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The extraordinary 32m long Ultime Maxi Edmond de Rothschild showed a clean pair of heels to the rest of the fleet in the 49th Rolex Fastnet Race arriving this evening (Monday 9 August) at 20:24:54 BST, setting a new record for the race’s new longer 695-mile course to Cherbourg of 1 day 9 hours 15 minutes and 54 seconds.

As the huge blue and white trimaran arrived in Cherbourg’s Port Chantereyne, the marina was packed with cheering fans of the team and of its famous crew of six led by co-skippers Franck Cammas and Charles Caudrelier. Also on board were David Boileau, Erwan Israel, Morgan Lagraviere and Yann Riou.

“The boat is amazing – we have improved since last year, so we are very happy,” said Caudrelier. “The team has done a fantastic job over the last year to develop the boat and we can’t stop that because new boats are coming. We are very happy about this race and the result of it, and the way it has happened.”

After an exciting start Maxi Edmond de Rothschild exited the Solent and then led the Rolex Fastnet Race fleet south towards the Channel Islands. Here, significantly, they tacked further south than their main Ultime rivals.
“For us it was important to get south to get the shift,” continues Caudrelier. “It was obvious and we wanted to stay on the left of the fleet. Then we were worried about getting too close to the south of England approaching the Sevenstones [lightship], so we were very happy with what we did. We didn’t make too many mistakes.”

Maxi Edmond de Rothschild co-skippers Franck Cammas (left) and Charles Caudrelier. Photo: Paul WyethMaxi Edmond de Rothschild co-skippers Franck Cammas (left) and Charles Caudrelier. Photo: Paul Wyeth

Cammas added: “Charles and Erwan [Israel] did a good job with the routing and we had one good shift by going further south that enabled us to put more than 20 miles on Sodebo and Actual. What was strange was that the French boats went on the south of the Channel and the English boats stayed in the north! Perhaps they are using different routing software!”

With so much of their race upwind, Maxi Edmond de Rothschild hadn’t often hit super-high speeds. However, they had briefly reached 40-41 knots after passing Bishop Rock on their return journey.

With the wind dropping overnight and forecast to be sub-10 knots by tomorrow morning, it is likely that the next Ultimes, Sodebo Ultim 3 and Actual, are likely to lose further ground on Maxi Edmond de Rothschild.
Of their arrival into the Rolex Fastnet Race’s new finish port of Cherbourg, Franck Cammas commented: “It is good because there is a very good ambience - maybe a little more than when we finish in England! We are very happy to come back in two years.”

This edition was Cammas’ fourth Rolex Fastnet Race and he is a fan: “It is a very famous race because it has many boats. It is like the Sydney Hobart - it is not just the professionals, there are many amateur boats too. It is very good to have these all on the same line. It is also very nice to have big multihulls, big monohulls, all the new IMOCAs, etc all on the same start line.”

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Fastnet Race Day 2 2000 - While offshore racers may learn to take things as they come, in the Fastnet Race it’s rather less than a barrel of laughs to slug to windward from Land’s End out to the Rock, and then find that off the coast of West Cork, the wind is backing and you’ll have it forward of the beam - maybe well forward of the beam - once again as you make your way back towards the Isle of Scilly. Yet this is one of the more likely meteorological scenarios facing the medium and smaller boats as they head into the second night, knowing that somewhere way up ahead, the biggies such as the 140ft Skorpios, the mighty Rambler 88, sundry superannuated Volvo 70s and an entire slew of Imoca 60s, have had themselves a relatively straightforward long-and-short beat out to The Rock, and are looking at the prospect of fair wind sailing back into the English Channel, where an entirely new and probably favourable weather prospect presents itself for the intriguing 2021-style finish leg from the Isles of Scilly to Cherbourg.

The bulk of the fleet are still between Start Point and Land’s End, plodding westward as best they can into unreliable headwinds, knowing that beyond Land's End the World’s Most Irritating Traffic Separation Scheme presents itself to provide the quandary of whether to throw away hard-gained weathering in order to gain freedom, or else continue slugging on until you can leave this enormous imaginary island to starboard. It may be imaginary, but it looms so large that some demented navigators have taken to visualising it as a vast Dutch polder, complete with cow-filled farms and windmills, comely rosy-cheeked maidens, laughing children and much honest rural toil…….

Yet while this is what it’s like for the ordinary sailors, the surrealistic reality is that in the western approaches to Cherbourg, the giant multi-hull Maxi Edmund de Rothschild is sweeping in towards the finish at 20 knots, and will probably have crossed the line by the time this is posted.

So with so many known unknowns and unknown unknowns, we can only throw ourselves back on the figures. The former Volvo 70 I Love Poland is closing in on the West Cork coast in impressive style, and leads all of IRC. This will cause dancing in the streets of Cascais in Portugal, where the old war horse is usually based so that Polish offshore wannabes can avail of decidedly rigorous training all year round, and it is certainly paying off. ILP also leads IRC Zero. Meanwhile, in the foothills of Snowdonia they can allow themselves a pirouette or two in Pwllheli, as Andrew Hall’s newly-acquired Lombard 45 Pata Negra - having had her fingers burnt by going too far into Lyme Bay yesterday - had sailed a blinder since to get herself back into the IRC1 lead, and is currently rounding the north end of the TSS island and making 7 knots in a local wind mutation to have herself on course for the Rock.

IRC3 is our next main area of interest, and here the hyper-talented Alexis Loison continues to lead with Leon just to the west of the Lizard, but Cork’s own Nieulargo is still very much on touch and is currently 5th in this largest class of all. However, in IRC 4 the Sunfast Desert Star from Dun Laoghaire had been finding the going tough against more modern boats, but after slipping in the class rankings the Irish Offshore Sailing crew have clawed themselves back up to fourth, which is some going for a now-mature boat which has been round the block more than a few times.

In the Figaro 3 two-handed division, it has resolved itself as a two boat race, and at the time of writing its the turn of RL Sailing (Kenneth Rumball & Pamela Lee) to lead, while in general fleet terms they’ve got themselves close ahead of Leon just west of the Lizard, which is impressive company to be keeping. But both boats still have to cope with the Land’s End TSS quandary, while away to the northwest, the brilliantly-sailed Imoca 60 Apivia (Charlie Dalin) has been the second mono-hull after Skorpios to get round The Rock, Rambler 88 will soon be doing the same very welcome turn, while away to the southeast somewhere towards Lundy, the Imoca 60 Hugo Boss is demonstrating yet again in the Fastnet Race that whatever philosophy motivates the HB design team, windward ability is not an important part of it.

Tracker below

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Despite a blustery start and first night at sea in the 49th Rolex Fastnet Race, competitors have been making good progress west down the English Channel, with the bulk of the fleet at breakfast time this morning south of Start Point.

Since yesterday’s dramatic, brutal departure from the Solent for the 337 entries in 25+ knot southwesterly headwinds and violent wind against tide seas, overnight the wind has slowly eased. It is still gusting to the early 20s, especially around headlands, but is dropping the further west the competitors sail, with 15-20 knots off the Lizard and 13-15 off Land’s End.

While the majority of the Fastnet Race fleet is still toughing it out in the Channel, at 0800 BST this morning Maxi Edmond de Rothschild was the first Ultime to reach the Fastnet Rock. While not a record time – in 2019 she led around the Rock at 0633, less than two minutes ahead of Francois Gabart’s MACIF – her time of just 20 hours 50 minutes is almost three hours slower, but nonetheless highly impressive given that this time the boats have been upwind down the Channel and then fetching across the Celtic Sea. This time is also not as close with Thomas Coville’s second placed Sodebo Ultim Voile some 43 miles astern of her.

“We have just passed the Fastnet, leading the fleet,” reported Charlies Caudrelier, co-skipper of Maxi Edmond de Rothschild with Franck Cammas. “We're at least 40 miles ahead of the second which is good. We have sailed very well since the start of this race and are proud of what we have done. The boat is going fast and we have not made any navigation errors. Now we go back to the Scilly Isles. The last part, with gybes, will be complicated. We know that it is difficult to get to Cherbourg, especially when there is little wind. We remain focused on the speed of the boat and we will try to extend our lead. We will not be flying much on this leg to Cherbourg."

