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50th Rolex Fastnet Race - how ocean racing came of age

Adding to the historic and mythical legacy of the Rolex Fastnet Race - A record fleet will mark the 50th edition of the RORC's preeminent offshore race © Carlo Borlenghi/ROLEX

Historic race becomes a legend
In one month’s time, on 22 July, yet another record-sized fleet will depart from Cowes to tackle the 50th edition of the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s premier event: the Rolex Fastnet Race. At present from across the globe 491 yachts of all shapes and sizes, ranging from 9m to 32m, are on the race’s provisional entry list. This is 26% more than the previous record entry of 388 that participated in 2019’s pre-COVID edition – the largest leap in entries in the event’s recent history. Given this is more than twice that of any of the other classic international 600 mile offshore races, the Rolex Fastnet Race is soundly the biggest offshore yacht race in the world.

In 98 years, the Rolex Fastnet Race, boat design and the sport of ocean racing have together come an unimaginable way. The first Fastnet Race, originally called ‘The Ocean Race’ was held in 1925 on a course from the Solent, where the start was from the Royal Victoria Yacht Club in Ryde, before the boats exited the Solent to east, then headed to the Fastnet Rock, finishing in Plymouth. With the start moving to Cowes the following year, the race going biennial in 1931, gaining Bishop Rock as a turning mark, and, as a one-off, finishing back in Cowes in 1933, the course remained largely fixed until the fleet outgrew Plymouth and was moved to Cherbourg-en-Cotentin in offshore racing-friendly France for the first time in 2021.

1913 gaff pilot cutter, Jolie Brise.Three times winner of the Fastnet Ocean Race, two times overall winner of Tall Ships Races.Jolie Brise is owned, maintained and sailed by Dauntsey's School

The pilot cutter Jolie Brise entered the history books after winning the first pioneering Ocean Race in 1925 © Rick Tomlinson/RORC

From small beginnings
A motley collection of seven yachts competed in the 1925 Ocean Race, ranging from pilot cutter-type designs to the seaworthy craft from the pen of Norwegian designer Colin Archer. The largest at 56ft (on deck) and most modern of these, Jolie Brise, built in Le Havre as a pilot cutter, was already 12-years-old when she entered the history books winning that first pioneering race. Famously, her owner Commander EG Martin, at a post-race dinner at the Royal Western Yacht Club on Plymouth Hoe, announced the formation of the Ocean Racing Club, that six years later would receive its royal warrant from King George V.

Perhaps most unusual at the time was how yacht racing was perceived in the UK. From the 19th century until then yacht racing was a big news pastime in the UK due to it involving royalty. Queen Victoria spent the summer months at her Isle of Wight residence Osborne House and would cruise her realm aboard a giant paddle steamer, while subsequent monarchs, Edward VII and George V, over a period of more than four decades would race their beloved cutter Britannia with considerable success. They naturally attracted the aristocracy and wealthy, a travelling circus which during the summer months would move between a long series of ‘Royal Regattas’ across the British Isles. However, racing at all these regattas was strictly ‘inshore’.

DORADE, 16 16, Owner / Skipper: Matt Brooks, Design: S&S 52 Yawl, Class: IRC 3STORMY WEATHER OF COWES, 115 115, Owner / Skipper: Christopher Spray, Design: S&S 53 Yawl, Class: IRC 4

Rod and Olin Stephens' Dorade, the 1931 and 1933 winner of the Fastnet Race © Daniel Forster/ROLEX

American classic inspires serious offshore racing
Racing offshore was felt more to do with the cruising community (the Royal Cruising Club was founded in 1888). It is perhaps for this reason that the oldest of the international ‘classic 600 mile offshore races’, the Newport-Bermuda, is co-organised by the Cruising Club of America. Similarly the Sydney-Hobart, first held in 1945 and originally conceived as a cruise in company down to Tasmania, has always been run by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia.

At the time of the first Fastnet Race, ocean racing was marginally more developed in the USA where the first Bermuda Race was run in 1906 and the first Transpac a year earlier. A key historic moment occurred when a New York-based Brit, Weston Martyr sailed in the 1924 Bermuda Race and, becoming utterly captivated by the event and ocean racing, began making waves in the British press that the UK needed its own. Despite what would transpire, it still took more than a decade for ocean racing to be considered a serious sport in the UK rather than a spirited cruise in company, the example perhaps having been set by successful American bespoke ocean racers like Rod and Olin Stephens' Dorade, the 1931 and 33 winner.

trojan fsnt21cb 08011176

Founded in 1846, The Royal Engineer Yacht Club have entered a boat in every Fastnet Race since 1925!  J/109 Trojan will be on the startline to continue the tradition © Carlo Borlenghi/ROLEX

A Royal Engineer Yacht Club tradition since 1925
Another entry in the first race was Fulmar, a 1901 vintage 14-ton cutter belonging to the Royal Engineer Yacht Club. Founded in 1846, the REYC aside from being one of the world’s oldest yacht clubs, has the extraordinary and entirely unique record of having entered a boat in every Fastnet Race since. This year they return with their J/109 Trojan. Significantly the REYC won the second Fastnet Race in 1926 with Ilex, still an ancient design launched in 1899, but which the sappers would continue to campaign until the race lapsed during WW2. After WW2 they entered a number of windfall yachts, liberated from Germany, until the era of GRP cruiser-racers, from the 1970s on, when they regularly entered various Nicholsons, Sigma 33s and Contessa 32s. In the 1979 race for example four entries represented the REYC including, famously, Willy Ker’s Contessa 32 Assent, the only finisher in Class V amid the fatal storm.

