The world's largest, most diverse fleet of offshore racing yachts will set sail from the Solent on 16th August in the Royal Ocean Racing Club's biennial Rolex Fastnet Race. 2015 marks the 90th anniversary of the Royal Ocean Racing Club and with it a record-sized fleet with as many as 350 boats is expected to take part.
As ever the 603 mile course takes the fleet west along the south coast of England, across the Celtic Sea to the Fastnet Rock off the tip of southwest Ireland, south around Bishop Rock and the Scilly Isles and back east to the finish in Plymouth. Conditions on the race course can range from benign and summery to vicious and stormy and the event is well remembered for the horrific conditions in 1979 that claimed the lives of 15 competitors. Fortunately vast improvements in weather forecasting, safety and communications equipment as well as yacht design over the intervening years mean that a repeat of this disaster today is unlikely.
The Rolex Fastnet Race is also one of the most popular events in sailing: the original limit of 300 boats racing for the overall handicap prize under IRC was increased to 340 in 2013 due to the increased demand. This is more than twice as many places as the next most popular of other 600 mile races held elsewhere the world and still, when registration opened in January, all 340 places were filled within just 24 minutes! In addition to this group is the 'non-IRC' fleet, including many top grand prix race boat classes such as the IMOCA 60s, that compete in the Vendee Globe singlehanded non-stop round the world race, and the Class 40s.
As always, one of the attractive elements of the Rolex Fastnet Race is its diversity. At one end of the spectrum are the high profile professional sailing teams who congregate on the Solent from the four corners of the globe, many fielding the world's biggest, fastest, most state of the art racing yachts. At the other end are the Corinthian entries, where individual crew will be embarking on what for them will be their own personal Everest - the culmination of a season's training that will have included at least 300 miles of offshore racing (the mandatory requirement to qualify for Rolex Fastnet Race entry).
One of the important battles is the race for monohull line honours which this year looks set to be a much anticipated heavyweight bout between the two brand new American maxis: George David's 88ft Rambler 88 and the 100ft Comanche of Jim Clark. Both are brand new, launched late last year and some gauge of their form will take place when both compete in the Transatlantic Race between Newport, Rhode Island and the Lizard (and on to Cowes).
Another battle to watch out for will be the battle of the multihulls which this year includes the world's fastest race boat - the 131ft (40m) trimaran, Spindrift racing, skippered by Yann Guichard and Dona Bertarelli. In 2009 this boat covered 908.2 miles a day at an average speed of 37.84 knots and has been first home in the last two Rolex Fastnet Races.
However nipping at her heels will be the three MOD70 trimarans including Musandam-Oman Sail, skippered by Sidney Gavignet. This boat last year sailed an exceptional Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race, setting not only a race record time, but also becoming the outright record holder for the Round Britain and Ireland course.
"I am looking forward to this race," says Gavignet of the Rolex Fastnet. "It is the big race of our season, so we take it seriously. It has such an impressive line-up. Races like the Fastnet are very important for sailing because it is a classic and you know that it will always be there every two years."
Once again Musandam-Oman Sail will be using the event in its continued programme of training up Omani sailors and three will be competing on board alongside Gavignet and round the world sailor Damian Foxall.
At the Corinthian end of the fleet, charter and sailing school entries are swelling in number. Typically these companies sell berths to individuals for the season enabling them to carry out their qualifications.
Hamble School of Yachting, for example, is fielding two Jeanneau Sun Fast 37s, each with six amateur crew plus a professional skipper and mate. "It is a bucket list item - something they have always wanted to do," says Director Chris Rushton of the attraction to his customers. "They are all first timers of mixed ability but a lot of them haven't done any racing before."
Their crew have already completed their ISAF Sea Survival and First Aid courses and this season will compete in the RORC's Myth of Malham, De Guingand Bowl and Cowes-Dinard-St Malo races as their qualification.
Eddie Warden Owen, Chief Executive of the Royal Ocean Racing Club explains the uniqueness of the Rolex Fastnet Race.
"The Rolex Fastnet Race is a world classic and probably the largest, most famous of its type. This year the demand has been huge with places selling out in 24 minutes and a waiting list of over 80 boats. The challenge for many is completing what can be a very tough adventure, but also its attraction for the experienced offshore racer is that they can compete with the top professionally raced yachts and have a realistic chance of winning. In 2013 the race was won by a very experienced father and son team sailing two handed which shows that anyone has a chance of winning the most prestigious race in the world calendar."