Sam Davies' IMOCA Initiatives Coeurs blasts her way out of the Solent Sam Davies' IMOCA Initiatives Coeurs blasts her way out of the Solent © Rick Tomlinson

Most surprising have been the tactics of the Ultimes and some of the IMOCAs, which forged off south after leaving the Solent yesterday and going south of the Casquets Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS). While the Ultimes tacked close to Alderney, some of the IMOCA dived even further south. Initiatives Coeurs skipper Sam Davies explained their reasons for this: “Nico [Lunven, her co-skipper] had done a lot of work on the weather routing with lots of different models and pretty much all of our routing went that way, because we might get flat water in the Alderney Race, sheltered by the Channel Islands and be first into the west going current off the north French coast.”

Hearing her on board, as Initiatives Coeur was passing Land’s End this morning, was difficult as her co-skipper at the time was easing the mainsheet: “We exploded one mainsheet block - it is not an issue, it just makes it bit noisy to trim. Still it is a pleasure to be going at full speed after sailing such a long way around the world in safety mode [completing her lap of the planet after retiring from the Vendee Globe last winter].” This morning Davies was enjoying racing her two close friends Simon Fisher and former Team SCA crew Justine Mettraux, who were alongside her aboard 11th Hour Racing.

Leading the charge among the monohulls is of course Russian Dmitry Rybolovlev’s mighty ClubSwan 125 Skorpios. At 0700 this morning, the largest single-hulled vessel ever to enter the Rolex Fastnet Race was passing between Land’s End TSS and the Scilly Isles, having allowed American George David’s Rambler 88 to split up the east side of the TSS. Perhaps most surprising was that only three miles astern of her at the time was the lead IMOCA, Apivia, a boat less than half Skorpios’ length and being sailed by two talented Frenchmen – Charlie Dalin and Paul Meilhat – their advantage being that their boat has giant foils enabling it literally ‘to fly’.

Looking good overall under IRC - I Love Poland, the VO70 skippered by Grzegorz Baranowski © I Love PolandLooking good overall under IRC - I Love Poland, the VO70 skippered by Grzegorz Baranowski © I Love Poland

The big boats were looking good overall under IRC corrected time this morning, especially I Love Poland, the VO70 skippered by Grzegorz Baranowski, which this morning was following the route up the east side of the Land’s End TSS astern of Rambler 88, which lies second overall under IRC. Since the start, IRC Zero has seen three retirements: RORC Vice Commodore Eric de Turckheim on the NMYD 54 Teasing Machine, the Gerd-Jan Poortman-skippered Ker 46 Van Uden and Lance Shepherd's VO70 Telefonica Black.

In IRC One, RORC Commodore James Neville's HH42 Ino XXX was vying for the lead on the water with Elliot 44 CR Matador of Swede Jonas Grander, both offshore en route to the Lizard. However, under IRC, Robert Bottomley's MAT12 Sailplane holds a slender advantage over Andrew Hall’s Lombard 46 Pata Negra. Others such as Richard Loftus’ Swan 65 Desperado (11th under IRC this morning) had shaved Start Point closer and were just tacking out from Plymouth.

Sadly there have been ten retirements from this class, including three favourites; Lann Ael 2, Didier Gaudoux's 2017 overall race winner; L'Ange De Milon, Jacques Pelletier's defending champion in this class and Philippe Frantz NMD 43 Albator. Also out is Cracklin Rosie of former RORC Commodore Steven Anderson.

The IRC Two leaders were this morning due south of Plymouth. The front of the fleet remains at three-way battle between international trio of JPK 10.80 sisterships, Englishman Tom Kneen's Sunrise and Richard Fromentin's Leclerc Hennebont/Cocody from France with Astrid de Vin's Il Corvo from the Netherlands further to their south. These three are also looking good under IRC along with perennial race winner Ross Applebey’s Lightwave 48 Scarlet Oyster

In IRC One, RORC Commodore James Neville's HH42 INO XXX was vying for the lead on the water Photo: Paul Wyeth/pwpictures.comIn IRC One, RORC Commodore James Neville's HH42 INO XXX was vying for the lead on the water Photo: Paul Wyeth/pwpictures.com

As expected in IRC Three, Alexis Loison and Guillaume Pirouelle aboard the defending class and IRC Two-Handed champion Léon have been leading under corrected time and, impressively, are right up with the front runners in IRC Two. On the water, Léon has Philippe Girardin's J/120 Hey Jude and the JPK 10.80 Raging Bee2 of Cherbourg hero Louis Marie Dussere nearby. However sneaking ahead of Léon and into the IRC Three lead this morning, coming in from the north in the otherwise French dominated class, is the Philip Caswell-skippered Sun Fast 3600 Fujitsu British Soldier. Léon is still well ahead on the IRC Two-Handed class leaderboard. Behind them, the majority in IRC Three have been taking a course tight in to Start Point.

In the void left by perennial IRC Four winner Noel Racine, France still dominates the leaderboard in this class with Francois Charles' Dehler 33 Cruising Sun Hill 3 ahead of Alain Guelennoc's X-332 Trading-advices.com and Ludovic Menahes and David le Goff's JPK 10.10 Raphael. However all were taking different tactics with Trading-advices.com hugging the Devonshire coast en route towards Plymouth with her rivals having tacked offshore. The top British boat is Chris Choules’ modern classic Sigma 38 With Alacrity the top British boat in sixth under IRC. The majority of IRC Four has yet to pass Start Point.

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Fastnet Race Day 2 0830 - Irish Offshore Sailing’s school ship, the veteran Sunfast 37 Desert Star from Dun Laoghaire sailed by Ronan O’Siochru and Conor Totterdell, emerges this morning with the best current Irish class place in the Rolex Fastnet Race 2021 with fourth overall in IRC4 in a class of 70 boats. And after a rugged night slugging into mostly west-south-west winds with most of the fleet tacking along the northern side of the English Channel, France's Charlie Dalin in the highly-regarded Imoca 60 Apivia did some very successful thinking right outside the box - he led a small group of class companions and a handful of multi-hullos right across the Channel close west of the Cotentin Peninsula, and didn't go onto port tack until he was south of the Channel Islands, close towards the Brittany coast at St Malo.

It was a win move that gave him space to sail fast and free, and this morning when the leading mono-hull - the giant Swan 125 Skorpios - finally neared the Isles of Scilly after an arduous tacking regime along the English coast. Apivia was right there with her, though as there’s a slight veering of the win beyond Land’s End, the big boat is now lengthening away.

France's Charlie Dalin in the Imoca 60 Apivia Photo: Rick Tomlinson/RolexFrance's Charlie Dalin in the Imoca 60 Apivia Photo: Rick Tomlinson/Rolex

Skorpio’s other rival for the mono-hull line honours slot, George David’s Rambler 88, meanwhile went to the east of the TSS at Lands End, and is now clear of it and - for the time being - is able to lay the rock, though the veering winds may mean some tacking close to the Irish coast. Something experienced by the leading multihull Maxi Edmund de Rothschild, which rounded the Fastnet just before 08:00 hrs this morning.

The giant Swan 125 SkorpiosSwan 125 Skorpios Photo: Carlo Borlenghi/Rolex

In the fleet generally, overnight overall IRC leader Pata Negra (Lombard 45, Andrew Hall, Pwllheli Sailing Club) seemed to go too far in towards Exmouth in West Bay in the night, and now she’s back in 5th in IRC1, and 15th overall, while Ireland’s Michael O’Donnell with the J/121 Darwoood is 7th in IRC1. In IR3 meanwhile, Alexis Loison in the JPK 10.80 Leon is putting in a trebly impressive performance - he’s currently off Plymouth, leading IRC 3, also leading IRC 2H (his crew is Guillaume Pioruelle), and he also lies 11th overall in a mainly big-boat race.

The leading multihull Maxi Edmund de Rothschild rounded the Fastnet just before 08:00 hrs this morning Photo: Schull SailingThe leading multihull Maxi Edmund de Rothschild rounded the Fastnet just before 08:00 hrs this morning Photo: Schull Sailing

The Murphy family’s Grand Soleil 40 Nieulargo (Royal Cork YC) has never slipped out of the top ten in the largest class of all - 73 boats in IRC 3 - and she currently lies 6th, but has been finding temporarily lighter conditions after putting Start Point astern. And in the depleted Figaro III two-hands class (just three boats still racing), Dun Laoghaire’s Kenneth Rumball crewed by Greystones' Pam Lee has regained the lead with RL sailing, putting in an impressive showing as she’s working to windward close off Plymouth in the same broad group as Leon and Darkwood.

See the live tracker below.

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Heading into the hyper challenging first night of the Rolex Fastnet Race 2021, noted ISORA skipper Andrew Hall of Pwllheli with the Lombard 45 Pata Negra - a boat which has brought success to Irish crews in major races on both sides of the Atlantic - is being indicated as overall leader of all IRC Divisions in a tough race in which the placings pattern is currently favouring the boats from IRC Class 1. This class includes Michael O’Donnell’s J/121 Darkwood of the RIYC, currently 10th in IRC 1, and 12th overall.

