The Rolex Fastnet is more than just a race. When the British Isles weather conspires to deliver conditions typical of the time of year it becomes a true test of human endeavour. It is for this reason that the 608-nautical mile race consistently attracts a large and varied fleet: man and machine set against the elements. The 44th edition, which starts from Cowes on Sunday, 14 August 2011, is no exception. The entry list opened in early January and within ten days was closed. The 300-boat limit reached with record speed.
The fateful 1979 race still holds the record for most yachts to start: 303. That number may well be broken this year. Organiser, the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC), inundated with requests from the `professional' classes such as the Volvo Open 70s, the IMOCA 60s, Class 40s and Multihulls, has determined that these entrants will be counted above the 300-boat limit: an excellent decision for all those with an ambition to take on one of the biggest, offshore classics in the world of yacht racing.
The Rolex Fastnet traces its history back to 1925. Held biennially since 1931 (except for a break between 1939 and 1947) the race to the Fastnet Rock, off the southwestern tip of Ireland has attracted a mix of sailing's royalty - the stars of the sport, and, a huge number of more Corinthian of participants, all ready to test themselves over the course. Little surprise that two of the fastest, most advanced yachts of the age headline the entry-list. Course record holder Mike Slade and the 100-foot (30.5-metre) ICAP Leopard 3 (GBR) are scheduled to go head-to-head with 2007 rival, American, George David. This year the odds may not favour Slade so much as they did four years ago when he set the benchmark monohull time of 44 hours 18 minutes. David has a new Rambler. Rambler 100 to be precise, the former Speedboat, and generally regarded as the Maxi of her generation ... potentially. She has yet to be tested properly against the elite of Europe or the Southern Hemisphere. There are no guarantees in yacht racing, but if the winds are favourable, expect a dramatic dogfight all the way to the finish in Plymouth.
After a truly memorable first race in 2009, when they won overall, Niklas and Catherine Zennstrom are returning with their all-conquering 72-foot Rán 2 (GBR). The mostly British crew of the Judel/Vrolijk design have proved her ability on both long and short courses, wrapping up the inaugural Mini Maxi Rolex World Championship in 2010. The Rolex Fastnet, though, is a race that allows powerful legs to be stretched. "We've now done quite a lot of offshore races," remarks Zennstrom, "the Rolex Fastnet is probably the top race together with Rolex Sydney Hobart. As one of the world's oldest offshore races it has such a pedigree." Zennstrom believes the fact that it is held every second year is one of its key attractions along with the sheer number of participating yachts.
Winning in 2009 was understandably a "dream come true" for Zennstrom. With the disappointment of pulling out in the storm-ridden 2007 race still fresh, he is not assuming a second win will come easily. "Winning two races in a row is extremely unlikely. However when we planned this year's races [the Rolex Fastnet] was an obvious choice. We love the challenge and we know the boat is still very competitive in the right conditions. But will we get the right conditions? Last time it was a big boat race, this time it may not and you may end up with a 40-foot cruising boat winning. That's the nature of the offshore handicap races."
As the founder of Skype, Zennstrom is one of a myriad of famous names to have taken on the Rolex Fastnet. Not all have been successful in their efforts, but like Zennstrom, many have returned time and again relishing all that the race entails. The list of well-known names from the world of business and commerce who have competed over the 86 year history of the race includes, Charles Dunstone (founder of Carphone Warehouse), media mogul Ted Turner, marketer Ludde Ingvall, Noel Lister (founder of MFI), Sir Maurice Laing (former CEO of Laings), libel lawyer Peter Carter Ruck, Ron Amey (former CEO of Amey) and newspaper magnate Sir Max Aitken. The race has been touched by politics with former Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Edward Heath and in popular culture by Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran.
The Rolex Fastnet is not just about big yachts and big names. Reaching 300 entrants relies on participation of a considerable number of small, lesser known, yachts and crews for whom the taking part really is more important than the winning, even if deep down they harbour secret ambitions of the glory. With over one third of the fleet represented by boats of 40-foot or less, there are plenty of stories and rivalries to focus on.
One of the lowest rated, and therefore slowest, boats is the Contessa 32 Rainbow (GBR), skippered by Lee Egan. "There are four of us, all in our forties. I have been racing since my early twenties, working my way back from the bow. Chris Dunkerley has been sailing with me for the last three years and is inexperienced enough to enjoy frequenting the foredeck!" says Egan, who has done the race once before and is looking forward to skippering a boat for the first time. Whilst Slade, David and Zennstrom will contemplate a fast ride, Egan expects to be at sea for five to six days." To be honest we just want to complete the race knowing that we have done everything we can to sail as fast as we can all of the time. If we have some long, windy beats then we should do pretty well but if it's a light airs race then we'll be happy to arrive in Plymouth before they have run out of Guinness."
The main trophy for overall victory in the Rolex Fastnet is the Fastnet Challenge Cup. In addition, there are more than 30 additional trophies that will be awarded at the prize giving on Friday, 19 August at the historic Royal Citadel, home of the 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, overlooking Plymouth Sound and Sutton Harbour, where the majority of the fleet will berth.
The first signal for the start of the 2011 Rolex Fastnet Race sounds at 10:50 BST on Sunday, 14 August.