Clash of the Titans
While the Rolex Fastnet Race's top prize is the Fastnet Challenge Cup and Rolex chronometer for the first of the 302 boats competing under IRC Rating, another significant battle will be between the most high profile monohulls and multihulls, gunning for line honours into Plymouth.
Leading the charge among this year's record breaking entry (currently standing at 350 in total) will be two of the world's fastest offshore racing monohulls, the maxis Esimit Europa 2 and Mike Slade's ICAP Leopard. Of these the European-flagged Esimit Europa 2 is the clear favourite: Both boats are fitted with canting keels and are 100ft long, but she is some 40% lighter than ICAP Leopard.
However Esimit Europa 2's skipper, German three time Olympic medallist Jochen Schümann, observes that the 100ft maxis don't have the greatest record on this course. Rambler 100 broke her keel and capsized just after rounding the Fastnet Rock in 2011 while, in her previous life as Neville Crichton's Alfa Romeo, Esimit Europa 2 was forced to pull out while leading the 2007 race.
"We are unbeatable unless we break the boat," admits Schümann, adding that Esimit Europa 2's ideal conditions are light to medium. "From 12-14 knots we are fully loaded and then we start reefing and slowing down the boat. In more wind than that the VO70s could be faster reaching or downwind than we are. In heavy breeze, it will be a really tough competition."
Schümann competed in the Rolex Fastnet Race during the 1990s aboard the ILC40 Aerosail and on the IMS50 Rubin XV. He is a big fan of the event: "350 boats - it is great. It shows what sailing can provide from racing to cruising, big boats to smaller boats. Only the very best boats and crews can win, but it is good to have such a strong competition in terms of numbers."
Mike Slade's crew on ICAP Leopard have huge experience winning line honours having achieved this in the 2007 and 2009 races. Boat captain Chris Sherlock says they missed out in 2011 because "we weren't in the right frame of mind. We got a bit gun shy. Due to the simple fact that after Rambler's keel fell off, we were all a bit jittery."
On previous occasions ICAP Leopard has lined up with her, Esimit Europa 2 has won usually because it has been in lighter conditions. Ideal conditions for ICAP Leopard are upwind or downwind in 20 knots, says Sherlock, who adds they would be happy with a podium position this year. Slade's crew comes fresh from line honours and corrected time wins in the recent Cowes Dinard St Malo race.
The boat which beat ICAP Leopard into Plymouth in strong breeze two years ago is back. Skippered by Ian Walker, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing VO70 in 2011 also set a monohull record of 43 hours 39 minutes.
"We will need a lot of luck to repeat that," says skipper Ian Walker of their prospects this time. "It needs to be too windy for the 100 footers and for us to have lots of reaching."
In addition they will face direct competition from the largely female crew, featuring Britain's Sam Davies and Annie Lush but also Volvo Ocean Race veteran Brad Jackson, on Team SCA's VO70, the former Puma.
However leading these monohulls around the race course are some superfast multihulls, including the two fastest offshore race boats in the world. The 40m long trimaran, then called Banque Populaire Maxi, set a new multihull course record, reaching Plymouth first in just 32 hours 48 minutes two years ago. This boat , now called Spindrift 2, is back but in the hands of co-skippers Dona Bertarelli and Yann Guichard.
The Banque Populaire team is also back, but with another trimaran, this time the more compact 31.5m long former Groupama 3. In her previous guise this boat set a new record for sailing fastest non-stop around the world and incredibly her skipper then, Franck Cammas, went on to sail her singlehanded (albeit with a shorter rig), winning the 2010 Route du Rhum, something her new skipper Armel le Cleac'h wishes to emulate next year.
Surprisingly, despite these two boats having been on the water, even operating out of the same homeport, for the last five years, the Rolex Fastnet Race is the first occasion they will race in anger.
But despite Spindrift 2 being some 8.5m longer, there is no certainty that she will beat the new Banque Populaire. Prior to the start the Spindrift team will have only spent two weeks training and of her 14 original crew only two are on the new team. Going into their final week of training Yann Guichard said they lacked experience in stronger winds. "Two weeks ago it was very light, 10 knots and flat water - like a holiday! Now we need 20-25 knots which we should see this weekend."
In the past this boat, which holds the outright 24 hour record (908.2 miles or 37.84 knots average), has seen peak speeds approaching 50 knots (ie faster than an AC72 catamaran).
Both Guichard and Dona Bertarelli are looking forward to the Rolex Fastnet Race. For both it will be their first. "It is really a mythical race," says Guichard. "I think the most fantastic part will be the start with 300+ boats. You have to be careful, but it will be really exciting. I like to sail alongside amateur sailors."
Spindrift 2 has not only Banque Populaire to look out for, but the two MOD70s, Edmond de Rothschild and Oman Air-Musandam. Of these the latter, skippered by Sidney Gavignet, should be more competitive as it is being raced by a full crew, whereas the former is being sailed double handed by Seb Josse and Charles Caudrelier in preparation for this November's Transat Jacques Vabre. Their boats might be smaller, but in contrast to the Spindrift and Banque Populaire crews who are both getting to grips their new maxi-tris, the MOD70 crews are both highly trained and familiar with their craft.
Skipper of Groupe Edmond de Rothschild, Seb Josse says he enjoys competing in the Fastnet race, particularly aboard big multihulls. Two years ago he was second home aboard the 23m long trimaran, Gitana 11. "When we are just passing the Scilly Isles, we start to see the first monohulls. You just have three hours to go while the others have two more days!"
Yann Guichard maintains that whether it is Spindrift 2, Banque Populaire or a MOD70 that reaches Plymouth first will depend on the conditions. "If it is really strong we are favourite, but if the conditions are really light, the MOD70s are really fast as is the new Banque Populaire, because it is light compared to Spindrift 2."
While the Rolex Fastnet Race has yet another record-sized entry this year, there is no other offshore yacht race in the world that has such quality and diversity at the top end of its fleet.
Abu Dhabi skipper Ian Walker shares his feeling about this year's Rolex Fastnet Race. "It is interesting how many areas of the sport of sailing are struggling for entries, but then you have the Fastnet Race which sells out in 24 hours. It is a great race and brilliant to see it being so popular."