In IRC3, Nieulargo from Cork - having slipped to sixth in what is the largest class of all with 73 boats starting - is now back up in 4th, with the class lead currently held by France’s Alexis Loison in the JPK 10.30 Leon, who also heads the Two-Handed Division. IRC 4 meanwhile has been witnessing a fine performance by Irish Offshore Sailing of Dun Laoghaire’s Sunfast 37 Desert Star, sailed by Ronan O’Siochru and Conor Totterdell - her placing of sixth in the 70-strong class is a remarkable showing by a sailing school boat.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Rumball of Irish National Sailing School, crewed by Pamela Lee, was leading the five boats in the Figaro 3 class, pacing with IRC 3 leader Leon in convincing style.

The leading multi-hull, Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, has already put the The Lizard Point in Cornwall astern, and is nearing Land’s End, while in the mono-hulls the 125ft Skorpios is back in a different county, as she’s off Start Point in Devon, ahead of George David’s Rambler 88 though not by enough to be saving her time, while an impressive winning performance in Class Zero is being put in by the Polish Volvo 70 I Love Poland (Gregor Barinowski), which is snapping at Rambler’s heels and tops in Zero on handicap.

Details here

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The Rolex Fastnet Race has a reputation for the severe weather that it can throw at its competitors. Still strongly remembered is the 1979 race that cost 19 lives. Today the 49th edition of the 96-year-old offshore racing classic lived up to its fame as the first of seven starts got underway at 15-minute intervals starting at 1100 BST. Over the last three days strong southwesterly winds have been blowing up the Channel and competitors in the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s premier event were treated to these same headwinds gusting into the 30s and, as the tide turned off the Needles and in the western Solent, a building wind-against-tide sea state developed.

COVID, international travel restrictions due to COVID, plus Brexit have resulted in this year’s Fastnet Race being a unique affair. This along with a lively forecast for the race’s first 24 hours caused entries to drop as start day approached. Nonetheless, crossing line today off Cowes was still a highly impressive turn-out of 337 boats from 24 nations including Japan, Mexico and eight from the USA, but the majority from Europe, including the largest ever turn-out from France.

Despite winds gusting to 35 knots, the starts got away well. Among the multihulls, it was the favourites and defending champions, Volvo Ocean Race winners Franck Cammas and Charles Caudrelier on the Ultime trimaran Maxi Edmond de Rothschild that pulled the trigger most rapidly. They were followed by Thomas Coville’s Sodebo Ultim 3 and the Yves le Blevec-skippered Actual, but with the two MOD70s Maserati and Argo of Giovanni Soldini and Jason Carroll respectively, leading the charge in the MOCRA fleet. Incredibly just three hours after starting the Ultimes had already crossed the Channel and were putting in a tack to the west of Cape de la Hague, setting themselves up unusually to pass south of the Casquets TSS.

Maxi Edmond de Rothschild co-skippered by Franck Cammas and Charles Caudrelier leads the Rolex Fastnet RaceMaxi Edmond de Rothschild co-skippered by Franck Cammas and Charles Caudrelier leads the Rolex Fastnet Race Photo: Carlo Borlenghi/Rolex

Giovanni Soldini's Multi70 Maserati and Jason Carroll's MOD 70 Argo exit the Solent Photo: Carlo Borlenghi/RolexGiovanni Soldini's Multi70 Maserati and Jason Carroll's MOD 70 Argo exit the Solent Photo: Carlo Borlenghi/Rolex

Similarly an early stand-out leader in the IMOCA class was Charlie Dalin and Paul Meilhat aboard Apivia, which earlier this year arrived home first in the Vendée Globe, only to see victory elude him when Yannick Bestaven on Maître CoQ was awarded time compensation for his part in a rescue. Sadly, Bestaven was about to start today when his IMOCA was involved in a collision with a vessel damaging her bow and forcing him to retire.
“It is very upwind to the Fastnet, with strong breeze to start with at the Needles,” forecast Dalin this morning, this being his first race since the Vendée Globe. “The sea will be pretty rough with wind against tide. We will have more than 30 knots at some point. It will be pretty tense. There are some routing options including a southerly route across to France, close to Guernsey.

“There are some small shifts, so at some point we should be slightly freer than fully upwind, when we’ll be able to use the foils. With our big foils we fly fairly early.” The latest IMOCA foilers showed huge pace exiting the Solent in the strong winds, enabling them to stay up with substantially larger boats.

Showing great pace exiting the Solent among the Class40s was Emmanuel Le Roch’s Edenred. However by mid-afternoon as the Class40s were also heading out into the Channel, Axel Trehin’s Project Rescue Ocean and Aurelien Ducroz on Crosscall were leading towards the Cotentin peninsula as another favourite, Antoine Carpentier's Courrier Redman, on which former winner Gery Trentesaux is competing, was one of the few Class40s to have tacked north.

Charlie Dalin and Paul Meilhat on the IMOCA Apivia - an early stand-out leader in the Rolex Fastnet Race Photo: Rick TomlinsonCharlie Dalin and Paul Meilhat on the IMOCA Apivia - an early stand-out leader in the Rolex Fastnet Race Photo: Rick Tomlinson

IMOCA 60 and Class40 start off the Royal Yacht Squadron, Cowes in the Rolex Fastnet RaceIMOCA 60 and Class40 start off the Royal Yacht Squadron, Cowes in the Rolex Fastnet Race © Carlo Borlenghi/Rolex 

Seeing the maxis in IRC Zero, led by Dmitry Rybolovlev’s ClubSwan 125 Skorpios and George David’s Rambler 88, powering down the Solent in the building sea state and then crashing through large waves off Hurst was a sight to behold. Despite their huge length disparity, Rambler 88, monohull line honours winner in the last two editions, was doing well to keep up.

With the breeze looking to lighten mid-week, the smart money is on the hot boats in IRC Zero to win the Fastnet Challenge Cup. George David has his fingers crossed that Rambler 88 might score the elusive ‘triple’ – overall IRC win, monohull line honours and a new course record (likely since this is the first time the race will finish in Cherbourg).

Prior to the start David was uncertain of his prospects: “I focus on the weather as you’d expect for the first 48-60 hours. It could be a tight reach to the Rock and an open reach on the way back which would be a pretty fast race, and [on the routing] it has slowly got longer as the breeze has come around more to the west and looks like there will be a fetch, at best, up to the Rock and that will be a 60+ hour race. But it will be what it will be.”

Of the competition with Skorpios, David added: “I’d like to get line honours for a third time, but that’s going to be a tough challenge with this big new boat out there. It’s a big powerful boat, quite a bit longer than we are, with a lot of stability and it will go really fast on most points of sail, I think most especially on a 90-110° reach.

“If it starts to blow really hard, into the 30s, we might have an edge because we’ve been at this with the same team and with the same boat now for six years. This boat is pretty optimised and it’s pretty well sailed and most things that might break have already broken.”

While the grand prix classes were heading south, both Skorpios and Rambler 88 were taking a more classic route tacking along the Dorset coast including a long dive into the bay east of Portland (Skorpios’ base recently). They were followed by Jens Kellinghusen’s Ker 56 Varuna.

Dmitry Rybolovlev's ClubSwan 125 Skorpios and George David's Maxi Rambler 88 beating into the English Channel © Carlo Borlenghi/RolexDmitry Rybolovlev's ClubSwan 125 Skorpios and George David's Maxi Rambler 88 beating into the English Channel © Carlo Borlenghi/Rolex

Also heading south out into the Channel this afternoon are most of IRC One, with RORC Commodore James Neville leading on the water aboard his HH42 INO XXX. However hanging on to his coattail was not another all-carbon fibre grand prix racer but the venerable Dutch maxi Stormvogel. Under her original owner Cornelius Bruynzeel, this 1961 vintage van de Stadt-designed 73ft ketch won line honours in the Fastnet Race 50 years ago. Early leaders on corrected time in IRC One were David Cummins’ Ker 39 Rumbleflurg and Rob Bottomley’s Mat 12 Sailplane.

IRC Two was also heading south this afternoon with Tom Kneen’s youth crew on board the JPK 10.80 Sunrise leading on the water from sisterships Eric Fries’ Fastwave 6 and Richard Fromentin’s Leclerc Hennebont / Cocody. All were looking good under corrected time too but with Oliver Grant’s First 40 Jazz out in front, also heading the Performance 40 ‘race within a race’.

