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Rolex Fastnet Race 2005

In a series of seven starts from the Royal Yacht Squadron, staggered at intervals of 20 minutes, the 283-boat fleet got away in sparkling conditions - blazing sunshine but with a little less wind than most would have wanted. Nevertheless, the strong current was soon working in the fleets favour and propelling the fleet out of the Solent.

Camera boats and spectator boats followed the fleet all the way to the Needles, with one yacht attracting a disproportionate level of interest. This was the old 1985 Maxi, Arnold Clark Drum, skippered by Simon Le Bon. Exactly 20 years earlier, the lead singer of Duran Duran had set out on this very same race in the very same boat. But he never got to see the Fastnet Rock that year. Battling through storm-force winds near Falmouth, Drum's keel wrenched away from the hull and the Maxi capsized. Le Bon and crew were rescued by the RNLI. Twenty years later, the crew had got back together, this time determined to see that elusive Rock.

As for the race favourites, there were two battles that everyone was keen to watch. The race for line honours would surely be a clash of the titans, an Australia vs New Zealand battle between Skandia Wild Thing and ICAP Maximus. The Kiwis launched off the Cowes end of the long start line, and swept into an early lead, one that they would extend to an enormous margin by the finish in Plymouth 608 miles later. The newly refurbished Skandia Wild Thing was two minutes late for the start after effecting some last-minute repairs to her mast, and she could never get on level terms with the Kiwis. Snapping at the Aussie's heels was the Volvo Open 70 Movistar, with Bouwe Bekking racing this powerful boat in full ocean-racing trim.

The other much-anticipated battle was between Irish TP52 Patches and Greek Ker 55 Aera for IRC handicap victory. Eamon Conneely's brand new 52-footer had just swept the board in the round-the-cans racing at Skandia Cowes Week only a few days before, so the Irish owner had high hopes of winning the Rolex Fastnet Race at his first attempt. With Olympic medallists like Ian Walker and Shirley Robertson on his team, there was every reason to believe Patches could win, although the offshore expertise of Nick Lykiardopulo's highly professional crew on Aera (winners of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2004) could not be dismissed lightly.

The first night of the race, the bigger boats made excellent progress along the southwest coast of England. The biggest reached Lands End by early morning, having successfully negotiated those dreaded tidal gates. The smaller ones, the 30-footers, had not been so fortunate, with some even forced to kedge with their anchors against the adverse current. This contest had "big boat race" written all over it.

The amazing thing about the new generation of high-tech race yachts is that they almost always sail faster than the wind. In other words, they are so efficient that they make their own wind. As they entered a windless Celtic Sea, this would prove an invaluable asset. Even on a glassy sea, ICAP Maximus kept rolling along. She was stretching out to an enormous lead. In other years, co-owners Charles St Clair Brown and Bill Buckley might have dreamed of breaking the course record, but even for a boat of such power and grace, 2005 would prove to be an excruciatingly slow race. ICAP Maximus did at least enjoy a fast run back up the Cornish coast, and she covered the final 90 miles in around eight hours. The elegant Maxi arrived in Plymouth early on Wednesday morning having taken the best of three days to cover 608 miles. She had left her opposition way behind. It would take Grant Wharington and his Aussie crew another 15 hours to bring Skandia Wild Thing home just as the sun was setting over Plymouth.

With line honours safely tucked away, St Clair Brown began to dream of doing "the double". The disappearance of the wind in the Celtic Sea was holding up Patches' progress. Battling among the Open 60 division, Conneely's crew were sailing a good race. They had got the better of Aera and other similar-sized rivals, but there is only so much you can do with the wind you're given. The breeze eventually picked up for the final run into Plymouth, but not sufficiently for Patches to overhaul ICAP Maximus's IRC corrected time. Things were looking better and better for the Kiwis.

