One of the most intense battles, both on the water and under IRC corrected time, in this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race played out in IRC Three. Here the scratch boat was unquestionably the JPK 1030 Léon, skippered by the defending IRC Three and Two-Handed champion and former overall winner of the Rolex Fastnet Race, Alexis Loison, racing yet again doublehanded, but this time with Guillaume Pirouelle.
Interesting was the diversity of crew make-ups: Fully crewed, doublehanded or mixed doublehanded, it seemed to make no difference to the competitiveness of the top boats. While the lead doublehanders in IRC Four were occasionally in the mix, it was mainly the doublehanded crews in IRC Three that held the top places in the IRC Two-Handed ranking.
After surviving Sunday’s brisk start, the battle for the front of IRC Three, as the boats tackled the stiff beat down the Channel, as usual was down to picking the shifts and playing the tide. Sadly some British Sun Fast 3300s teams had not made it through - Kelvin Rawlings and Stuart Childerley (hoping to repeat their IRC Two-Handed victory from 2015) opted out of the race as James Harayda and Dee Caffari on Gentoo retired with a ripped mainsail. Another, Swell, sailed by double Olympic gold medallist Shirley Robertson and Volvo Ocean Race sailor Henry Bomby, was also having a hard time having been OCS, although they had managed to recover well from their premature start, overhauling Léon by the Needles.
But then as Bomby recounted, they “got Portland Bill wrong - we were playing for a left shift, so our main rivals got four or five miles ahead of us in the first six hours. So we had to play catch up from there.”
At 0600 on the first morning, the Sun Fast 3600 Fujitsu British Soldier skippered by Henry Foster, had nosed into the lead, hugging the shore at Start Point with Louis-Marie Dussere’s JPK 1080 Raging-bee², Philippe Girardin’s J/120 Hey Jude and Raging-bee² neck and neck for the lead to the south. The British Army remained out in front as they sniggled around the Lizard coastline and continued on in the lead – just - as they diving south of the Land's End TYSS and up its west side.
At the Fastnet Rock on the early hours of Wednesday morning, it remained tight on the water, but the lower-rated Léon led over Raging-bee² and Hey Jude by 45 minutes with Fujitsu British Soldier 13 minutes further back. At this stage Swell was 1 hours 19 minutes behind under corrected time.
Half way into the return journey to Bishop Rock Fujitsu British Soldier and Hey Jude stayed west as Raging-bee² had nosed ahead of Léon to the east. By being further east still, Swell gained by being able to lay the east side of the TSS west of the Scilly Isles, as the boats ahead lost out, having to gybe to avoid it.
But the major hurdle ahead was the ridge that engulfed the fleet late on Wednesday into the early hours of Thursday, that parked the fleet. Here the Fujitsu British Soldier crew made the decision to head west of the TSS. This worked out badly for them and they remained more firmly stuck than the boats to the east. Hey Jude and Swell came out best in this reshuffle along with doublehanders Olivier Burgaud and Sylvain Pontu on their JPK 1080 Aileau just to their south.