Like the yachts ahead of them, all but a handful of boats in IRC Three were choosing a long starboard tack out into the Channel. Here Ireland’s Denis Murphy and Royal Cork YC Rear Admiral Annamarie Fegan on their Grand Soleil 40 Nieulargo were already the stand-out performers. Their Cork entry was leading on the water and on corrected time, despite their boat being by no means the fastest in their class. Tactician on board is Nicholas O’Leary.

As in IRC Two, in IRC Four, yachts from French builder JPK were enjoying similar success with the Butters family’s Poole-based JPK 10.10 Joy leading on the water alongside sistership Benoit Rousselin’s Delnik. As a preliminary indicator of progress, Delnik was leading under IRC from Harry J. Heijst’s S&S 41 Winsome, no doubt taking the ‘washing machine’ conditions in her stride better than her newer lighterweight rivals.

Richard Palmer and Jeremy Waitt racing doublehanded on yet another JPK 10.10, Jangada, had some work to do lying in 20th at this early stage. Prior to the start Palmer said that “getting out past the Needles without breaking anything will be the first challenge; The forecast is looking quite lively with 20-30 knots wind against tide. You can certainly loose the race there. It will be wet and windy for the first 24 hours. And then it is hunker down and persevere. We are looking for the wind to free off as we go across the Celtic Sea, but that means that when we round the Rock there will be a bit more southerly in it, so a reach back and then with a bit of luck spinnaker up at the Scillies and then see what the end of next week has in store for us.”

“I am really looking forward to going into Cherbourg. I have heard they have pulled out all of the stops to make us welcome there. A lot of European boats have been there already and now they have relaxed the quarantine regulations here we’ll certainly be going in there to make the most of it.”

The classic 74ft 1961 ketch Stormvogel, skippered by Graeme Henry, smashes to windward after the start © Kurt Arrigo/RolexThe classic 74ft 1961 ketch Stormvogel, skippered by Graeme Henry, smashes to windward after the start © Kurt Arrigo/Rolex

Inevitably in the big conditions there have already been a number of boats that have retired from the race. At 1630 UTC this was up to 24, perhaps the most devastating being Yannick Bestaven’s Vendée Globe winner Maître CoQ. Two of the MOCRA multihull favourites were also out – Christian Guyader, the 2019 winner on board his TS5 catamaran Guyader Mext and Yann Marilley’s Outremer 5x Racing catamaran No Limit on which famous sailor Loick Peyron was racing. No Limit retired after she dismasted.

One of the favourites of IRC Two, Gilles Fournier / Corinne Migraine’s J/133 Pintia was also forced to retire. Similarly Ed Bell’s JPK 11.80 Dawn Treader is out with a broken mast. In IRC One, one of the Rolex Fastnet Race’s most regular competitors, the Goubau family from Belgium, were also forced to pull out on their First 47.7 Moana.

Winners of the IRC Two Handed class in 2015 Kelvin Rawlings and Stuart Childerley, back this year to have another go at this title aboard the Sun Fast 3300 Aries sadly have also become a statistic in this race. So too have another British favourite for this class, Rob Craigie and Deb Fish on board the Sun Fast 3600 Bellino.

Competitors are expecting a breezy night but for conditions to slowly abate over the next 24 hours.

Windy start to the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race © Martin AllenWindy start to the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race © Martin Allen

Hundreds of spectators on and off the water enjoyed the spectacle of the Rolex Fastnet Race start © Martin Allen/Fastnet Race spectators on and off the water enjoyed the spectacle of the Rolex Fastnet Race start © Martin Allen/

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With a strong west-south-west headwind against a burgeoning but favourable ebb tide, the start today in the Rolex Fastnet Race 2021 of IRC3 - the biggest class numerically - was going to be a very tricky one to call and sail.

But the Murphy family’s Grand Soleil 40 Nieulargo (Royal Cork YC) made it look almost easy, coming in from far out in the Solent very much under control on starboard tack through a fleet of milling boats, and then finding the perfect gap to throw onto port close under the inner end of the line at the Squadron battery, and head westward in clear air while a complete melee of boats close to leeward were making much noise and confusion getting in each other’s way.

As of 1340 hrs, the Race Tracker shows Nieulargo leading IRC 3, and performing well against the closest competition, but there’s a lot of sailing to be done before they get into clearer water at the Needles at the west end of the Isle of Wight.

Nieulargo's Fastnet Race start

With less than 50 seconds to go, Nieulargo is lined up (centre of pic above) and very much in control....

Right on the gun at the pin end, Nieulargo hits the Fastnet start line at speed....Right on the gun at the pin end, Nieulargo hits the Fastnet start line at full speed with an excellently timed start....

...and is immediately clear in IRC 3 to give her the best possible chance of a great 2021 Fastnet Race ...and is immediately in clear air in IRC 3 to give her the best possible chance of a great 2021 Fastnet Race

Scrub to 2:03:09 on the timeline below to replay Nieulargo's start below

Class Zero monohulls

Out in open water meanwhile, while the 125ft Skorpios, has been leading the Class Zero mono-hulls as expected, George David’s Rambler 88 nevertheless now seems to be going every bit as fast as they feel the full effects of the English Channel sea conditions.

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The Solent has been in a blustery mood with an overcast sky, rain and perpetual gusty winds in anticipation of today's start of the Rolex Fastnet Race.

The forecast for the start of the 49th edition of the world’s largest offshore race remains for winds of 20-25 knots with gusts into the 30s, although the rain is set to subside.

There are up to 11 Irish yachts of Irish interest as WM Nixon notes here

Given the conditions, the Fastnet Race’s organisers, the Royal Ocean Racing Club, have decided to rearrange the order of tomorrow’s start times. They will now be:

  • Multihulls (MOCRA, Open) 1110 (BST)
  • IMOCA, Class40 1125
  • IRC Zero 1140
  • IRC 1 and Figaro 3 1155
  • IRC 4 1210
  • IRC 3 1225
  • IRC 2 1240

Previously IRC Zero, home of the largest monohulls entered in the Fastnet Race, was to have started last. Usually, this allows the small boats to enjoy seeing them stride past. However, in the big conditions forecast, the RORC are steering a more prudent course. “The wind angle now makes it fully upwind at the start so we’ve made this change principally to make it safer for the big boats to get through Hurst Narrows,” explained Chris Stone, Race Director of the Fastnet Race.

Meanwhile today in Cherbourg, the exceptional race village has opened and the final check-ins have taken place, including French sailing hero Loick Peyron racing on board Yann Marilley’s Outremer 5X Racing catamaran No Limit. Meanwhile, the international flotilla has been slowly leaving Cherbourg and other ports on the continent ready to arrive off Cowes prior to start time. Some of the faster boats are going to the wire with this – the Bouwe Bekking-skippered VO65 Sailing Poland was due to leave Cherbourg at 0300 while Italian Giovanni Soldini’s modified MOD70 Maserati was departing at 0500.

Back in Cowes, Soldini’s competition at the front end of the MOCRA fleet has been out practising. American Jason Carroll’s Argo has been based in Cowes since setting a new record from Bermuda to Plymouth this summer. Her crew is an international all-star cast including French America’s Cup winner Thierry Fouchier, American Tornado Olympic silver medallist Charlie Ogletree among others, including Britain’s most high capped maxi-multihull veteran Brian Thompson.

Thompson says this is his eighth or ninth Fastnet Race, but he has rounded the Fastnet Rock countless additional times in other races and during record attempts.

Argo, their nimble, but sturdy trimaran, is more than capable of dealing with tomorrow’s big conditions. Although, even the highly experienced Thompson admits that they may do their utmost to avoid the severe wind against tide conditions.

“It is going to be a boisterous start for sure; more windy than the last few years,” says Thompson. “We will have 20+ knots most of the way to the Fastnet and over 30 for the first few hours when the tide is increasing the wind. The first six hours could be the toughest sea state-wise. We’ll have to settle in and see how we do. Maybe we are going for the best shifts or the flatter water, we are not sure. We’ll certainly be well reefed down.”

As to their prospects overall in the race, Thompson is bullish. “The forecast is quite good for us. Coming back from the Fastnet Race I think we can get on a fast angle down to the Scillies and then downwind VMG with the genniker to the finish. It is looking like about 15 knots downwind and then dropping at the end, but we will have to see. We have a chance this time, because I don’t think the back of the fleet will be coming in with wind.” Argo’s main competition will be Soldini’s Maserati whom they have to beat into Cherbourg by around 30 minutes when they arrive early on Tuesday morning.