Back in the Celtic Sea, the desperate lack of wind was playing havoc with a rockstar's busy schedule. Le Bon had to fly to America for a concert later in the week, although he was determined to see the Fastnet Rock, off the southwestern tip of Ireland. And so the crew of Arnold Clark Drum retired from the race, switched on the engine and motored up to the legendary Rock. They celebrated with champagne before motoring back to the Scilly Isles. From here, Le Bon's brother picked up Simon by light aircraft for his onward flight across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the fascinating Open 60 battle was reaching a tense conclusion, with Frenchman Jean-Pierre Dick racing neck and neck with Swiss sailor Bernard Stamm all the way to the finish. Dick's Virbac-Paprec beat Stamm's Cheminées-Poujalat by just 13 minutes across the line. However, Dick admitted that he had been helped off the rocks at Hurst Point, at the exit to the Solent, having run aground little more than an hour after the start. A penalty for 'outside assistance' relegated the Frenchman to second overall, handing victory to Stamm.

The following day, Thursday, new breeze swept in from the west and brought a welcome respite from the drifting conditions that had dogged the race so far. For the bulk of the fleet still out in the Celtic Sea, they could at last get sailing again, traveling at good speed under spinnaker. As the hours wore on, the marina at Queen Anne's Battery started to fill up. And ICAP Maximus's grasp on IRC victory was becoming increasingly tenuous. By Thursday evening, Shaun Frolich's IMX-45 Exabyte III had seized the lead, although not for long. Throughout the night, new leader would be toppled by another new leader, the strengthening breeze enabling the smaller boats to leapfrog the corrected times of their larger brethren.

Just where would it all end? It seemed every yacht in the fleet was getting its 15 minutes of fame. Eventually, one of the smallest and oldest yachts in the fleet, a Nicholson 33 called Iromiguy seized her moment, and there was no one left to challenge her. Jean-Yves Chateau and his six crew sailed Iromiguy across the line at 1224 hours on Friday afternoon, after more than five days at sea.

For a race traditionally dominated by big boats, Iromiguy's victory was a dream come true, proof that just occasionally the Corinthian weekend enthusiast can prevail in an unremarkable boat. What is remarkable is that you have to go back 30 years, to 1975, for the last time that a yacht less than 40 feet long won this offshore classic. And the boat that won it then was Golden Delicious, a Nicholson 33, the very same design as Iromiguy.

This was the French skipper's fourth Rolex Fastnet Race. In the previous race two years ago, he came second in his class. "I came back this year to try to win my class," said Chateau, a doctor by profession. "But it is not possible that I could win the whole race. It is unbelievable, a childhood dream." He had won in a boat almost 30 years old, and worth less than £14,000.

The IRC handicap leaderboard was dominated by the smallest boats in the fleet from Class IRC 3, and also by overseas entries. After Iromiguy came Cavatina, Eric Lisson's Granada 38 from Ireland, and in third was Exile, a French X-312 owned by Nicholas de la Fourniere.

ICAP Maximus the trophy for line honours and Class Super Zero, where she beat Patches by over four hours on corrected time. In Class Zero, Robert Boulter's Mills 37, Thunder 2, beat Steven Blom's Grand Soleil 45 Satori by less than an hour and a half on handicap. Roger Dunstan's Prima 38 Bounty Hunter won IRC 1, and the Harry Heijst's Sparkman & Stephens 41 Winsome won IRC 2.

In the IRM division, Nick and Annie Haigh prevailed in the battle of the Farr 40s, with Too Steamy beating the Australian-registered Cacharaza by just over an hour. Frenchman Joel Malardel's Normanni 34 Tancrede won the small multihull division.

The doublehanded division was won by Pascal Loison, on the J/105, Night and Day.

Ian Walker's Dawn Class 39, Pickle was last around the Fastnet Rock and was the last boat home collecting the Gallery Slaves trophy

Sources:

The Royal Ocean Racing Club programme, archives
The Royal Ocean Racing Club, Ian Dear - published by Adlard Coles 2000
The Champagne Mumm Book of Ocean Racing - An Illustrated History, Ian Dear - published by Severn House Publishers 1985

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