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The “Wimbledon Effect” is pretty well complete with the Rolex Fastnet Race generally, and with the 2019 event, in particular, writes W M Nixon. As with Wimbledon tennis itself, the English organize a jolly good event with this classic offshore challenge, though in the case of the Fastnet Race it’s with a little help from the Irish and our very useful rock, not to mention our weather - and welcome to it.

But in the end, all the main prizes have gone abroad, in the Fastnet Race’s case either across the Channel or across the Atlantic. They certainly haven’t come to Ireland. And yet it’s only a dozen years since Ger O’Rourke of Kilrush was totally triumphant every which way in winning overall with his Cookson 50 Chieftain.

"All the main prizes have gone abroad, in the Fastnet Race’s case either across the Channel or across the Atlantic"

Our only last hope is with the Roger Justice Trophy for the best sailing school boat, and our two contenders in this – both from Irish Offshore Sailing in Dun Laoghaire - are at the time of writing still racing, with the Sun Fast 37 Sherkin 2, skippered by Daniel Smith, slightly ahead of his boss Ronan O Siochru sailing sister-ship Desert Star, both with around 37 miles to go to the finish at Plymouth, and both sailing at 6.3 knots.

sherkin two2Irish offshore sailing’s Sherkin 2, skippered by Daniel Smith, is currently narrowly ahead of sister-ship Desert Star, skippered by Ronan O Siochru. Photo: O’Brien

Meanwhile, the rest of the results are more than clearcut in their message for Irish and UK sailors:

American boat first to finish? Check. It’s George David’s Rambler88.

American boat first overall on IRC? Check. It’s Peter and Dave Askew’s former Volvo 70 Wizard, skippered by Charlie Enright.

French boats dominating most of the other classes? Check. Here’s the Roll of Honour of French boats in the top three in all classes:

Class 0: 2nd Bretagne Telecom (French-designed and built Mach 45)

lange de milon3Jacques Pelletier’s Milon 41 L’Ange de Milon is winner of Class 1. Photo: Rolex
Class 1: 1st L’Ange de Milon (Milon 41), 2nd Lann Ael (Jnd39, overall winner in 2017, 3rd Tonnere de Glen

Class 2: lst Courrier Recommende (JPK 11.80), 2nd Nutmeg Solidaire En Peleton (MC34)

Class 3: 1st Leon (JPK 10.30), 3rd Dream Pearls (JPK 10.80)

Class 4: 1st Foggy Dew (JPK 10.10), 2nd Gioia (JPK 10.10), 3rd Sun Hill 3.

IRC Two-handed: 1st Leon (JPK 10.30), 3rd Raging-bee (JPK 10.80).

MOCRA: 1st Guyader Gastronomie

Open Multihull: 1st Maxi Edmond de Rothschild (Gitana XVII), 2nd Macif, 3rd Sodebo Ultim

IMOCA 60: 1st Charal, 2nd Prb, 3rd Banque Populaire

Class40: 1st Lamotte-Module Creation, 2nd Beijaflore, 3rd Earendi.

We can draw all sorts of conclusions from this, but if you think it must be something to do with a rigidly-controlled society, perish the thought. On the contrary, it seems to be the result of a society of hugely individualistic people who - in the case of sailing and particularly offshore racing – share a desire to create innovative boats and race them in the most skilled possible way.

jpk workshop4The essence of French enthusiasm – Jean-Pierre Kelbert in his boat-building workshop in Lorient.
The classic case in point is Jean-Pierre Kelbert, creator of the JPK range of successful offshore racers which really do perform as good and comfortable cruisers as well. In industry terms, his company is small. But with the Rolex Fastnet Race, JPK Yachts is global in its impact, and we can only hope some venture company doesn’t somehow get its mitts into it and spoil the magic with excessive expansion.

As it happens, the company’s successful boats are the saving of it. If you have a JPK yacht, you have absolutely no excuse for not winning. By buying one, you’re either going to race determinedly, or cruise far and wide with style. There’s no place for limp performance with a JPK. There’s no point in everyone trying to have a JPK.

leon finish5Enthusiasm afloat – Alexis Loison (left) and owner-skipper-builder Jean Pierre Kelbert after the JPK 10.30 Leon had crossed the finish line yesterday at Plymouth to achieve multiple wins. Photo: Rolex

The man himself seems to be super-human in his energy and enthusiasm, yet modest with it. He came to sailing through wind-surfing in which he was European champion in 1988 and 1999. But by the turn of the millennium, he was thinking about proper boats and found a kindred soul in designer Jacques Valeur, who designed the first JPK boat when the firm started in 2002, and continues to design a balanced range of performance boats in which the JPK 10.30 – introduced in April this year – is at one end and the JPK 45 – a lift-keel fast cruiser – is at the other.

Even today, Jean-Pierre Kelbert seems to be very personally involved in a direct hands-on way with every boat which his small but select workforce creates. But his enthusiasm doesn’t stop there, for he still relishes sailing.

Thus we watched with interest as the new JPK 10.30 Leon started in the Rolex Fastnet Race 2019 racing in both the Two-Handed Division and Class 3. And as she appeared with more regularity at the front of both fleets, we wondered who might be sailing her. It was the man himself, no less, sailing with Alexis Loison.

jpk fortyfive6 Another aspect of a remarkable product line – the JPK 45 fast cruiser has a lifting keel.

They just went better and better, putting in a stellar performance on the fast leg from the Fastnet to the Bishop, and at the finish not only had they stayed in front to win the Two-Handed Division and Class 3, but they shot up to sixth overall just behind Gery Trentesaux in the JPK 11.80 Courrier Recommande, and otherwise surrounded by much bigger boats.

Monsieur Jean-Pierre Kelbert, we salute you. Meanwhile, here’s a vid of George David’s Rambler 88 doing great things at the other end of the size scale:


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When veteran French skipper Gery Trentesaux’s JPK 11.80 Courrier Recommande crossed the Rolex Fastnet Race finish line in Plymouth at 11.22 BST this morning and corrected into fifth place overall a clear 2 hours and 16 minutes behind Peter & Dave Askew’s all-conquering Volvo 70 Wizard, it was put beyond all doubt that the Charlie Enwright-skippered former Volvo round the world racer was unbeatable on the day as she added the Fastnet trophies to her victory in July on the Transatlantic Race writes W M Nixon.

Courrier Recommande had been in with a chance. And she did manage to sail an impressive 257 miles in the final 24 hours of her race. But the steam was going out of the southwest wind as the morning drew on, and the chance – always a fairly remote one - slipped inexorably away. So the race was Wizard’s for the taking, and the Askew/Enright crew thoroughly deserve their success.

courrier recommande2Former overall winner Gery Trentesaux’s JPK 1180 Courrier Recommande was in with a chance of another overall victory

On the outward leg getting through the very sticky patch between Start Point and the Lizard, Wizard was so tactically brilliant in calling her shots that we assumed Ian Moore must be on board. Not so. In fact, the great navigator/tactician sat out this particularly intriguing Fastnet Race, which is everyone’s loss as his insights from direct experience would have added greatly to our understanding of its complexities.

These continue for many boats at sea as they sail through improving conditions while knowing that by this weekend, seriously bad weather may well be sprung upon us all. By that time everyone will be long finished even though it will be of concern to anyone bringing a boat home to Ireland. But for now we see the final acts of the big race being played out knowing that the core of the drama has been resolved.

Or has it? Not at every level, it hasn’t. That’s the attraction of races like the Fastnet and the Round Ireland. The bigger the fleet, the more likely you are to find private duels developing which continue to the finish line regardless of where the duellers may be in the overall placings.