Jason Carroll's MOD 70 Argo © Sharon Green/Ultimate SailingJason Carroll's MOD 70 Argo Photo: Sharon Green/Ultimate Sailing

Several of the French grand prix classes are racing outside of the main IRC fleet in this year’s Fastnet Race, including the Ultimes, IMOCAs and Class40s. Five Figaro 3s are also racing in their own class, including Britain’s aspirant Figaro sailor Cat Hunt and Hugh Brayshaw, doublehanded on Ross Farrow’s Stormwave 2.0. A former student of the now-defunct Artemis Offshore Academy, Brayshaw has competed in the Solitaire du Figaro three times before joining Musto full time. Both he and Hunt have individually raced the Fastnet Race twice before.

For a 32 footer, the foil-assisted Figaro 3 has huge performance (Stormwave 2.0 has an IRC rating similar to a Grand Prix 40 footer) and as they are one designs, their racing will be hot, even though the top boats aren’t competing due to the proximity of the unofficial world championship of solo offshore racing, the Solitaire du Figaro, to the Fastnet Race. Ireland is represented in this class by Kenny Rumall and Pamela Lee.

“There are four other Figaro 3s and we want to beat all of them,” says Brayshaw.

Like the MOD70, the Figaro 3 is designed for transoceanic racing and withstanding gale force conditions, even wind-against-tide. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see 35 or even 40 knots on the top of waves tomorrow,” continues Brayshaw of tomorrow’s conditions. “We’ll have a small jib up and at least one reef in the main. Fortunately, these boats are hardcore and we can smash through the waves without too much damage. We would all like a bit more comfortable conditions to start with, but we are going to get hammered. We’ll just get cracking into that and see where we’re at each headland. Hopefully, it won’t be too upwind on the way back.”

Brayshaw reckons it will be the last stage where the race will be won or lost. Key will be staying as fresh as possible going into this and having a plan in case the wind is light and the powerful current is foul. “We need to make sure we are close to land when the tide turns. I have done a few races around that point with those who know it well and there are gaps between the rocks you can take. But if it is too light we will get the anchor out.”

Cat Hunt and Hugh Brayshaw will compete doublehanded on Ross Farrow’s Figaro 3 Stormwave 2.0 © James TomlinsonCat Hunt and Hugh Brayshaw will compete doublehanded on Ross Farrow’s Figaro 3 Stormwave 2.0 © James Tomlinson

A boat which should perform better in the big conditions of the first 24 hours will be the classic but heavily suped-up Nicholson 55 Eager belonging to leading yacht broker Chris Cecil-Wright. The boat knows the way to the Fastnet Rock for it competed many times in the race as the yacht of the Lloyds of London Yacht Club. This included the 1979 race (her crew in this race reconvened in 2019 to remember the race on its 40th anniversary). Since then Lutine has changed hands and in Rob Grey’s ownership was completely rebuilt. This included fitting a new carbon fibre rig that is 12ft taller, narrowing the shroud base, fitting a smaller cockpit and a new interior. Most recently since agreeing to do the Fastnet Race, Cecil-Wright has added new North sails and a bowsprit. “The Nic 55 was notoriously sluggish downwind. Now we are covered on every angle, which should be exciting.”

This will be Cecil-Wright’s first Fastnet Race and in addition to family members are several hotshots including Richard Powell and Ben Vines.

Despite the forecast, Cecil-Wright is looking forward to the race: “If it wasn’t blowing, it wouldn’t be an adventure. I like adventures and everyone on board is the same. A drift there and back wouldn’t be the same, but I may live to regret saying that! I am apprehensive. When we did the Myth of Malham we had two go down with seasickness and it reminded us how debilitating that is. The big thing on everyone’s mind is to avoid that.”

Once into Cherbourg, the Eager crew is keen to come ashore. “We have a table booked at the Café de Paris! But who knows what time, but we’ll be there!”

Chris Cecil-Wright's Nicholson 55 EagerChris Cecil-Wright's Nicholson 55 Eager Photo Paul Wyeth

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The start of the Rolex Fastnet Race will take place from the Royal Yacht Squadron line off Cowes on Sunday, with a first warning signal for the multihull classes at 1100, followed at 15-minute intervals by the IMOCAs/Class40s, and then the five IRC classes starting with IRC Four and finishing with IRC Zero at 1230.

The largest offshore race in the world, the Fastnet Race fleet represents a complete pantheon of almost 350 yachts, ranging from giant Ultime trimarans and brand new 125ft monohulls, down to 30 footers. Usually, 48 hours out from the start of this race the weather forecast provides some indication of whether it will favour a particular part of the fleet, such as the fastest or slowest boats. Sadly, due to a complex, volatile weather scenario over the southwest United Kingdom, the forecast remains uncertain, and predicting if any part of the fleet could be favoured is far from easy.

“The only certain thing is that it is going to be windy on Sunday. Thereafter the weather models aren’t in agreement,” states veteran navigator, New Zealander Campbell Field, racing aboard David Collins’ IRC 52 Tala.
The forecasts currently show the wind for Sunday’s start being 25 knots from the southwest, with gusts into the 30s. This means the start is upwind and, from the time the ebb starts in the western Solent at 1230 local time, wind against tide. “It is going to be pretty hairy,” Field advises, “so there could be some early attrition, but hopefully there is enough wisdom across the fleet to understand what the forecast is saying and to remember as always that ‘to finish first, first you must finish’.”

Veteran navigator, New Zealander Campbell Field will be racing aboard David Collins’ IRC 52 Tala Photo: Rick TomlinsonVeteran navigator, New Zealander Campbell Field will be racing aboard David Collins’ IRC 52 Tala Photo: Rick Tomlinson

Leading the charge in the IRC fleet will be Dmitry Rybolovlev’s newly launched ClubSwan 125 Skorpios, the largest monohull ever to have entered the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s premier event. Once they have got out of the Solent, the larger faster boats will be the first to see the breeze easing. “As soon as we get to Portland Bill it will drop,” says Skorpios’ skipper, Spanish Olympic gold medallist and Volvo Ocean Race skipper, Fernando Echavarri. “We are upwind to the Lizard and then it will about 080° TWA and then a bit of upwind close to the Irish coast and then reaching back.”

On board Tala racing in IRC Zero, Field believes they will see the wind easing on Monday en route to the Lizard, but notes it is ‘easing’ rather than ‘dropping’. “It will be still be in the 20s and there will still be plenty of pressure across the Irish Sea, but at the moment it is too far ahead to really project what is going to happen on Monday-Tuesday, because the models disagree.”

The cause of the uncertainty is the location, direction and speed of movement of a significant low pressure system and its associated front approaching the west coast of Ireland mid-week. “A subtle shift with this could radically change everything. It is changing day by day,” advises Field. For example, for the return journey to the Cherbourg finish from Bishop Rock, Field says one model is showing welcome southwesterlies for Tala all the way, another shows 3-4 knots en route to Cherbourg and one shows their routing returning them up the south coast of the UK before turning south to cross the Channel. “I am not drawing too many conclusions about the way back from the Rock. Indications are it will be a beam reach on starboard back to the Scillies, but thereafter the weather models aren’t in agreement. I can’t say if it will be a big or a small boat race. Maybe the guy rounding the Rock on Thursday afternoon will scream back with his pants on fire!”

The larger faster boats in the Rolex Fastnet Race, such as Dmitry Rybolovlev’s newly launched ClubSwan 125 Skorpios will be the first to see the breeze easing once they are down the Channel Photo: RORC/Myles Warden-OwenThe larger faster boats in the Rolex Fastnet Race, such as Dmitry Rybolovlev’s newly launched ClubSwan 125 Skorpios will be the first to see the breeze easing once they are down the Channel Photo: RORC/Myles Warden-Owen

One of the stars of the IMOCA fleet will be Yannick Bestaven on board Maître CoQ, recent winner of the 2020-21 Vendée Globe. Bestaven is racing with another legend of the IMOCA fleet, Roland Jourdain.

“We will be heading upwind in about 20 knots,” forecasts Bestaven. “We expect a lot of tacking and manoeuvring in the Solent. The wind will remain strong, up to 30 knots, before easing at the end of the day. We will pass the Fastnet Rock on Tuesday morning, after a long port tack. On the way back from the Rock, we will still have wind, but quite light. For us, with small foils, it will be hard compared to those with big foils. We should finish on the 11th, in the middle of the day. "

Yannick Bestaven returns to the IMOCA fleet having recently won the Vendée GlobeYannick Bestaven returns to the IMOCA fleet having recently won the Vendée Globe

On RORC Commodore James Neville’s HH42 Ino XXX, navigator Coriolan Rousselle says they are resigned to a breezy start and a beat all of the way to Land’s End. “We haven’t seen that much wind for a long time in a RORC race, but the wind will decrease at some point. Then for us it looks upwind all the way to the Rock, with the wind decreasing in the Irish Sea (15 knots by Monday and gradually freeing off to dropping to 10-12 by the time they reach the Rock).

