The waiting is nearly over: the 44th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race, one of the great ocean challenges, is exactly a month away. With a staggering 350 entrants at the ready, 1979's record-breaking tally of 303 participating yachts will almost certainly be surpassed. The sheer size of the fleet is impressive, its quality and diversity quite breathtaking. Inspiring and exhilarating in equal measure, there is every reason to believe that the 2011 Rolex Fastnet Race will maintain the event's pioneering and prestigious tradition.
The numbers game
Due to the Rolex Fastnet's unique allure, event organisers the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) never have any difficulty ensuring that there is a large and impressive fleet in attendance. This year is no exception. Entries came in thick and fast and were closed within ten days of opening in January. However, the requests kept arriving. After being inundated with additional enquiries from the Volvo Open 70s, the IMOCA 60s, Class 40s and Multihulls to join the 608-nautical mile marathon, the RORC adjusted the entry limit to allow these `professional' classes to be counted above the initial cut-off mark.
The Rolex Fastnet Race commences from Cowes on Sunday 14 August (the first signal sounds at 10:50 BST). Whilst crews with the ambition of being the fastest to the finish will hope to spend only one or two nights at sea, spare a thought for those at the back of the pack, for whom a near week in often punishing waters may be the order of the day.
Rambler 100 enjoying Leopard hunt
Short of a catastrophic breakdown, the fastest boat on the water at the 2011 Rolex Fastnet Race will be the 100-foot trimaran, Banque Populaire (FRA), which just broke the round the Britain Isles record by almost a day and a half. However, the battle for monohull line honours is the most anticipated clash and is expected to be the privilege of two other 100-ft challengers: Mike Slade's ICAP Leopard (GBR), first elapsed-time finisher in the past two editions, and arch-rivals George David's Rambler 100 (USA). The two crews know each other extremely well, given their series of tussles in recent months. A head-to-head battle in the Transatlantic Race, which saw Rambler 100 ease to line honours after ICAP Leopard lost her bowsprit, the freshest encounter.
"Having won the Rolex Fastnet Race twice, the big play is to win three in a row, which would be quite exceptional," explains Slade, whose yacht also holds the course record of 1 day, 20 hours and 18 minutes [set in 2007]. "During the RORC Caribbean 600, Rambler 100 proved to be the faster boat in her ideal conditions. However, Rambler 100 may also need to protect herself in bad weather, more than ICAP Leopard. We feel we have a good chance in light and heavy airs, it is the bit in between that we might have a problem! I am really looking forward to the Fastnet, it should be a very exciting race but above all else, I don't want to lose our record to Rambler 100, that would be heartbreaking and we will vigorously defend it."
Rambler 100 is as keen to renew hostilities. "We're anticipating sailing in Cowes Week from 9-11 August and hope ICAP Leopard and others will be competing as well," explains David, "we've had three races together already, the Caribbean 600, the Annapolis to Newport and now the Transatlantic Race. Rambler 100 took line honours and corrected ahead of ICAP Leopard in all three."
David is fervent about the upcoming Fastnet Race and describes his own personal highlights of the parcours: "Beating out through The Needles in a huge fleet, the beauty of the south coast of England, the approach to the [Fastnet] Rock, and the wind and weather conditions all over the place."
Whilst these two ocean greyhounds are clear monohull line honours favourites, they may not have it all their own way. There is the significant presence of six Volvo 70s, including two of the latest breed: Abu Dhabi (UAE) and Groupama 4 (FRA). Then there is the Mini Maxi class including defending Rolex Fastnet handicap winner, the 72-ft Rán (GBR), owned by Niklas Zennström, in addition to Andres Soriano's Mills 68 Alegre (GBR), a fantastic campaigner in the Mediterranean in recent seasons. Throwing in the American challengers, the STP65 Vanquish, and the Reichel-Pugh 66 Zaraffa, who like ICAP Leopard and Rambler 100 competed in the Transatlantic Race, it promises to be a tight contest at the top of the fleet.
Tales from the foreign third
Of the record breaking 350 yachts competing at this year's Rolex Fastnet Race, approximately a third are non-British crews. A scan of the 2011 entry list highlights the global pull of the event, with yachts competing from the following countries: Austria, Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, the UAE and the USA.