Thus this morning at around 0720, two well-used Jeanneau Sun Fast 37s came past The Rock with Sherkin 2 leading Desert Star by upwards of a couple of miles. Both these boats are with Irish Offshore Sailing of Dun Laoghaire which is in the forefront of introducing Irish people – and people from elsewhere too – to the world of proper sea sailing.

It was quite something that Sherkin 2 was leading Desert Star, as Sherkin is skippered by Daniel Smith, while Desert Star is under the command of school principal Ron O Siochru. On the long reach down to the Isles of Scilly, they’ve taken slightly different lines, but Sherkin 2 is still shown as ahead. And it may well matter a lot when they get to Plymouth tomorrow, as both are in contention for the Roger Justice Trophy for the best-placed sailing school vessel. 

fastnet variety3In the huge Fastnet fleet, private inter-boat races can maintain the interest to the very end regardless of overall placings. Photo: Rolex
Well ahead of them, just to the south of the Lizard, is Figaro star Tom Dolan racing two-handed with Janusz Madej of Poland in the much newer Sun Fast 3600 One Way. They’re making 9 knots and should be in Plymouth before dark, and meanwhile, they’re fifth in IRC 3A, and fifth in the two-handed division. 

Well finished already is the Ker 50 Keronimo with Kenneth Rumball and Barry Hurley aboard. They maintained their fifth in IRC 1A, but with the rush of boats from astern, they slipped to 32nd overall in IRC – still in the top 10 per cent.

Far at sea and still with many miles to sail though with the Fastnet now astern is Conor Dillon of Foynes with the little Dehler 34 Big Deal, racing in the two-handed division and sticking at it despite being very far down the rankings. Meanwhile up at the front of the fleet the battle of the three new Figaro 3s has been resolved as to winner with Charmy Laurent’s Les Drus finishing in impressive style well ahead, having got such value out of his foils in the big winds that he moved up to third in IRC1 B, while Conor Fogerty in Raw is at some distance astern, he has just passed the Lizard neck and neck with sister-ship Ethical Power (Jack Tigger).

fastnet multihulls4The four 100ft Ultime trimarans were in their own Fastnet world, but they carried it off with such style that everyone was with them. Photo: Rolex

Inevitably, there have been retirals. Michael O’Donnell’s new J/121 Darkwoood, overall winner of the RORC Chanel Race a fortnight ago, had to pull out at an early stage, and today in the final approaches to the Fastnet Rock, Keith Miller’s Yamaha 36 Andante from Kilmore Quay had to call it a day, and she’s headed home at 6 knots.

It will take some time before the final pieces are in place, and the eventual destination of the Roger Justice Trophy will be of special interest. The world meanwhile moves on. The word is that Wizard may be aiming to do the Hong Kong to Vietnam Race on October 19th, which is just about as different from the Fastnet experience as can be imagined, though it does leave them handily enough placed for the Sydney-Hobart on December 26th. But perhaps even as we think of it, the organisers of the Middle Sea Race out of Malta on October 19th – the 40th edition – are working on getting Wizard in their lineup. There’s a certain logic to it.

Race Tracker & Leaderboard here

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Strong southwest winds last night – with Met Eireann issuing a Small Craft Warning at 2100 hrs – gave the more determinedly sailed smaller craft a fighting chance of significantly improving their overall standing in the Rolex Fastnet Race 2019, though much of the fleet found that what had already been rough going had become decidedly challenging writes W M Nixon.

However, at this stage of an extraordinary race, boat size no longer seems relevant, as extra-special little craft are scampering along in clouds of spray beside boats twice their size, yet often with even more speed.

rambler approaching fastnet2As much wind as anyone might want – Rambler 88 approaching the Fastnet. Photo: Rolex

At the finish in Plymouth, at time of writing the only unassailable position is that of George David’s Rambler 88 as Line Honours Winner. While the overall leader corrected time leader continues with ever-growing strength to be the Volvo 70 Wizard owned by Americans David & Peter Askew and skippered by Charlie Enright, second overall is now held by the Mach 45 Bretagne Telecom (Nicholas Groleau), yet another French flying machine from specialist builders, and a boat which despite her size came sweeping into the finish among the likes of 72ft Mini Maxis and IMOCA 60s – a reminder that other speed disruptors are still racing and posing a challenge. 

rambler fastnet3George David’s Rambler 88 rounding the Fastnet at 1645 on Sunday

Third overall and finished is currently the Botin 52 Tala (David Collins, UK) which likewise punched above her length, but as we move down the rankings of finished boats, we’re increasingly getting among craft whose position is at risk from the way the wind is expected to hold up well enough to bring little boats in at good speed, and the night saw some formidable performances recorded when the wind was going strong.

"At this stage of an extraordinary race, boat size no longer seems relevant"

It has emerged that Conor Fogerty’s Raw is not alone of her type, she is one of three foiling Figaro 3s taking part, and for a while they were in fairly close contention with each other while suffering as a trio from their boats’ extraordinarily high rating.

jethou at rock4The Mini Maxi Jethou heads away from the Fastnet Rock under restless-looking skies late on Sunday evening. She has finished and lies 15th overall on IRC

But last night one of them with the unlikely name of Les Drus – Sl Maintenance (no, we don’t know either) sailed by Charmy Laurent got it all together on the foiling front, and did a horizon job on every boat around her, rocketing along at speeds pushing towards 15 knots and better, and moving up the fleet until this morning she’s approaching the Lizard (though now only at 11.2 knots) at 7th in IRC 1 and third in IRC 1B, though still shown as 24th overall in IRC.

Raw meanwhile is closing in on the Scillies, currently at 12.7 knots and placed 30th in IRC1, and 17th in IRC1B. Thus the best-placed boat of Irish interest continues to be the Ker 40 Keronimo with Kenneth Rumball and Barry Hurley on board, estimated 5th in IRC 1A and expected to finish at mid-morning.

Tom Dolan and Janusz Madej in the latter’s Sun Fast 3600 One Way continue to put in a good showing in the Two-Handed Class where they lie 5th, while they’re fourth in IRC4A, but for Irish observers as for everyone else, the story of the second night of the Rolex Fastnet Race 2019 has been the exceptional performance of the French-designed-and-built JPK range of boats in all the classes in which they’re represented.

In fact, if you’re in a boat-buying mood for a surefire race winner this morning, we’d suggest you try placing an immediate order for one of the new JPK 10.30s. But you mightn’t find anyone at the workshops in Lorient to take your order, as the boss Jean-Pierre Kelbert is racing the JPK 10.30 Leon in the Fastnet in the two-handed division with Alexis Loison, and at time of writing, they’re southwest of Land’s End closing towards the Lizard at 10.8 knots.

Currently, they’re first in the Two-Handed, and first in IRC 3 and in IRC3B, and will surely have improved on their 15th in IRC Overall if they can maintain this pace to the finish.

courrier recommande5Gery Trentesaux’s JPK 11.80 Courrier Reommande is providing a nail-biting finish at Plymouth this morning

That said, the current pace is slow by comparison with their overnight performance, when they were hitting 15 knots and better as the frontal system went through, and their performance has been emulated by seasoned JPK campaigner Gery Trentesaux with the JPK 11.80 Courrier Recommande, which is very likely leading IRC 2 and IRC 2 A, but as his Tracker has been on the blink, we can’t precisely say where he is for now, except that he’s very much at the races. And even as we finish writing this piece, he’s back in communication with 24 miles to the finish, 10.3 knots on the clock, and a good chance of second overall or even better on IRC, in addition to class victories every which way.