Depending upon the progress of the front, Rousselle is anticipating close reaching in a southerly en route back from the Fastnet Rock. “Hopefully we can get to Bishop with still some cracked off sheets and then we can accelerate to the finish. At the moment for us it looks like it is getting light for the last six hours. Hopefully we will be in the right phase of the tide…” To tackle the Alderney Race/Raz Blanchard Rousselle says that they plan to rest the crew as much as possible on the approach, as they will need maximum concentration for that.

RORC Commodore James Neville’s HH42 Ino XXX Photo: Paul WyethRORC Commodore James Neville’s HH42 Ino XXX Photo: Paul Wyeth

In 2019 the Goodhews’ Sun Fast 3200 Cora was the top British finisher in IRC Four, coming home fourth behind the strong French entry. This time Tim Goodhew is racing again in IRC Four and IRC Two-Handed with North Sails’ Kelvin Matthews.

“It will be one of the windiest races we have done with the RORC this year because so many races have been in 8 knots,” Goodhew continues.

Being smaller, Cora may enjoy a more reasonable outbound crossing of the Celtic Sea. “It could be quite good for slightly slower boats as we might get more reaching,” says Goodhew. “It is going into the south and then it comes in from the west at some point during Wednesday. All the faster boats will be coming back in a southerly to get back to the Scillies while all the slower boats should be coming back in on the westerly and should be faster. I am keeping my eye on that.”

The arrival of the big depression from the west later in the week could favour the smaller boats he feels. “The faster boats might have lighter breeze at the finish, whereas the boats in the middle of the fleet or IRC Four might have a bit more breeze there, which suggests the slow boats might be in with a chance, depending the tides. I think it is quite open…”

Racing doublehanded is likely to take more of a toll in the big conditions, however upwind there is less to do and it will just be a case of hanging on for the first hours. “In the 2019 race we beat all the way to the Rock and we got there with Winsome, but there was a bit of downwind at the start, which may have given us a bit of a head start. Cora will hold her own. We just need to get through Sunday and then we’ll be fine.”

On Saturday, 7 August there will be on Cowes Parade, plus streamed live on the RORC’s social media channels:

- At 1500 BST, the press conference/preview show
- At 1600 BST, official weather briefing and skippers’ briefing

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Time was when doing the Fastnet Race seemed a natural part of sailing life. The world was young, yet we'd sufficient maturity (no sniggering at the back, please) to appreciate the full meaning of the experience as a uniquely significant element in the tapestry of world sailing. Thus it looms large despite the fact that I've only done three, but they were sufficiently varied to provide a complete kaleidoscope of many memories.

After that, the newly-introduced Round Ireland Race and the later Dun Laoghaire to Dingle sprint provided more accessible distance racing when ISORA events could also assuage the sea racing fever, while cruising loomed ever larger in a complex life matrix in which a family somehow also appeared.

Of those three Fastnets, the best was 1971. And this morning is the exact Golden Jubilee, for in those more civilised days, the race went off westward on the Saturday at the end of Cowes Week - almost invariably slugging into a westerly - and of course it ended in Plymouth as Nature intended, where it almost equally invariably rained.

With the privilege of having this entertaining suite of classic Fastnet Race personal memories, it was with only mildly mixed feelings that we greeted the news that in 2021 the course was to be lengthened 15% to 695 miles to move the finish to Cherbourg. For the world of offshore racing at this level is much changed anyway, yet no matter what they do to the course now – provided they retain The Rock itself - they can't change the precious personal memories that the previous generations of Fastnet contenders cherish, in which the highly romantic atmosphere of Plymouth's Millbay Dock in the rain is an integral part.

The 1971 Hustler 35 Setanta as she is today, a familiar summer resident of Dun Laoghaire Harbour. Photo W M NixonThe 1971 Hustler 35 Setanta as she is today, a familiar summer resident of Dun Laoghaire Harbour. Photo W M Nixon

Does it really matter that much now? The fact is that in a week's time, there'll be a whole new wave of Fastnet Racers for whom the Cherbourg finish is the only known finish. And though there's talk of Plymouth returning to the equation for the centenary Fastnet Race in 2025, with the fleets probably returning to enormous levels again as the pandemic memories recede (we hope) in 2023, it's likely that Cherbourg will have bedded in with limpet-like determination.

As it is, despite the continuing though easing pandemic problems, there are 353 boats listed to be heading off tomorrow as the extraordinary choreography of a Rolex Fastnet Race start in the Solent swings into action. However, before we look at those with special Irish interest, a bit of clarification on the events of fifty and more years ago mightn't go amiss. For in fact, it all started in 1969, when I got involved with a prodigious bundle of energy called Ronnie Wayte, who had a factory in Carrickmacross in County Monaghan which – at that stage – was making oil tanks for Ireland's rapidly-expanding domestic central heating market.

BOAT-BUILDING IN COUNTY MONAGHAN

These were steel tanks, but despite that, Ronnie had decided he wanted to build a fibreglass 35-footer in his factory for the 1969 Fastnet Race. As I'd been in the frame in a couple of offshore races, he reckoned I should be involved from the start, even with zero boat-building experience. Somehow, despite our boat building project in County Monaghan not getting fully under way until April 23rd 1969, the resulting boat Mayro of Skerries was on the starting line for the 1969 Fastnet on Saturday 9th August, having survived a busy little gale of 66 knots off Land's End while heading Cowes-wards.

We knew it was 66 knots, for that was where the needle had jammed on the anemometer dial when the masthead kit was blown clean away. The experience gave us considerable confidence in this crazy craft built in "The Marblehead of Monaghan", and in the 250-boat Fastnet fleet, we placed 122nd, leading to the modest claim that the front part of Mayro was in the top half of the fleet, even if the back part wasn't, with another crew response being that it had taken a helluva lot of boats to beat us.

Mayro of Skerries with Rockabill beyond in 1969. In those days, when you opted for an over-lapping genoa, there was no messing about……Mayro of Skerries with Rockabill beyond in 1969. In those days, when you opted for an over-lapping genoa, there was no messing about……

Mayro ended her days at Skerries (under a subsequent ownership) after breaking her moorings in a severe Autumn nor'east gale and going onto on the beach, where it took forever for her to break up in the surf - we'd known nothing of GRP construction, and she'd been grossly overbuilt.

However, just one significant bit of memorabilia survives. Ronnie was so sublimely confident that he could build anything that the already absurdly over-crowded construction programme was further cluttered by the additional manufacture of a glassfibre mast.

In the circumstances, it was quite a good bit of work, but it was too flexible.

THE ETERNAL FLAGSTAFF

So while the boat was in the final fitting-out stages in Skerries, the fiberglass mast was replaced by an orthodox aluminium extrusion, and in due course Mayro's original mast became the Skerries Sailing Club flagstaff. It's still there. In fact, when the oceans of the world rise higher, and Red Island in Skerries reverts to being a disappearing island, the Mast of Mayro will continue in position as a matter of enduring mystery, defiant above the rising ocean.

Meanwhile in 1970, I reverted to a work area in which I was marginally better qualified, editing what was then Irish Yachting magazine and spending some of the summer in Cork for the Royal Cork Quarter Millennium, while Ronnie coined it in with Ireland going bonkers for central heating. So when he asked me for a suggestion for a competitive new 35-footer for a fresh tilt at the Fastnet in 1971, I enthused about the new Holman & Pye-designed Hustler 35 which had seen off most of the then-dominant S&S 34s in the RORC Cowes-Cork Race, and seemed a better all-round proposition, for the S&S 34s were miraculous to windward, but decidedly less so on other points of sailing, whereas the Hustler 35 was a good all-rounder.

Compact but comfortable – the standard layout of the Hustler 35. In Setanta's case, there was an additional pilot berth on the starboard side of the saloon.Compact but comfortable – the standard layout of the Hustler 35. In Setanta's case, there was an additional pilot berth on the starboard side of the saloon.

Thus where 1969 had been a hellish rush of sticky and filthy 24-hours-plus work binges, 1971 became a matter of stylish elegance, with the new Hustler 35 Setanta of Skerries arriving at Bill Partington's yard in Pwllheli fresh out of the wrappers, complete with an Irish wolfhound depicted as leaping across the fashionably forward-raked transom.

