While the top prize in the Rolex Fastnet Race is the Fastnet Challenge Cup for the winner of IRC Overall, considerable kudos comes with finishing first on the water. This will be especially true for the monohull line honours winner of this year’s 50th anniversary edition of the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s premier event, who will also receive the Erroll Bruce Cup and a Rolex timepiece.
The first edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race was held in 1925, at a time when yachts that ventured offshore in Europe were typically cruisers. At this point the fastest offshore sailing machines were still pilot cutters, which in the late 19th century would speed out into the Western Approaches to offer their pilotage services to UK-bound commercial vessels. Thus, it was no surprise that Jolie Brise, one of the last sailing pilot cutters launched (in Le Havre in 1913), should win the race’s first edition in the hands of Lt Cdr E. G. Martin, who would soon become the RORC’s first Commodore. She would be victorious again in both 1929 and 1930 (when the race was held annually) by RORC founder member and subsequent Commodore Bobby Somerset. On all three occasions Jolie Brise scored ‘the double’ ie line honours and the overall prize under corrected time.
The Fastnet Race ‘double’ has been achieved several times since. In 1957 American Dick Nye scored his second back-to-back overall win aboard Carina II with the added bonus, on that occasion, of being first home too. This was repeated by French legend Eric Tabarly in 1967 with Pen Duick III and then by Bob Bell’s maxi Condor in 1983. The most recent yacht to achieve this was Ludde Ingvall’s maxi Nicorette which picked up most of the race’s silverware in 1995, including IMS and CHS overall prizes and line honours.
Not since Jolie Brise in the first race in 1925 has any yacht secured the ‘triple’ ie overall and line honours plus setting a new record. For example Nicorette’s time of 2d 21h 13m was well outside the race record of 2d 12h 41m set a decade previously by Marvin Green’s maxi Nirvana.
For this year’s historic 50th Rolex Fastnet Race the environment seems right for a yacht to achieve the ‘triple’. Firstly there needs to be a stand-out line honours winner. In recent years for example one of the race’s fastest boat, the Askew brother’s modified VO70 Wizard won overall in 2019 but line honours went for a second consecutive occasion to George David’s Rambler 88. Similarly in 2003, Charles Dunstone's maxi Nokia-Connecting People won the overall prize but was beaten on the water by Neville Crichton's longer maxi Alfa Romeo 1. Then conditions must favour the faster boats with the wind turning light later in the race.
For 2023 there is a stand-out line honours monohull winner in Lucky, the former Rambler 88, now being campaigned by American Bryan Ehrhart. Her nearest competition, depending upon conditions, will be Peter Morton's Maxi 72 Notorious or the two VO70s Il Mostro and HYPR.
For Ehrhart, this will be his fourth attempt to win the Rolex Fastnet Race, following his first aboard a TP52 in 2009 when he was 30th overall and his last in 2019, aboard a Maxi 72, finishing 15th overall. He admits that in the TP52 the race was a little premature for their campaign while in 2019 they had had to nurse the boat round the course in the brisk conditions. In 2015 his 63 footer achieved great success winning that year’s west to east transatlantic race, but her race around the rock came to an abrupt end on the Shingles. As Ehrhart recalls: “We managed to end up on what on the physical chart was called ‘the Trap’. You would think a sophisticated navigation system might have prevented us from going in there!”
So what is the attraction to Ehrhart of the Rolex Fastnet Race? “It is certainly one of the world’s classics and that is the reason I have been interested in it since I got into offshore sailing - to do the classics and do them well. I have done it three times and I have never done it well, which is why I am back for a fourth time.” Graduating up to his present canting keel 88 footer, offers Ehrhart a boat better optimised for racing offshore and competitive and seaworthy in a wider range of conditions. On board will be many of George David’s former crew, led by Brad Butterworth and packed with America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race legends. “They are fantastic sailors. The systems on this boat are complex - definitely an exponential change from the 72 - and it takes really intelligence people to make it do what it can do best. They are full of the knowledge of what it should do and the experience of what it can do.”
In terms of the remote possibility of becoming the first to score the triple since 1925: the record for the present course finishing in Cherbourg was set in 2021 by the ClubSwan 125 Skorpios with a time of 56 hours 33 minutes and 55 seconds. The record for the previous route finishing in Plymouth was set in 2011 by the VO70 Abu Dhabi but this course was 90 miles shorter. Comparing like with like, Skorpios completed the course at an average speed of 12.3 knots compared to Abu Dhabi’s 14.19. To better Abu Dhabi’s average speed for the original course, the monohull line honours winner would have to reach Cherbourg within 49 hours this year.
Over the years some of the world's most significant racing yachts have claimed line honours in the Rolex Fastnet Race. For example in this historic 50th edition, Kialoa II is competing; the predecessor of Jim Kilroy’s Kialoa III which won line honours in 1975. But in terms of outstanding historic line honours winners few surpass the remarkable Stormvogel. Dutch plywood pioneer Cornelius Bruynzeel launched his, for the time, radical 74ft ketch in South Africa only on 3 May 1961. Her shakedown cruise was her delivery to the UK where she not just competed, but won line honours in that August’s Fastnet Race with one Francis Chichester navigating. Stormvogel returned to compete in the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race, celebrating the 60th anniversary of her victory and the image of her hard pressed in the brutal conditions leaving the Solent were one of the top take-aways from that race. Stormvogel returns for this year’s special 50th edition.
Clearly the race is special for the boat, as Ermanno Traverso, the yacht’s custodian since 1982 observes: “The Fastnet was the first race that Stormvogel ever did and she won line honours. It was a complicated race. It was like my early days of sailing around the world in the 1980s, with just a sextant and barometer.” Having owned and raced Stormvogel for more than four decades during Traverso’s tenure, she has undergone several refits which is why she not only appears immaculate, but judging from how she survived the 2021 race, is also just as strong as when she was first launched.
“I really liked the race two years ago and this year is its 50th edition,” continues Traverso. “Plus I have a UK team and we are coming across to Cowes. I have done a number of ocean races and I love that environment.”
Perhaps most surprising is just how well Stormvogel competes under IRC. For example in the last Rolex Fastnet Race she finished an incredible 7th out of 271 in the full IRC fleet. On Sunday she won her class against several ‘modern classic’ maxis under IRC at Palmavela. “I think my competitors would be surprised!” refutes Traverso. “We are not surprised, because we have raced her a lot in the past - under IRC in Asia constantly against Swan 65s and 68s etc. We know that in certain conditions we are competitive and we know how to sail this boat in light air. And in certain conditions we can be very powerful.”
After four decades one can imagine Stormvogel holds few mysteries from her crew.