The JPK sweep is completed by Noel Racine with the veteran JPK 10.10 Foggy Dew holding first in IRC 4 and IRC 4A, making for a trio of success which puts pretty much everything else in the shade. For sure, the wonderful performance by the Volvo 70 Wizard is looking increasingly unassailable, for though the very brisk sou’wester should hold up well in the approaches to Plymouth today, the astonishing little boats are increasingly a long shot for the top prize. But their dominance within classes is unrivalled and of real interest to serious club sailors who go offshore racing.

Later today, the next report will include an overview of the performance of other Irish boats in this hectic race.

Race Tracker & Leaderboard here

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While IMOCA 60s are renowned for racing non-stop around the world in the Vendée Globe, the doublehanded crews of these extraordinary space-age craft appreciate the Rolex Fastnet Race as it offers most conditions of a round the world race within just a few days writes James Boyd.

With the IMOCA 60s going through a revolution - following the introduction of foils, one design keels and masts, and being chosen as the Grand Prix boat of The Ocean Race, there has been huge interest in how they are performing, especially as some are new builds and other have been upgraded to differing degrees.

As usual, all the IMOCA 60s were being sailed doublehanded in preparation for this autumn's Transat Jacques Vabre.

Class act of this year's Rolex Fastnet Race was Solitaire du Figaro winner Jérémie Beyou and Christopher Pratt on the new generation VPLP design Charal.

Twenty IMOCA 60s set sail in the Royal Ocean Racing Club's biennial Rolex Fastnet Race and, as forecast, it was the unusual and near impossible-to-predict transition on the first evening between southeasterly gradient to southwesterly pre-frontal breeze that would prove the race's 'defining moment'.

IMOCA 60sTwenty IMOCA 60s at the start of the Rolex Fastnet Race © Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

Out of the Solent, PRB, sailed by Nicolas Lunven and her new skipper Kevin Escoffier, led, with Clarisse Cremer and Vendée Globe winner Armel le Cleac'h on board Banque Populaire and Charal both to leeward. However here Charal demonstrated the power of her foils, forging ahead past the north of the Casquets traffic separation scheme (TSS) with Louis Burton and Davy Beaudart aboard Bureau Vallée leading the southerly group.

Alongside the top IRC Zero boats, like Rambler 88, Wizard and Sorcha, they headed southwest out into the middle of the channel... only for the wind to disappear almost completely and chaos to rein. As Sam Davies, sailing Initiatives Coeur with Route du Rhum winner Paul Meilhat, described it: "We went backwards for a while. I think we tried to draw a heart...because Initiatives Coeur is all about saving kids with heart problems. It was frustrating."

Meanwhile British IMOCA 60 newbie Pip Hare and the fastest man on the water, Australian Paul Larsen were trickling along in breeze to the north on the shortest course. Ultimately they enjoyed several blissful hours of fame as their ancient 20 year old boat led the entire IMOCA 60 fleet past the Lizard.

IMOCA SailingBanque Populaire and Charal © Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

Beyou observed: "It was strange because I think they had wind from the north, which they should never have had! That was a good call by them." Sébastien Simon and Vincent Riou on the new Juan K-designed Arkea Paprec were first of southerly group to notice the north paying, gybing to get a piece of it.

Hare and Larsen were eventually overtaken at the Scilly Isles, when Charal once again regained the lead ahead of Banque Populaire.

Outbound to the Fastnet Rock, Charal extended her lead to 15 miles. It was also lively, said Beyou: "It was very difficult because the wind was stronger than expected. We had 35 knots when I was expecting 25! It was wild reaching and the sea was rough."

On port tack, the wind was also veering. This left Charal 10 miles further east than they'd hoped, forcing them to short tack west (no mean feat just two up) along the top of the Fastnet TSS and the Irish coast to reach the Fastnet Rock. This they finally rounded after an elapsed of 1d 8h 52m 38s (outside of Marc Guillemot and Safran's record time of 1d 6h 36m 0s).

Rounding some 20 minutes later were Vendee Globe veterans Yannick Bestaven and Roland Jourdain on Maître CoQ (ironically under whose colours Beyou sailed the last Vendée Globe) with Initiatives Coeurs another 20 minutes behind.

On the run back to the Scilly Isles, Maître CoQ drew level with Charal. This was due to their having to make some laborious sail changes, reported Beyou. "We were broad reaching at 120° TWA under full main and J2 after the Fastnet TSS. Then we changed to the A3, which was the manoeuvre where we lost a lot." During this period Charal hit her top speed of the race - 33-34 knots.

Charal passed Bishop Rock to the west of the Scilly Isles at 0630 this morning while behind a four way fight was developing between Banque Populaire, Maître CoQ and Initiatives Coeurs and Bureau Vallée 2.

Through judicious covering, Charal kept herself between those chasing and the Plymouth breakwater finish line where she arrived at 14:02:28 BST in an elapsed time of 2d 1h 32m 28s (outside of the PRB's 2011 record of 1d 23h 21m 27s). Impressively this was only around 1.5 hours more than Peter Harrison's Maxi 72 Sorcha, being sailed with large talented armies of crew. As Beyou observed: "They were gybing a bit better than us..."

Overall Beyou said of this year's race: "It was nice - a tough one because every time we were leading, people kept coming back into us. Anyway, we were first which is a good accomplishment for the team, because in the last two races we've had to stop. It has been good to see the boat perform in different conditions - upwind, downwind, light wind, strong wind."

It was also a good opportunity to learn about their giant foils. As Christopher Pratt noted: "Even if you changed something tiny, it is not a gain of 0.2 knots, it is a gain (or a loss) of 2 knots..."

More delighted than Beyou was Kevin Escoffier and Solitaire du Figaro winner Nicolas Lunven on board PRB, who finished second. This season Escoffier, who was in Dongfeng Sailing Team's Volvo Ocean Race-winning crew, has been bequeathed the IMOCA 60 sponsorship of Vendée-based house cladding company PRB. Second place came despite being on a boat with a 2010 vintage hull, albeit fitted with Juan K-designed foils for last year's Route de Rhum.

"We had a good start and were leading at the Needles," recounted Escoffier. "But then we followed the forecast too much because conditions were definitely not what were forecast. We should have gone directly towards the Scillies earlier rather than hunting the new wind. But then we were quite fast reaching to the Fastnet."

During the race Escoffier said they had done 32 knots and sometimes 30 constantly. "That was a bit too fast but it was good to practice on the boat and I am very happy to have done so well on my first race as skipper of PRB."

The Rolex Fastnet Race was good for its female skippers with Clarisse Cremer on Banque Populaire third and Sam Davies on Initiatives Coeur fifth, behind Bureau Vallée 2. At the time of writing Pip Hare and Paul Larsen were lying in 14th and Miranda Merron and Halvard Mabire 17th on Campagne de France.

"I think we deserved more than a fifth place," said Davies. "There were a couple of mistakes we could have avoided, but it was such fun to send it across the Celtic Sea and back and really try out the boat in conditions that were tough and rough, but not too tough and rough that you had to slow down. It was cool seeing 'who hoons the fastest'!" Like Escoffier, Davies added it was particularly satisfying to see that her boat, which has been fitted with enormous foils over the winter, can now stay up with the 2016 generation foiling boats.

Their 'mistakes' were a bow compartment flood when one of the foil hatches blew off. "There was a water alarm going off, but we knew we'd soon be in the lee at the Fastnet Rock and would slow down. But when I went forward, I got a nasty surprise because the water was up to my thighs! That required a lot of pumping!"

They also got something caught round their keel and were forced to back down to remove it. "When you are doing 25 knots, you lose about five miles just doing that."

Ashore Davies was swaying and just keeping her eyes open. "I'm very tired," Davies concluded. "But that is normal at the end of the Rolex Fastnet Race. It's been like that for the last three times I've done it. I have never felt as tired as after any other race. Still, I'm happy.