Our English competitors - showing the usual Saxon lack of respect for Irish mythology – were soon calling her The Flying Poodle. But that didn't bother us in the least, as it meant they were seeing more of the stern than the bow, and by the time we departed for a cruising delivery to The Big One in Cowes, Setanta of Skerries had already won her Class Championship in the 1971 Irish Sea offshore programme, including victory in the RORC Morecambe Bay Race.

The routine for civilised Irish Fastnet Race participants in those days was a businesslike cruising delivery to the Solent – businesslike perhaps, but definitely cruising nevertheless, and we'd a fine time – then you did the RORC Channel Race when it was still a proper channel triangle on the Friday night before Cowes Week, then you'd do at least two and possibly as many as four races during Cowes Week, and then on Saturday – after close-up witnessing of the Friday night Cowes Week fireworks display – out you went for the Fastnet start.

Setanta of Skerries (centre) berthed in Cowes in 1971, with Ted Heath's new 40ft S&S-designed Morning Cloud on left. Photo: W M NixonSetanta of Skerries (centre) berthed in Cowes in 1971, with Ted Heath's new 40ft S&S-designed Morning Cloud on left. Photo: W M Nixon

By 1971 the fleet numbers were already pushing towards 300, and they kept increasing until 1979's Fastnet Storm softened everyone's cough for a while. But in 1971, only one Fastnet drowning had ever been recorded, and that was way back in 1931. Yet it was a nervy enough fleet which manoeuvred for each class start, and our division – Class IV – being one of the most numerous, there were the usual crowded dry-mouthed moments in under the Squadron battery until we got cleanly away to battle for clear air among the S&S 34s, which were everywhere and revelling in the stiff beat down Solent.

CREATING A CREW

But we were lucky in our crew. Somehow through the first half of the season, Setanta had whittled her way through a large potential panel until the six who did the Fastnet were like a harmonious yet competitive nest of singing birds. Ronnie had persuaded Mermaid superstar Harry Grimes of Skerries into the show, and there was nobody better at making Setanta go to windward in light airs and a sloppy sea – usually her weakest point. Dickie Gomes was there too, in a league of his own helming in a breeze. Pete Adams – who in the 1980s was to be a contender for the British Admirals Cup team despite racing his X40 with a totally Corinthian crew – comfortably fitted into any role, and then we'd Johnny McWilliam, whose only stipulation was that we carry a new McWilliam-specified Rolly Tasker mainsail made for the loft which he was planning to set up at Crosshaven after a hectic few years as a jet fighter pilot.

Setanta had comfortable but compact accommodation, and though I wouldn't say our crew of 1971 was made up of six fully-charged alpha males, somebody else certainly did. Yet as Johnny Mac pointed out when it was over, while it was beyond his previous personal offshore racing experience, there had not been a single bad word said throughout.

Sometimes when you experience a happy ship it's better to simply accept it rather than overdo the analysis thing, but the memories are so good that even the fact that we finished second in class rather than winning it all seems part of the path of destiny. Winning might have given us notions, whereas we'd one mighty fine sail, and getting a second in class was apparently the best Irish placing since Billy Mooney's Aideen had been in the frame in 1947, and Frank and Eric Hopkirk's Glance was up in lights in 1953.

RACING TED TURNER

In those days offshore racers were true cruiser-racers, racing a boat like Setanta was a matter of being efficient yet reasonably comfortable, and you expected moments of semi-relaxation now and again. That said, this photo taken on the Sunday afternoon does seem to over-egg it a bit. But then, we had been the last Class IV boat to be overtaken by Ted Turner's all-conquering 12 Metre American Eagle in the ebb tide rush towards the Needles, subsequently while short-tacking to successfully dodge inside the tide at Portland Bill on Saturday evening we found ourselves in close company with Denis Doyle's 47ft Moonduster, and then after gliding across West Bay towards Start Point through the Saturday night, at first light we came upon a group of boats at the point held back by the last of an adverse tide, and just as the tide turned in everyone's favour, we found we had glided up to be within talking distance of Dick Nye's new 48ft Jim McCurdy-designed Carina - not that they were in a particularly chatty mood.

The hard life. Aboard Setanta on the second day (the Sunday) of the Fastnet Race 1971 with (left to right) Johnny McWilliam, Pete Adams, and Dickie Gomes on the helm. The off watch have two berths on the port side, so they just absolutely had to sit like this to maintain optimum trim. Certainly it was working well, as the nearest boats were larger ones, that's Start Point on the horizon astern, and The Lizard is fine on the starboard bow. Photo: W M NixonThe hard life. Aboard Setanta on the second day (the Sunday) of the Fastnet Race 1971 with (left to right) Johnny McWilliam, Pete Adams, and Dickie Gomes on the helm. The off watch have two berths on the port side, so they just absolutely had to sit like this to maintain optimum trim. Certainly it was working well, as the nearest boats were larger ones, that's Start Point on the horizon astern, and The Lizard is fine on the starboard bow. Photo: W M Nixon

Hubris was bound to strike at some point, and we got our come-uppance while closing in on The Rock from the east, close-hauled on starboard. It had been a wet and breezy night - some said they got 40 knots – but now the rain had gone, the sun was out, and then suddenly – around four miles from the rock – we and about half a dozen other boats found ourselves flat becalmed in our own little private and extremely frustrating mill pond. It was freaky, and it took at least half an hour to crawl out of it, but the wind was piping up again at the rock such that we were soon running flat out for the Bishop, but in comfortable Setanta style so that foul weather gear was draped around the cockpit to dry out.

But darling, back in 1971, EVERYONE wore an Aran jersey….Mermaid Champion Harry Grimes, Dickie Gomes on helm, and Pete Adams re-arranging the drying gear as Setanta runs back from the Fastnet in rather more wind than seems apparent in the photo. Photo: W M NixonBut darling, back in 1971, EVERYONE wore an Aran jersey….Mermaid Champion Harry Grimes, Dickie Gomes on helm, and Pete Adams re-arranging the drying gear as Setanta runs back from the Fastnet in rather more wind than seems apparent in the photo. Photo: W M Nixon

When we got to Plymouth there wasn't another Class IV boat about the place, and for around half an hour Setanta of Skerries was posted as Class IV leader. But then Alan Bourdon and his merry men from Poole came in out of the rain in their new van de Stadt Pionier 10 after surfing like mad things virtually the whole way from the Fastnet, and with a slightly lower rating they pipped us by 17 minutes for the win.

We'd already got to know them in previous races and got on well together, so much so that after the Friday afternoon prize-giving at the Guildhall, some peculiar genius from the Bourdon boat decided both crews should go together for celebration at the only strip club open in Plymouth on a Friday afternoon. In getting out of one of the taxis at the club entrance, Alan stumbled, and the Class IV Cup rolled across the rainy street. So while the winning crew looked after their tired and emotional skipper, one of our lot scooped up the cup, and they asked him to look after it while they minded their boss. So in getting into the hyper-grubby club for an outrageous fee, when our man arrived in clutching the trophy, the gloomy doorman suddenly cheered up and said: "You won the Cup, you can come in for free". The strip show? It was awful, since you ask.

Clarion of Wight (Rory O'Hanlon) on course for the Fastnet Rock and the Philip Whitehead Cup in the 1971 Fastnet RaceClarion of Wight (Rory O'Hanlon) on course for the Fastnet Rock and the Philip Whitehead Cup in the 1971 Fastnet Race

1971 was a good year generally for the Irish contingent in the Fastnet, as Rory O'Hanlon's veteran Clarion of Wight won the Philip Whitehead Cup for the Beta Division for Golden Oldies.

As for Setanta, she has remained in Irish ownership ever since, and for many years now has been based in Dun Laoghaire, where it's grand to see her in good heart. But for the Band of Brothers from 1971, what happened with Setanta stays with Setanta. There are now only four of us still on the planet, and who needs a reunion when the memories are so much better, and there's been an impressive amount of living afloat and ashore going on ever since?

THE IRISH OFFSHORE PACE ACCELERATES

Certainly back in 1971, things were only getting going, and by the mid-1970s Cork had become a global focus of offshore racing development, with Johnny McWilliam's sail-making being joined by Ron Holland's design creation and the Bushe family's wonderful boat-building. Admittedly it suffered a setback when the high likelihood of winning the Admiral's Cup in 1979 and the Fastnet Race with it was wiped into oblivion by the Fastnet storm. But by the 1981 Fastnet, things were in the move again, and Ken Rohan's Regardless had a convincing Class I and Admiral's Cup class win, sailed by rising stars such as Robert Dix, Des Cummins and Drewry Pearson.