“There is certainly an element of keeping the tradition going - like Jolie Brise entering every year, the REYC feels obliged to put in an entry,” states Lieutenant Colonel Robert Duke, ex-Rear Commodore (Offshore) at the REYC who has raced four Rolex Fastnet Races with his club.

“Even before the first Fastnet Race, the REYC was quite adventurous and was involved in transatlantic races.” Aside from the tradition, they compete because they view the team aspects of yacht racing as good training. In addition to their race program with Trojan, they are shortly to set off on their ‘Atlantic Quest’ in which 100 of their troops will sail a Challenge 72 in various legs down to the Falklands and South Georgia, where mountaineers from their corps will recreate Ernest Shackleton’s crossing of the island.

“For the army the great thing about adventure sail training like this is that you can put people into challenging conditions at relatively little cost and give them some real leadership opportunities. When you are miles away from home in awful conditions it is a real test of leadership, in terms of how you bring a team together.” 

INO Noir,GBR 2747

Designed to win offshore and built for the race – RORC Commodore James Neville’s new state of the art C45 Ino Noir © Paul Wyeth/pwpictures.com

Inspiring innovation and design
To list some of the development: Since the Fastnet Race has existed since the dawn of the sport, it has seen and, on some occasions partly been responsible for, innumerable design, build and technological steps forward in racing yachts. This has been encouraged by top level competition, especially over the four decades when it was at the centre of what would become one of the most elite of events in international yacht racing: the Admiral’s Cup

Long keels were replaced by separate fin, then bulb keels and to spade rudders with the first flying/foiling boats introduced to the race in the last decade in the IMOCAs and Ultim trimarans. Rigs have gone from schooners, to ketches and yawls to masthead and then fractional sloops to, in the rarified cases of the Ultim, to rotating wingmasts that can be canted to weather. Sextants and logs have been replaced by RDF, Decca/Loran C and ultimately GPS; compasses by fluxgate and ultimately gyro-stabilised affairs. Oilskins coated with tar were replaced with canvas coated in linseed oil before being revolutionised by plastics and then breathable membrane fabrics like Gore-Tex. But the greatest advances, arguably creating the biggest performance gains, have come about through materials development and the engineering: hulls have gone from wood in various forms and build techniques, to GRP, to composites like Kevlar and PVC foam cores, culminating the latest state of the art of carbon fibre over a Nomex core with tooling cut by machine to millimetre accuracy, enabling lightweight, yet highly stiff, strong structures. The benefits of carbon have extended throughout the boat, especially benefitting spars and sails. Similarly metal work on boats has evolved from steel to stainless steel to aluminium to titanium, while hemp rope was replaced by polyester then aramid to the present state of the art Dyneema, Spectra and Vectran.


The Rolex Fastnet Race, more than any other sailing events in the world, represents the full pantheon of offshore yacht racing © Carlo Borlenghi/ROLEX

Representing the full pantheon of offshore yacht racing
As a result, while the pipe smoking, bully beef eating, Guernsey and sou’wester-wearing crew of Jolie Brise may have won the 1925 race at the snail's pace of 4.1 knots, even the extraordinary record of the Fife Hallowe'en set the following year (that would stand until 1939) was only at 6.7 knots average. When the VO70 Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing set her 2011 monohull record, her average speed doubled this - 14.25 knots. Most astoundingly the outright record to Plymouth set in 2019 by the 32m Ultim trimaran Groupe Edmond de Rothschild was at the average speed of 21.7 knots, although such craft are capable of 37+ knots average. If the weather permitted them to achieve this around the entire course, they would take just 18 hours to complete it.

Aside from this the biggest development in the race is its sheer popularity: while up until WW2 entries never reached more than 29, in the 1960s they increased exponentially from 59 in 1959 to 209 in 1967. While numbers took a hit following the 1979 disaster when a record 303 yachts participated, it was only in 2011 when this number was exceeded again, with the fleet size growing steadily to the present record of 388 in 2019. 

Today the Rolex Fastnet Race, more than any other sailing events in the world, represents the full pantheon of offshore yacht racing from mum and dads in their family cruisers to sailing schools and ‘pay to play’ boats, to the more competitive amateur IRC teams to pro teams and the French classes such as the Class40, IMOCA and Ultim. EG Martin and the original pioneers of the race and the sport would be beyond proud.  

Rolex Fastnet Race history article in the 2023 RORC Year Book by James Boyd is HERE