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The new breed of Ultime 32 trimarans have lived up to their name and reputation with the leading pair of Gitana XVII and Macif slashing more than four and a half hours off the record time for the 608-mile Rolex Fastnet Race when they finished at Plymouth this afternoon just one minute apart, at 1632 and 1633 hrs writes W M Nixon.

The previous record was set in 2011’s breezy race by Loick Peyron with the 130ft trimaran Banque Populaire V at 1 day 8 hours and 48 minutes, an average of 18.5 knots. But despite being virtually becalmed for an hour and more on the outward passage, this year the smaller new designs have proven to be extremely potent machines, while having a significant proportion of the course sailed as a beam reach was very much to their advantage.

At the Fastnet Rock at 0630 BST this morning, Gitana XVII (aka Maxi Edmond de Rothschild) skippered by Franck Cammas and Charles Caudrelier, was narrowly in the lead. But in some extra-swift sailing in an already fast leg to the next turn at the Bishop Rock, the western outpost of the Isles of Scilly, sister-ship Macif (Francois Gabart) took over the lead and hung onto it thereafter sometimes opening it up to as much as two miles. Yet at the finish Gitana snatched it back again by just 59 seconds.

Some idea of the relative speed of the multihulls can be gauged from the fact that at precisely the time they finished in Plymouth, the leading mono-hull, George David’s Rambler 88, was in process of rounding the Fastnet Rock, having opened out a half mile lead on Seng Huang Lee’s 100ft SHK Scallywag from Hong Kong, while Peter and David Askew’s Volvo 70 Wizard is now six miles astern of Rambler, but still leading IRC overall on corrected time.

The southwest breeze has now filled in along the south coast of Cornwall and Devon and the rest of the entire fleet is steadily on the move past the Lizard and on past the Isles of Scilly. In overall IRC placings, the boat of Irish interest currently doing best is the Ker 40 Keronimo with Kenneth Rumball and Barry Hurley on board – their 23rd overall means they’re fifth in IRC 1 and 4th in IRC 1A.

Although conditions are favourable going to and from the Fastnet, with winds at the rock south of southwest at the moment, an expected change will see a veer which may see the smallest boats racing in more difficult conditions with the wind forward of the beam, while tail-enders back at the Isles of Scilly may even find themselves hard on the wind tomorrow.

Meanwhile this afternoon’s last-minute victory by Gitana IV is another extraordinary episode in the story of Rothschild involvement in top level sailing. It began in 1965 when the Baron Edmond de Rothschild was persuaded to take his luxurious but surprisingly fast Sangermani yawl Gitana IV in the Fastnet Race.

At 90ft, Gitana IV was at the time the biggest boat ever to do the race, and naturally the baron brought his personal chef along so that he and his sailing friends could enjoy one of the legendary and leisurely Rothschild lunches every day. It was around 1.0pm on the second day when Gitana was approaching the Fastnet Rock, and the professional skipper went below to advise the owner of the impending historic moment.

The Baron and his friends were already well into lunch and an animated conversation, but he turned briefly to his skipper and said; “Please do not interrupt us when we are in the enjoying luncheon”, and he left the skipper to record the rounding of the rock.

These days, times have changed – those 59 seconds at Plymouth are going to get some deep attention at every level of the Rothschild world.

gitana four1 The 90ft Gitana IV – in the 1965 Fastnet Race, enjoying a proper lunch took priority over witnessing the rounding of the Fastnet Rock

Race Tracker & Leaderboard here

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For most sailors a fair wind from well aft of the beam is welcome. But if you happen to be a 100ft trimaran which three hours ago was registering 38 knots on a beam reach, the fact that the wind is now drawing from astern is bad news writes W M Nixon.

It was no surprise when the four Ultime 32s from France led the Fastnet Race fleet out of the Solent early this afternoon in a south to southeast breeze. They’d been first away with their start at 1230 to keep them clear of everyone else, and even in the Solent they’d been pushing towards 20 knots. Out in the Channel with a fine commanding southerly breeze on the beam, the fastest were showing bursts of 38 knots, including Maxi Edmond de Rothschild which seems to have recovered from the indignity of briefly kissing the Shingles Bank – not something to be encouraged when you come complete with all sorts of fancy appendages such as foils of various kinds.

But having hurtled away towards the western horizon, as they closed in towards the coast of Devon the wind may have stayed with them, but it backed into the east. Thus instead of making good progress on the direct line, they’d to resort to tacking to lee to maintain best VMG, yet for smaller slower boats which were hitting hull speed while dead running, the easterly breeze was just grand.

If the Ultime 32s can get themselves clear to the west of the Lizard Point this evening, they should begin to enjoy a worthwhile south to southwest wind which is forecast to settle in over the area between Land’s End and the Fastnet across the mouth of the Celtic Sea, and that will bring them to their rounding of The Rock tomorrow morning as predicted here, but the weather system is unstable, and the low pressure area settling over Ireland is distinctly anaemic.

Meanwhile, in the enormous and now spread out fleet, overall it seems that the ever-reliable products of the JPK workshops in Lorient continue to do the business – at the most recent check-in, former Fastnet winner and general sailing superstar Gery Trentesaux of France was vying for the overall lead on IRC with the JPK 11.80 Courrier Recommande against the JPK 10.80 Dream Pearls, with another JPK 10.80 also in the hunt. However, with a fleet this size at such an early stage of the race, the position changes by the minute.

Of the boats of Irish interest, the Swan 36 Finola with Graham Curran on board was 18th overall – only a matter of minutes behind the leader – while the Swedish Ker 40 Keronimo with Kenneth Rumball and Barry Hurley on the strength was waiting to pounce at 21st overall.

Tracker here

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The maritime pageantry which is the sequenced start of the biennial Rolex Fastnet Race gets underway in time-honoured fashion at 12.30 hrs off Cowes today. And in the almost ludicrously varied 390-plus fleet, there are some sailing machines which are so fast they’re said to be the quickest things since the notion of sailing speed was invented writes W M Nixon.

These four specials of the day are the Ultime trimarans from France, which may have first appeared in prototype form in 2017, but since then have been much worked upon, and now they’re 100ft long and look to be damn nearly as wide as that too, while their full speed potential is out of sight.

ultime 32 macif2The 24-hour Fastnet Race is within her range of possibilities – the 100ft foiling trimaran Macif, skippered by Francoise Gabart, will start the Fastnet Race at 1230 hrs today

Not that most of the competitors will get much chance to see them. They take up so much space they’re not going to berth in Cowes beforehand, but will simply cross the Channel from France, come through the start line at Cowes with their fellow-multihulls first of all classes at 1230, and then after finishing at Plymouth they’ll just head straight back to France without their crews setting foot ashore.

Their magic ingredient – apart from the off-the-wall design and general hugeness in every direction – lies in the fact that they’ve brought offshore foiling technology along to a new level, and if everything holds together, we’re looking at low-flying aircraft rather than high-sailing boats.

ultime32 sailing3So where would you find the space to park them in Cowes before the Rolex Fastnet Race 2019? The Ultime 32s are leaving their special berths in France directly for the start line in Cowes, then they’ll race round the Fastnet Rock to Plymouth, and then they’ll head straight back to France without their crews setting foot ashore.

So much so, in fact, that it isn’t entirely beyond the realms of possibility that - with all the ducks in a row - an Ultime could go round the 608-mile Fastnet course within 24 hours, and it will be between Yves de Blevec’s Actual Leader (now there’s a name to flaunt at the fates), Francois Gabart’s Macif, Franck Cammas & Charles Caudillo’s Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, and Thomas Coville’s Sodebo Ultim 3 to see which of the Ultim 32/23s best does the business. 