After the 1979 Fastnet storm, Ken Rohan's Regardless got things back on track with Fastnet Race victory in Class I and the Admiral's Cup division. Photo: W M NixonAfter the 1979 Fastnet storm, Ken Rohan's Regardless got things back on track with Fastnet Race victory in Class I and the Admiral's Cup division. Photo: W M Nixon

There was better to come, and from a new direction. The overall winner of the 2007 Rolex Fastnet Race was Ger O'Rourke's Cookson 50 Chieftain. It was a beautiful win in a difficult race, and for my money it is still the greatest Irish sailing achievement of them all, for the resilient Ger was largely his own support team, and the way that he and his navigator/tactician Jochem Visser sailed the race was a joy to behold.

The all-conquering Chieftain racing down the Solent, Fastnet Race 2007.The all-conquering Chieftain racing down the Solent, Fastnet Race 2007.

Since then, while Irish boats have had class placings, the only trophy collected has been the Roger Justice Cup for sailing schools, won by Ronan O Siochru of Irish Offshore Sailing with the Sunfast 37 Desert Star in 2015, and Kenneth Rumball of the Irish National Sailing School with the J/109 Jedi in 2017.

Desert Star rounding the Fastnet in 2015, on her way to winning the Roger Justice Cup. She is back again this year on the longer course.Desert Star rounding the Fastnet in 2015, on her way to winning the Roger Justice Cup. She is back again this year on the longer course.

So in contemplating 2021's lineup, we're casting the net very wide as to what constitutes Irish interest, and we can begin right at the top, as the biggest boat in the race and the favourite for mono-hull line honours, the ClubSwan 125 Skorpios, was built in a 44-month quality project by Killian Bushe, working closely with designer JK, or Juan Kouyoudjian if you prefer.

The exceptionally complex high tech construction of the ClubSwan125 Skorpios (mono-hull line honours favourite for the Rolex Fastnet Race 2021) proved to be a 44-month work project for specialized boatbuilder Killian Bushe from CrosshavenThe exceptionally complex high tech construction of the ClubSwan125 Skorpios (mono-hull line honours favourite for the Rolex Fastnet Race 2021) proved to be a 44-month work project for specialized boatbuilder Killian Bushe from Crosshaven

If there's any sort of breeze towards the time she is finishing, Skorpios will be at an advantage, for the outstanding feature of the new longer course is that whereas the previous Plymouth-finishing courses had tidal gates at Portland Bill, Start Point and to a lesser extent The Lizard, most boats could get past with a decent sailing breeze, particularly if they were prepared to dodge dangerously close inshore.

NEW FASTNET COURSE'S MONSTER TIDAL GATE

But in the approaches to the new finish at Cherbourg, there is something of a complete tidal barrier, an extension of the Alderney Race at Cape de la Hague, the northwest corner of the Cherbourg Peninsula. If the tide is with you when you get there, then you're winning twice over, but if it's adverse, then having a boat with the highest speed potential confers an inbuilt advantage – biggies get through, but little 'uns stop.

The sting in the tail……the old and new Fastnet Race courses. The extension to finish at Cherbourg gives the fleet the additional challenge of the biggest tidal gate of all at Cape de la Hague.The sting in the tail……the old and new Fastnet Race courses. The extension to finish at Cherbourg gives the fleet the additional challenge of the biggest tidal gate of all at Cape de la Hague.

But though Skorpios may be the biggest by far, the sheer speed potential of George David's round Ireland mono-hull record-holder Rambler 88 can never be discounted, she'll seem very nimble by comparison with Skorpios, and this clash of the titans will be fascinating.

Slightly down the size scale, that gallant old war horse, the Irish-Chinese Volvo 70 Green Dragon, continues to sail the seas and race the Fastnet under Austrian ownership, and while the new course changes many things, we mustn't forget that a Volvo 70 was overall winner in 2019.

In IRC Class 1, Cracklin' Rosie, the veteran Corby 40 created by the late Roy Dickson, is still active and very much entered under Stven Anderson's ownership, while closer to home Andrew Hall of Pwllheli is also in Class I, racing the chartered Lombard 45 Pata Negra, which has taken silverware under Irish command.

The late Roy Dickson at the helm of his Corby 40 Cracklin' Rosie in the 1997 Fastnet Race. She goes again this year under the command of Steven Anderson. Photo: W M NixonThe late Roy Dickson at the helm of his Corby 40 Cracklin' Rosie in the 1997 Fastnet Race. She goes again this year under the command of Steven Anderson. Photo: W M Nixon

IRC Class 3 includes the Isle of Man-based First 40.7 Polished Manx, which is also in the two-handed division, but with due respect to all the other boats of Irish interest, IRC 3 – in which there are 80 boats – includes our most serious contender, Denis Murphy and Anna Marie Fegan's Grand Soleil 40 Nieulargo of the Royal Cork YC, this year's winner of the Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race, and winner last year of the Fastnet 450.

Nieulargo seems to have thing nicely under control in the sometimes difficult countdown to the Fastnet, as Denis and Annamarie and their two daughters Molly and Mia left Crosshaven last Saturday for the delivery, and by mid-week were comfortably into the more ordered ambience of the Hamble, keeping well clear of Cowes where Cowes Week has been taking up all the space.

The successful Grand Soleil 40 Nieulargo (Royal Cork YC) is one of Ireland's strongest entries in the Rolex Fastnet race 2021. Photo: Robert BatemanThe successful Grand Soleil 40 Nieulargo (Royal Cork YC) is one of Ireland's strongest entries in the Rolex Fastnet race 2021. Photo: Robert Bateman

The crew of Nieulago before departing Crosshaven last weekend were (left to right) Molly Murphy, Annamarie Fegan, Denis Murphy, and Mia MurphyThe crew of Nieulago before departing Crosshaven last weekend were (left to right) Molly Murphy, Annamarie Fegan, Denis Murphy, and Mia Murphy

Time was you expected to get a pre-race berth in Cowes in the days before the race. But a serene shore base at a mainland yacht harbour is now the best option, and when Nieulargo joins the fray tomorrow, her full lineup will be the well-tested one of the Murphy-Fegan family foursome together with the notably talented lineup of Nicholas 'Nin' O'Leary, Killian Collins, Harry Durcan, Clive O'Shea, Cliona Connelly and Jamie Tingle.

IRC 4 is the next biggest class numerically with 74 boats, and it includes Keith Milllar's Yamaha 36 Andante from Kilmore Quay, and Irish Offshore Sailing's Sunfast 37 Desert Star from Dun Laoghaire with Ronan O'Siochru co-commanding with Conor Totterdell of the National YC.

Talking of co-commands, we find it in two divisions. There are 63 entries in the straight Fastnet Two-Handed fleet – which has provided an overall winner in times past – where there's special interest for us in the Sunfast 3200 Purple Mist, which has been something of a pace-setter this season in the growing Solent-based Two-Handed scene, and is being raced round the Fastnet by Kate Cope and Matthew Beecher, who hails from Kinsale.

Matt Beecher from Kinsale will be racing the Sunfast 3200 Purple Mist in the two-handed division.Matt Beecher from Kinsale will be racing the Sunfast 3200 Purple Mist in the two-handed division.

The Figaro 3s have their own class, and in it we find Kenneth Rumball and Pamela Lee in RL Sailing, their opposition including Stormwave raced by Cat Hunt and Hugh Brayshaw. It's a very interesting situation, for of course last October, Cat Hunt sailed with Pam Lee to establish the new Round Ireland Two-handed Record aboard RL Sailing.

In a fleet of this size we're bound to find individual Irish sailors on several boats, and the National YC sees several of its U30 group involved, with Oisin Cullen and Saoirse Reynolds on Simon Harris's J/112e Ouvert in IRC 2, while in IRC 1 Conor Corson is bowman on the A13 Phorphorus.

Thus we have the Rolex Fastnet Race 2021. It's big, in some very important ways it's new, and it starts tomorrow (Sunday) with regular updates on Afloat.ie in our dedicated Fastnet Race section

Cat Hunt and Pam Lee in team action during their successful round Ireland record attempt last October. In the 2021 Fastnet Race, they'll be in competition with each other on different boats in the two-handed Figaro 3 Division.Cat Hunt and Pam Lee in team action during their successful round Ireland record attempt last October. In the 2021 Fastnet Race, they'll be in competition with each other on different boats in the two-handed Figaro 3 Division.

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