volvo Open 70s, including two 100-footers, George David's Rambler 100 (USA) and Mike Slade's ICAP Leopard (GBR), at 1310.
The bulk of the fleet of around 281 boats will be racing under IRC for the Fastnet Challenge Cup. This will be won by the crew that sails best to their rating while the weather is also likely to play its part: typically a fast start and slow finish favours the big boats, a slow start and fast finish is best for the smaller boats. Hence why Niklas Zennstrom's 72ft Ràn (GBR) won the 2009 race overall, but in 2005 it was the turn of one of the oldest and smallest boats in the fleet, Frenchman Jean-Yves Château's Nicholson 33 Iromiguy (FRA).
If it is a big boat race there is a formidable array of craft capable of clinching it. All eyes will be on the two 100 foot maxis, American George David's Rambler 100 and Mike Slade's ICAP Leopard, line honours winner in 2007 and 2009. Among the Mini-Maxis, Ràn is back to defend her title but will be up against powerful competition from Andres Soriano's Mills 68 Alegre (GBR), while they will be chasing Karl Kwok's 80-footer, Beau Geste (HKG), on this occasion being co-skippered by American Jim Swartz.
If it is a small boat race, the field is wide open, with Iromiguy back again. "We love this race," admits skipper Jean Yves Chateau. "It is a mythical race... This year will be our seventh time and we are always very pleased and enthusiastic to participate with always the crazy dream to win it one more time..."
There are highly competitive boats throughout the fleet, but particularly in the 45-55 foot range that includes the Dutch perennial competitor and past Rolex Fastnet Race winner, Piet Vroon. His Ker 46 Tonnerre de Breskens 3 (NED), at present is the runaway leader in the RORC Season's Points Championship. Then there are the two TP52s, Johnny Vincent's Pace (GBR) and Franck Noel's Near Miss (SUI), both with crack crews, and the two Cookson 50s Lee Overlay Partners (IRL) and Chris Bull's Jazz (GBR). He says it looks like being an intriguing race. "There are quite a lot of changes in the weather with fronts coming, though the timing of which is uncertain. So it is one of those ones where you can't be very sure what you are going to get, but it looks like you will get medium speeds most of the time and getting light towards the end."
In addition to the strong IRC entry, the Royal Ocean Racing Club has this year invited non-IRC classes to take part in the Rolex Fastnet Race and this has attracted a wealth of high-profile racing hardware from around the world.
Line honours is expected to go to Maxi Banque Populaire, skippered by French offshore legend Loick Peyron. This is the fastest offshore race boat in the world, having on one occasion covered a distance equating to 1.5 times the Rolex Fastnet Race course in just 24 hours, or an average speed of 37.84 knots - the present world record. The race will also see the competitive debut of the two new generation MOD70 one-design trimarans, Veolia Environnement (FRA) and Race for Water (SUI), skippered by singlehanded round the world sailor Roland Jourdain and former 60 foot trimaran skipper Steve Ravussin, respectively.
Competing on board Race For Water is leading British yachtswoman Dee Caffari, the only woman to have sailed singlehanded around the world non-stop both east- and west-about. "I am so excited. I have sailed with them two days to learn the ropes. It looks like it will be an amazing experience and really fast. So I am very excited...and very nervous at the moment," said Caffari.
For followers of the Volvo Ocean Race, the Rolex Fastnet Race will be one of the only times some of the competitors will line up prior to the start of this year's fully crewed round the world race. Competing are: Groupama 4 (FRA) skippered by Franck Cammas, holder of the record for the fastest non-stop lap of the planet under sail; Abu Dhabi (UAE), with British double Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker at the helm; and Team Sanya (CHN), the newly relaunched Chinese-flagged VO70 skippered by 2005-6 round the world race winner New Zealander Mike Sanderson.
In the IMOCA 60 class, a top field includes two-time Velux 5 Oceans winner Bernard Stamm, making his race debut in the Rolex Fastnet Race on his new Cheminées Poujoulat (SUI), 2004-5 Vendee Globe winner Vincent Riou on PRB (FRA) and double Barcelona World Race victor Jean-Pierre Dick on Virbac-Paprec 3 (FRA). In addition they will be joined by twenty Class 40s including BSL (Hupane) (NZL), skippered by 1993-4 Whitbread Round the World Race winner Ross Field, and Tanguy de la Motte on Initiatives-Alex Olivier (FRA), back to defend his title in the Rolex Fastnet Race from 2009.
So a big or a small boat race? At present it looks like the former, with the forecast showing high pressure crossing the race course bringing light conditions from mid-week. Rambler 100 navigator Peter Isler agrees: "The way the wind turns off after we finish, it looks like that."
Isler adds that the latest forecast indicates that their giant monohull could have a chance of breaking the monohull elapsed time record of 1 day, 20 hours, 18 minutes, set by ICAP Leopard in 2007. "What has changed in the last 24 hours is that there is going to be a left shift when we get to Land's End that will make it a solid reach (to the Rock)." So it will be on the wind to Land's End and then a fast reach to the Fastnet Rock and back, and also downwind for the final run to Plymouth.
And if it gets light for the tail-enders, then they can at least enjoy a summery finish to this year's race.
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.