Certainly they should be at The Rock by tomorrow morning. For although the wind expectations are reasonable for the first 24 hours, with winds tending to be southeasterly in the English Channel and south to southwest beyond Land’s End for the haul across to the Fastnet, there’s a possibility of the breeze going light in the Lizard/Land’s End area. And of course the modern Fastnet course - while still reflecting the race as sailed back at its inauguration in 1925 by the likes of Harry Donegan of Cork with his 17-ton gaff cutter Gull - is now bedevilled by a plague of no-go traffic separation zones at significant headlands, particularly in the Land’s End-Isles of Scilly area where many a Fastnet Race has been won or lost.

jolie brise4The former French pilot cutter Jolie Brise was the winner of the first Fastnet Race in 1925 when owned by George Martin. When he bought her, the advent of steam-driven pilot boats had made her redundant, and it could be argued that the introduction of the new-style offshore racing was the saving of Jolie Brise. Today, she still sails under the ownership of Dauntsey’s Schooltrack chart5The theoretical basic course of the Fastnet Race reflects its original form, but the modern imposition of no-go Shipping Traffic Separation Zones has made the key area around Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly into even more of an obstacle race than it was already.

Time was when all you had to do was avoid hitting the land and the nearest boat and go straight and as fast as you could. But these days you have to work out in advance which side to go on these vast invisible areas of the TSZs, and it has added an enormous tactical extra which affects boats of all sizes.

For instance, in the previous race in 2017, Alex Thomson and Nin O’Leary in the IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss never really recovered from opting to go eastward of the big TSZ running north from Land’s End, whereas Jean-Pierre Dick clung determinedly to a more westerly course despite the IMOCA 60’s reluctance to indulge in a dead beat, and it paid him in spades.

But that was then, this is now, and though there’s an incredible IMOCA 60 entry of 20 boats, it’s those pesky Ultimes which will initially draw all the attention, even if the predicted weather pattern looks to suit the IMOCA 60s much better than the outward windward slug which dominated 2017’s race.

But then, as the froth of the flying machines settles down, we’ll find ourselves concentrating into proper contemplation of the real Rolex Fastnet Race - the hundreds of solid IRC-rated boats which know they’re going to be a sea for more than a day or two, and may well end up experiencing entirely different weather from that of the here today, gone tomorrow giants at the front of the fleet.

For the likelihood is that it’s out of their ranks that the overall winner will appear, even if Actual Leader has gone to the trouble of getting IRC-rated (it’s 2.155, which may mean she’ll almost have to be already finished at Plymouth before some of the smaller boats have passed it while heading west) together with two of the IMOCA 60s (they’re “only” 1.734), all the MOCRA class, and eight of the 22 Class 40s.

fastnet race needles6The Fastnet fleet beating towards the Needles as they exit the Solent. The IRC system is remarkably successful at extracting an overall winner from such a diversity of boats. Photo: Rolex

These figures are stratospheric by comparison with the numbers which affect most of the Irish sailors through the fleet, who are to be found on boats from the Emerald Isle, but have also gone international – for instance, Kenneth Rumball of Dun Laoghaire is continuing his successful link-up with the Swedish Ker 40 Keronimo in Class 1, which rates 1.198, 14 points above the 1.186 of Conor Doyle’s Xp 50 Freya from Kinsale, so there’s a duel to watch.

Graham Curran of UK Sailmakers in Crosshaven is taking the vintage route, he’s sailing on the classic S&S-design of 1966, the Swan 36 Finola and they did well in the recent Channel Race. She’s owned by Chris Frost, and they rate way down in the basement at 0.901, which is even lower than the 0.919 of Foynes’ Conor Dillon in the two-handed division in the Dehler 34 Big Deal, and the 1.003 of Kinsale’s Cian McCarthy (also two-handed) in the X362 Eos.

In complete contrast, Conor Fogerty of Howth with his foiling Beneteau Figaro 3 Raw has a punitive rating of 1.124, which puts him into the 63-strong Class 1. The foils on these new boats are a mixed blessing, as Fogerty tells us they only begin to confer any sort of performance benefit when the wind gets up to 15 knots, and it isn’t until 20 knots of wind that you really begin to do the business.

fogertys raw7Conor Fogerty’s Beneteau Figaro 3 Raw – she needs 15 knots of wind for the foils to start working effectively and requires it to be hitting 20 knots if she is to sail up to her punitive rating of 1.124. Photo O’Brien

Thus the reality seems to be that the most satisfying boat for a Figaro 3 to race against is another Figaro 3, but although another privately-owned sister-ship was reputedly going to enter, there’s none showing up on the listings, and Raw seems to be on her own, finding that her closest contenders rating-wise in Class 1 include Michael O’Donnell’s J/121 Darkwood, winner of the recent Channel Race, and Andrew Hall’s sister-ship Jackhammer from Pwllheli.

Despite the cards being stacked against him, Conor Fogerty has put together a strong crew of four, as his main helm is Howth’s Laura Dillon who was the first woman to win the All-Ireland championship, together with Figaro racer Joan Mulloy of Mayo, and Corby 25 racer Denis Coleman of Cork.

desert star8Irish Offshore Sailing’s Desert Star on her way to winning the Roger Justice Trophy in the 2015 Fastnet Race. A regular participant, Desert Star is back this year again under the continuing command of Ronan O Siochru. Photo: Rolex

It says much about the demographics of modern Ireland that for the past two Fastnets, our most successful boats have come from Offshore Sailing Schools, which have their race within a race for the Roger Justice Trophy. Last time round, it was the Irish National Sailing School’s J/109 Jedi skippered by Kenneth Rumball which took the cup, the time before it was Ronan O Siochru with Irish Offshore Sailing’s Jeanneau 37 Desert Star which is going yet again this year, her crew doubtless inspired by the last time Ireland provided the overall winner, which was in 2007 with Ger O’Rourke’s Cookson 50 Chieftain from Kilrush, an achievement which, in international terms, is right up there with Annalise Murphy’s Silver Medal in the 2016 Olympics.

chieftain after start9Ger O’Rourke’s Cookson 50 Chieftain from Kilrush at the start of the 2007 Fastnet Race, which she was to win overall

Chieftain finishes10 That magic moment – Chieftain at Plymouth Lighthouse, overall winner of the 2007 Rolex Fastnet Race

With today’s race marking the 40th Anniversary of the history-laden Fastnet Storm of 1979 (even if we are two weeks earlier), there is special interest in boats which were there forty years ago, and none is more remarkable than the vintage Contessa 32 Assent, which was last boat to finish in 1979, but as she was one of the smallest boats in the fleet, she won Class IV for her dogged persistence and heroic performance.

In fact, the Contessa 32’s reputation for ultimate seaworthiness was much enhanced by the Fastnet storm, for with her fairly low freeboard and compact form, she goes into semi-submarine mode when the sea goes crazy. Thus where high volume boats like the then-new OOD 34s (ironically also built by Jeremy Rogers) were being rolled like beach-balls, the Contessa 32 clenched her teeth and went straight through the nasty ones.

Back in 1979, Assent was owned by the Ker family, who are sheep farmers in Somerset, and it was Alan Ker who skippered her in the Fastnet. But after that his father Willie – who of all things had come to sailing through International OK dinghy racing – took over command of Assent, and started a series of ever more adventurous voyages into high latitudes which had won him international recognition and a string of major awards when he finally hung up his seaboots in his 80s.

assent arctic11The late Willy Ker’s Contessa 32 Assent cruising in Arctic waters 850 miles from the North Pole. Assent won Class IV in the 1979 Fastnet Race sailed by Alan Ker, and she is racing in today’s Fastnet Race sailed by the Rogers family of Lymington, who built Assent and have now given her a major restoration.