Karl Kwok, owner of the 80-ft Beau Geste (HKG), will be taking part in the event for the third time. "I am definitely here for the challenge as this is one of the most interesting and competitive offshore races in the world," he explains. "My first time here was in 1995, followed by my second appearance in the last edition [in 2009]. We did well on that occasion, but it could be better still!" Kwok adores offshore racing: "For me the top three blue water offshore classics are the Fastnet, Sydney to Hobart and Newport to Bermuda - in that order. And Rolex has the top two!" Beau Geste will be another yacht snapping at the heels of the 100-footers and also arrive in Cowes fresh from competing in the Transatlantic Race.
One overseas crew in particular has reason to treasure its association with the Rolex Fastnet. Six years ago, Frenchman Jean Yves Chateau's 33-ft Nicholson Iromiguy won the competition on corrected time, the first time in three decades that the overall prize had been won by a yacht under 40 feet. For the Saint Malo-based skipper, the victory was both a surprise and a fulfilment of an ambition: "To win the Rolex Fastnet Race was like a childhood dream, it is like an 'Everest' in my life and in the life of each member of my crew: absolutely fantastic, unbelievable, gorgeous, not to mention the incredible fact of having beaten all the big guys. It was also very important for me to be the third French sailor to win this race and to have my name engraved on this Cup close to Eric Tabarly [the legendary French skipper who won the race in 1967]!"
Regarding the 'draw' of the Rolex Fastnet, Chateau continues: "It is a mythical race. This year will be our seventh time and we are always very pleased and enthusiastic to participate with the crazy dream of winning it one more time." Amongst the sizeable French contingent is the intriguing story of the IMOCA 60 DCNS 100 (FRA), sailed by skipper Marc Thiercelin and his famous apprentice, former downhill skier and endurance motorsport driver, Luc Alphand. DCNS 100 is one of seven IMOCA 60s, including Cheminées Poujoulat (SUI) launched in May this year.
John Towers is helming the J/122 Oojah (GBR) with a US-based crew joining British boat owner Peter Tanner, their navigator for the race. The English Channel is some distance from their usual racing haven of the east coast of the United States. "As a group of Americans, we consider the Rolex Fastnet Race to be a once in a lifetime adventure that is a natural compliment to our passion for distance racing," explains Towers, "the Fastnet is a big deal for us and an adventure that we have been planning for the last two years."
Towers continues: "Our goal will be the same as any other race we enter. Priority one is a safe passage. Priority two is that the experience is very positive for all members of the crew. Our third priority is to be competitive."
Triple TP52 challenge
The three TP52s competing at the Rolex Fastnet Race will resume their engagement having been near inseparable at the recent Giraglia Rolex Cup. On that occasion, Franck Noël's Near Miss (SUI) finished the 243-nautical mile race less than two minutes ahead of Johnny Vincent's Pace (GBR). Bryon Ehrhart's Lucky (USA) was only a further hour behind. On corrected time, only seven places separated the three crews, with Pace coming out on top. Over a considerably longer distance, this `race within a race' will be one to follow come August.
Back of the pack
The crew of the Contessa-32 Drumbeat (GBR) will likely have one opportunity to admire ICAP Leopard and Rambler 100 - during the passage out of the Solent. For co-skippers and brothers-in-law, Mark Himsworth and Pierre Walrafen, the race ahead will be one of endurance and, at times, solitude: "It feels amazing to be one of the smallest and slowest boats competing, tacking or gybing down the Solent against much larger and faster machines after the start. All the while competing on handicap directly against them," explains Himsworth, who will be taking part in the Rolex Fastnet for a third time.
The reality soon becomes quite different, as Himsworth reveals: "After 24 hours, most of the competition is long gone. Thereafter it's occasionally difficult to keep your mind away from the thought of the faster boats turning towards (or arriving at) Plymouth while ours plugs steadily westwards round Land's End. It's a pretty solitary undertaking when you're on watch and your co-skipper's sleeping and none of your competitors are visible, but that's all part of the attraction, and there's still plenty going on in Plymouth when we arrive!"
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.