Records tumbled in the 2011 Rolex Fastnet Race, this year's event living up to its reputation as the most gruelling and tactically challenging of the classic offshore races. As usual the 608 mile long course took the boats from the start line off Cowes, Isles of Wight towards the Fastnet Rock off southwest Ireland, back around the outside of the Scilly Isles off southwest England to the finish line in Plymouth.
On Sunday 14 August, 314 boats set sail - the largest ever Rolex Fastnet Race fleet - up from the previous record of 303. This was due to a new initiative from race's organisers, the Royal Ocean Racing Club, to invite 'professional' offshore classes, able to compete under their own class rules, over and above the IRC fleet, that was capped at a maximum of 300 entries. The result was the most diverse selection of yachts ever assembled in a single offshore yacht race with the new initiative attracting many high-profile international racing teams. Thus in the same race some of the world's fastest multihulls such as the 140-foot long trimaran, Maxi Banque Populaire were lining up with Contessa 32s and pilot cutters with the complete pantheon of racing yachts in between.
A coup for the event was the participation of three Volvo Open 70s, the only occasion these boats would race together prior to this autumn's start of the fully crewed round the world race. The 'pro' classes also saw the race debut of the two Multi One Design 70 foot trimarans, and attracted six IMOCA 60s, best known for competing in the singlehanded non-stop round the world race, the Vendee Globe, plus an impressive fleet of 20 of their smaller cousins, the Class 40.
Leading the charge in the IRC fleet were the two 100 foot maxis Rambler 100 and ICAP Leopard, followed by the Farr 80 Beau Geste and Mini Maxis such as the 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race winner, Niklas Zennstrom's JV72, Rán, and Andres Soriano's Mills 68, Alegre, but the bulk of the record-sized fleet were more regular yachts with amateur crews from a total of 20 nations. For many, participation in the Rolex Fastnet Race was the highlight of their sailing seasons, for others the pinnacle of their sailing careers.
Off the Royal Yacht Squadron platform, the fleet starts began with the multihulls and culminating with the canting keel monohulls and VO70s, the boats enduring a stiff beat out of the Solent and into the English Channel in the best Rolex Fastnet Race tradition. With winds gusting to 30 knots at the exit to the Solent at Hurst Narrows, there were the first dramas of the race with the Class 40, Eutourist Serv-System and the trimaran, Strontium Dog (GBR) dismasting, plus two collisions.