By that time Assent was looking distinctly tired, so the Rogers family took her over and brought her back to their yard in Lymington to give her a complete facelift, since when which she has been making her mark back on the racing circuit.

Sadly, the great Willie Ker died last month at the age of 93. But Assent is going stronger than ever, and she’ll be racing today’s Fastnet in a very special capacity in Class IV on a rating of 0.853 (the lowest in the fleet) sailed by Kit and Simon Rogers. So if at some stage during the race you see a very small but accomplished-looking blue boat with sail number GBR 5765, then you’re looking at more sailing history in one little 32ft boat than you’d think possible.

Another piece of remarkable history stepping down the Solent today is American owner Rives Potts’ 48ft Jim McCurdy-designed Carina. Not only was Carina a successful finisher in 1979’s race in her final year of ownership with the great Dick Nye who’d had two overall Fastnet victories back-to-back in 1955-57 with a previous Phil Rhodes-designed Carina, but in fact he’d made his debut with the new alloy-built Carina in the race of 1969. So today Carina is marking both her involvement in 1979, and her Fastnet Golden Jubilee from 1969, while Rives Potts has memories in every direction, as he was a crewmember aboard Ted Turner’s overall winner in 1979’s storm, the 63ft S&S design Tenacious.

If you’re into classic American offshore racers of a certain era and under-stated style, then Carina is the boat for you. She has won at least three Bermuda Races overall, and though she hasn’t had a Fastnet overall victory yet, on her last visit in 2011 she won her class, providing the definitive Fastnet-rounding image just ten hours after George David’s Rambler 100 had lost her keel in very different conditions at the same spot.

carina fastnet12American classic. The Jim McCurdy-designed 48ft Carina (Rives Potts) is a significant presence in the Fastnet Race story. Photo: Rolex

George David is of course back with the all-conquering Rambler 88, and the battle for mono-hull line honours at the front of the fleet is going to be quite something, but maybe he’ll find a minute for a quick salute to his old friends on the Baltimore Lifeboat crew as he rounds The Rock, for it’s possible they’ll be there aboard The Robert, Baltimore’s 1979 Watson 47 lifeboat which has been restored by Jeff Houlgrave.

Out of all this cornucopia of historic and modern boats, an overall IRC winner has to emerge in due course, and for the last three Fastnets, that very special role has been filled by a French boat. So it’s surely time for some other nation to get a look-in, and with dozens of countries sending forth crews, the possibilities are almost endless. But then, waiting and watching to see who finally comes out on top is part of the global fascination that this “Race of Races” attracts.

Race tracker here

Published in W M Nixon
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Former Fastnet lighthouse keeper Gerald Butler is due to represent fellow Irish light keepers at a memorial service for 1979 Fastnet Yacht Race on the Isle of Wight this evening writes  Lorna Siggins

Former RNLI Baltimore vessel, The Robert, which was one of four Irish lifeboats involved in the Fastnet race rescue, is also returning to the West Cork harbour to remember its role in the Fastnet race rescues.

A total of 19 people, including two sailors with Irish connections, died after storm force 10 winds hit the race 40 years ago next week.

Almost 3,000 competitors and spectators were sailing the 605 nautical mile course from the Isle of Wight to the Fastnet lighthouse and back to Plymouth when conditions changed dramatically on the night of August 13th, 1979.

The ferocity of the storm had not been forecast in time, and there was minimal communication and no satellite technology on the yachts – with even the best equipped unable to deal with 50-60 knot winds.

Among the 132 sailors rescued by Royal Navy and RAF helicopters, RNLI lifeboat crews and the Naval Service ship LÉ Deirdre were competitors on 18 Irish yachts - including a then-winning Irish Admiral’s Cup team.

RNLI Baltimore coxswain Kieran Cotter was a crew member with coxswain Christy Collins onboard The Robert, along with voluntary crews from Ballycotton, Courtmacsherry and Dunmore East lifeboats over a period of 75 hours.

The Robert, a Watson 47 class vessel taken out of service and sold by the RNLI in 1991, was recently retrieved by Glasgow-based businessman Jeff Houlgrave, who restored it and steamed with two crew from Scotland to Crosshaven, Co Cork.

The Robert leaves Crosshaven today (fri) for Baltimore, and will be met by the current lifeboat as it arrives into the harbour.

“The extraordinary men who went out to sea in 1979 had far less equipment than vessels now, and it is the least we can do to save this past heritage,” Mr Houlgrave said.

On the Fastnet lighthouse, Gerald Butler and colleagues Reggie Sugrue and Louis Cronin battled the winds and waves leaping up to the balcony during the 1979 storm to record sail numbers.

They then reported them back to Mizen Head which relayed the information to the race organisers in Cowes.

“I am very honoured to be representing lightkeepers and recognise the role they played in sea safety over several centuries before automation,” Mr Butler said.

Commissioners of Irish Lights deputy commissioner Kieran Crowley has also been invited to the memorial service hosted by the Royal Ocean Racing Club in Cowes on the eve of this year’s Fastnet yacht race start.

Further up the Atlantic seaboard, Clifden, Co Galway, has become the first west coast RNLI station to receive a new Shannon-class lifeboat.

The all-weather Shannon, which was designed by an Irish engineer and is the first RNLI class to be named after an Irish river, was given a warm welcome by several hundred people at Clifden Quay on Wednesday.

Named the Brianne Aldington, the 13-metre Shannon reduces response times to call-outs, as it has a top speed of 25 knots. It replaces the Mersey-class 15 knot vessel at Clifden, and represents a 2.4 million euro investment by the RNLI in the west coast.

The Shannon was designed by Derry man Peter Eyre who as a child was rescued by Lough Swilly RNLI in Donegal. It has an endurance of 250 nautical miles and is powered by waterjets, rather than propellers.

Clifden RNLI coxswain James Mullen recalled how delivering the vessel from RNLI headquarters in Poole, Dorset, was one of his proudest moments.

“ As we rounded Loop Head we hit a bit of weather and we really made her dance,” he said.

There are currently two Shannon-class lifeboats at Lough Swilly in Donegal and Clogherhead, Co Louth, and a relief vessel at the Wicklow station.

Published in West Cork
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It was when the Baltimore Lifeboat was called on the evening of Monday, August 13th 1979 to the assistance of the yacht Regardless that the outside world began to realize that something exceptional was happening to the record 303-boat Fastnet Race fleet writes W M Nixon. With a gathering gale, other yachts were already in difficulties. But as the gale developed into a storm, the call came from Ken Rohan’s Regardless - star boat in the then-winning three-boat Irish Admirals Cup team - that her high-tech carbon fibre rudder stock had broken clean off at sea south of Toe Head.

With one of the most experienced crews of all the boats on board, the fact that Regardless had sought help moved the scenario onto a new level. The Baltimore lifeboat, The Robert, was at sea under Cox’n Christie Collins with a very young Kieran Cotter in her crew, and when she found the disabled Regardless being tossed about like a cork, it took six attempts to get a towline aboard, but after that the fallen star was towed safely into Baltimore, and The Robert put back to sea on other related missions.

kieran cotter2Man of many rescues – the much-decorated Baltimore Lifeboat Cox’n Kieran Cotter at the day job in Baltimore

Several other lifeboats from along Ireland’s south coast and the boats from St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly and St Ives on the Cornish mainland, together with helicopters and ships, were also to be involved in the huge rescue effort which saved 132 lives. Yet despite their best efforts, there were to be 19 tragic losses in this exceptional storm, a situation which was to be analysed in several ways – including official reports – in its aftermath.

But gradually life returned to normal, and over the years the recollection of the storm of 1979 has seen the Baltimore Lifeboat, - which had been at sea for longer than any others - becoming the symbol of all the lifeboats involved, a situation which was reinforced when one of her successors, now with Kieran Cotter as Cox’n, played a central role in the rescue of the crew of George David’s super-maxi Rambler 100 when her keel snapped off at the Fastnet Rock in the race of 2011.

Baltimore lifeboat returns3An exhausted Baltimore Lifeboat crew returns to port on completion of their mission in the Fastnet Storm of 1979. They spent the longest time at sea of all the lifeboats on duty in this complex rescue operation

Meanwhile, The Robert, ON 955 and a classic Watson 47, was sliding gently into retirement and obscurity when she was discovered by Jeff Houlgrave. He may be best known on the big boat circuit for his involvement with Marina Projects and as Chairman of Superyacht UK, but one of his intriguing hobbies is the restoration of vintage lifeboats, and with The Robert
he found something very near to his heart.

robert lifeboat retired4The Robert as a cruiser in the early days of her retirement

Jeff houlgrave5One of Jeff Houlgrave’s individualistic hobbies is the restoration of vintage lifeboats, and The Robert was a very special case

It has to be confessed that when he signalled that this restoration was getting underway last year, the feeling was that time was tight enough to be ready for the big 40th at Baltimore in August. But we were able to put him in touch with Kieran Cotter, still the much-decorated Cox’n of Baltimore Lifeboat, to see what might happen early in August 2019, and last night the signal came through that the superbly restored Robert is now in Crosshaven, and will be heading towards Baltimore on Friday. Clearly, when Jeff Houlgrave gets going on a project, he doesn’t mess about.

With the re-jigging of the international programme such that the Rolex Fastnet Race 2019 start on Saturday 3rd August precedes Cowes Week (10th August – 17th August) for the first time ever, there’s no way any Fastnet racers will be in the region of The Rock on August 13th and 14th, the precise date of the 40th Anniversary of the rescues. But in Baltimore a programme is being developed to reflect the current schedule’s reality while properly respecting the solemn significance of the event.

baltimore west cork6Baltimore West Cork – a summer paradise where the links within and between the sailing and lifeboat communities are notably strong. Photo: Tom Vaughan

For of all ports, it is Baltimore where the lifeboat crews and the sailing community are most intimately intertwined. Thus in the Beaufort Cup Series within Volvo Cork Week last year, the Lifeboat Service was represented by Baltimore with Deputy Cox’n Youen Jacob skippering their J/109 to such good effect that at times they were leading the very competitive fleet, and at the end it was so close that the theoretical winner, Commandant Barry Byrne with the Defence Forces crew on John Maybury’s J/109 Joker 2, reckoned that as he and his crew were given the choice of which charity their €10,000 prize should go to, they should divide it between the Children’s Hospital and Irish Lifeboats. That’s the way it is in Baltimore.

Published in Fastnet
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This weekend forty years ago, I was the chirpy co-skipper of the smallest boat in the Cruise-in-Company fleet as we closed in on Glengarriff in far West Cork for the Golden Jubilee party of the Irish Cruising Club in the magic place where it had been founded in July 1929 writes WM Nixon.

There were boats from several organisations including the Cruising Club of America which were on a busy schedule, as several of them - and some of the Irish Cruising Club fleet too - planned to head on soon in order to do Cowes Week and the 1979 Fastnet Race, for in those days many cruiser-racers really were cruiser-racers.

fastnet rock calm2…..and the Fastnet Rock in an entirely different mood. Photo: Rolex

Our “smallest boat in the fleet” was the cat ketch Endeavour, prototype of the lift-keel 21ft Poacher developed by Willie and Angus Richardson of Liverpool and Holyhead. During a test sail in June from Holyhead which took us round to Treardur Bay and all the delights thereof, the idea arose that Endeavour would be just the job for participation in the ICC’s celebratory cruise-in-company. My own boat at the time was a Squib, which wouldn’t quite do for a week-long cruise from Crosshaven to Glengarriff, whereas Willie was mad keen to show his new mini wonder-cruiser to as many people as possible.

poacher ketch3The Poacher 21 cat ketch Endeavour was the smallest boat in the ICC Golden Jubilee fleet of July 1979, but by no means the slowest. Photo: W M Nixonpoacher ketch4So who needs a dinghy? Endeavour at Crookhaven, with some of the Cruise-in-Company fleet moored off. Photo: W M Nixon

The charter fee may well have been a shilling or whatever currency we used at the time, but though modest it made our participation official, while the time economy of being able to road-trail the boat to Crosser and then trail her back again from Glengarriff suited a hyper-busy season.

For those were the glory days of the Admirals Cup, the Irish were very much to the fore, and Nixon Verbiage Industries plc were on treble overtime to keep up with everything and feed several hungry printed news outlets.

Yet as we took our farewell of friends from both sides of the Atlantic and headed up the long road from Glengarriff back to Dublin, the mood was typical of this busy though somehow also soporific mid to late summer sailing time as August approaches, with a definite shift of emphasis. Not that we’d the faintest notion that within a fortnight the fiercest storm ever to strike the Fastnet Race fleet would be gathering power to obliterate the languid weather still lingering from July. On the contrary, it was because this is the way it is with the pattern of our sailing summer.

For this is the time in the Irish sailing year when leading figures undergo something of a character change. Not quite Jekyll & Hyde, admittedly. But nevertheless with the shift of emphasis moving towards the August mood, we find those who have been at the coalface of event administration gradually re-emerge as racing participants in events elsewhere, while with others the movement is in the opposite direction.

Thus today is the final day of the WIORA Championship in Foynes, with Alan Crosbie of Kinsale as ever the Race Officer. But he and his specialists will be relying on a team of local volunteers many of whom will reappear next week as Mermaid sailors in the first-ever Mermaid National Championship to be staged by the Royal Cork YC at Crosshaven. It has all the makings of a very special event, for the Mermaids are among the most popular classes for hosting clubs – Mermaid sailors are fully aware of their duties as enthusiastic consumers – while the class is on a roll at its several centres, with new and restored boats continually augmenting the fleet.

But even as we contemplate the special interest in events in Cork Harbour, inevitably next Friday our thoughts will also be in Cowes, and the Memorial Service for those 19 people lost in the 1979 Fastnet Race tragedy. Forty years on, the freakish nature of that brief-lived but hyper-violent August storm has taken on its own mythology. But there’s no escaping the ultimate reality, and some quiet reflection next Friday is only right and proper before the huge Rolex Fastnet Race fleet sweeps westward down the Solent next day in one of world sailing’s greatest acts of waterborne choreography.

fastnet memorial service5The notice for next Friday’s Fastnet Memorial Service shows The Rock with Cape Clear in the background
Fastnet cape clear memorial6The Memorial Stone on Cape Clear

Back in 1979, it was the biggest fleet yet seen – 303 boats - but even the most experienced sailors were almost overwhelmed by their experience of the storm between August 13th and 14th. For sure, you expect the occasional gale. But this was much more than a gale.

It had so happened that during the dreamy Cruise-in-Company towards Glengarriff in July, at a couple of stopovers our little boat was berthed next to the American Swan 47 Toscana owned by Eric Swenson, who had Cowes Week and the Fastnet Race next up on his programme.

We were impressed by the owner’s determination to make the use of his fine boat as comprehensive as possible, and for the Fastnet, one of the crew was to be the noted American sailing writer John Rousmaniere. He found himself in the midst of history in the making, and his very timely book Fastnet Force 10 continues to be the definitive account of the storm and its effect, even in the face of subsequent official reports and other more personal stories.

Meanwhile, having notched a trio of Fastnets, I was more involved in parenthood in 1979, but had somehow worked it to fit in a brief family holiday in Cornwall with the In-Laws while still contriving to be up in Plymouth on the Thursday when we had anticipated reporting the Irish Admirals Cup triumph. Instead, I found myself being given an extremely personal account of the Fastnet Storm 1979 by overall winner Ted Turner in a corner of the bar in the Post House Hotel. But for reasons of State Security, the outcome of that conversation is under wraps under the Official Secrets Act until at least 2029, and probably later.

tenacious sailing7Ted Turner’s 63ft S&S design Tenacious, overall winner of the 1979 Fastnet Race

However, one of the best accounts of experiencing the Fastnet Storm is found in designer Ron Holland’s “All The Oceans”, the monumental but fascinating Memoir he published last year. The sheer variety and achievement of the talented New Zealander’s roller-coaster life is shown by the fact that the storm, which directly affected a significant number of his most successful boats at the sharpest end of the Fastnet fleet, is just another episode in a career in which he was based in Ireland for forty years - in Currabinny and then Kinsale - while creating a global design practice.

That said, the storm had a profound effect on him as it had on everyone else who came through it, and his account of experiencing it aboard Hugh Coveney’s 43ft Golden Apple of the Sun – which he had of course designed, while Killian Bushe in Cork was the builder – is one of raw candour.

Golden Apple was the senior member of the Irish Admiral’s Cup team – the other two were 39 footers, Ken Rohan’s Regardless which Holland had also designed, and the Peterson-designed Rogers 39 Inishanier (Barry Bramwell & Brian Buchanan) – and the team had gone into the Fastnet Race at the end of Cowes Week well ahead in the Admirals Cup points table, with Regardless the top scoring boat.

regardless solent8Ken Rohan’s Regardless (RIYC) racing in the Admirals Cup in the Solent in 1979. Going into the Fastnet Race, the Ron Holland-designed Regardless was the top-scoring boat in the AC, while Ireland was the leading team.
fastnet course9The Fastnet Race course

With the Fastnet Race scoring extra points, things were looking good for all the team on the second night out as they approached The Rock, but by the time the storm had gone through completely, only Inishanier was still racing. Regardless had been an early faller when her carbon-fibre rudder stock broke off at The Stags at Toe Head, and she was saved by the Baltimore Lifeboat. But Golden Apple, having rounded the rock, was still very well placed while heading for the next turn at The Bishop Rock. Ron Holland’s account well captures the way it was that night and into the next day. He takes up the story as darkness draws on and Golden Apple, with himself on the helm, is slugging into winds already gusting well above 40 knots, approaching The Rock on port tack:

“The image of The Rock that evening is burned into my memory. As we bore down on it the lighthouse keepers switched on the beam, sending a ghostly wagon wheel of yellow spokes across the white water. I steered directly for the lighthouse, estimating that the yacht’s leeway would push us clear of the turmoil before we prepared for the rounding. Since I was on the helm, it was my call and I had made a decision.

Big as the seas were, I was determined to take Golden Apple as close as I dared and slip inside the few other yachts that were lying just ahead, their stern lights coming and going in the breaking waves. I had noticed that though they were much bigger than us, they were standing further out to sea and giving The Rock a wider berth. I knew what I was doing, or at least I hoped I did. Familiar as I was with these waters, I had never before rounded The Rock in a full gale.

ron holland10Ron Holland today. In a design career spanning more than 50 years, he has worked his way through many commissions from Quarter Tonners and even smaller craft to some of the world’s largest superyachts

Keeping the lighthouse to port, I steered for the white water. I caught a few concerned glances from the crew as the yacht hit violent cross-currents from the waves smashing back from the rocks, and began to buck and heave like a bronco. I gripped the wheel as hard as I could, and others clung to any handhold they could find.

Judging the moment, I yelled “Ready about”, and threw the wheel over, flipping Golden Apple onto starboard tack for the rounding. The crew scrambled up to the starboard side and prepared to ease the sheets as soon as we cleared The Rock and the lighthouse. I glanced under the boom and saw for the first time the space between us and The Rock. All of a sudden it seemed a little too close for comfort.

On her new tack, the yacht took a few seconds – too many seconds – to get back up to speed. The helm felt soft as the rudder struggled to bite in the foam and froth. Glancing back, I could see a black trail that out passage had carved into the whiteness. I was struck by a fleeting through that the other yachts outside us were probably watching and wondering if we had taken leave of our senses.

Eventually, Golden Apple picked herself up, and although thrown about like a toy, began to plough her way through the turmoil. “That was a bit scary”, I thought.

A soon as we were clear of The Rock, we set a course for the Scilly Isles……Looking back in the gathering darkness, I could make out the other yachts far behind us. “We just killed those guys” I yelled. And I was right. Later we would learn that the lighthouse keeper had recorded us as leading the race on corrected time.

golden apple11Poetry in sailing……Golden Apple of the Sun’s famous transom
Tired from my stint on the helm, I handed the wheel over to Harry Cudmore for his one-hour trick: it was impossible to concentrate longer than that…………. Golden Apple tore into the night like a scalded cat.

Right through the darkness, there was no let-up from the conditions, and at dawn, the wind was still screaming with gusts shrieking through the rigging at 60 knots or more…..I had never seen seas like these……They marched over the horizon, white water tumbling over the top as though they were breaking on a beach….throwing Golden Apple around like a rag doll. Line after relentless line they stretched……There was no reprieve.

Steering Golden Apple had become a gamble with disaster…’d to treat the boat as though she were a 15-ton surfboard. You’d to angle her down the wave so she didn’t bury her nose in the bottom of the trough, or she might somersault stern over bow…when a yacht pitchpoles, anything can happen…..

When I’d finished my latest turn on the helm I went below, not to sleep because that was out of the question, but just to lie down, even if my head was resting on a soaking wet pillow. My back and arms were aching from two days and nights of turns on the wheel. And I was sore and bruised from a fall. It had happened while I was relieving myself over the side while clinging to the backstay – the standard procedure – when somebody yelled: “Breaking wave!” “Jeez, it must be a big one”, I thought. “Aren’t they all breaking?” And then it hit, knocking me clean off my feet. If it hadn’t been for my crewmate Neil Kenefick, it would have been worse. Reacting fast, he grabbed me and threw me unceremoniously to safety in the bottom of the water-filled cockpit.”

ron and neil12Forty years down the line – Ron Holland and his saviour Neil Kenefick (right) relaxing with two shipmates during a cruise in Croatia earlier this month. Photo: Harold Cudmore

Golden Apple was moving fast and staying with the storm, and all the time the sea was becoming even more rough and confused. The noise below was unbelievable. Ron persuaded his shipmates that they had to slow the boat back and for a couple of hours they were under a lone storm staysail. Then at last conditions began to ease, and they were soon in full racing mode again, albeit still heavily reefed.

Ron continues: “Taking another turn on the helm, I kept a wary eye astern for a rogue wave, the one that can so easily catch you by surprise. Although we might be over the worst of the storm, the seas remained monstrous. I’d not been long on the helm when somebody shouted above the screaming of the wind: “Big wave coming!” It had become a familiar warning but I remember thinking once again: “Jesus, this must be a beauty”.

Crash! A wall of white, grey and turquoise water – I still remember the colours – broke over us and knocked Golden Apple straight onto her beam ends. I wrenched the wheel hard to stop her broaching and lying side-on to these huge waves, a dangerous position for boat and crew. In my anxiety, I must have overdone it. Above the din of wind and waves, I heard a loud bang. With a sinking feeling, I immediately knew what had happened. The carbon fibre rudder shaft had snapped. Confirming my fears, the wheel went limp in my hands”.

Golden Apple’s race was over, but by this time a massive rescue operation was underway through much of the fleet, and as they’d got so far on their way to the Scillies, it was a Cornwall-based SAR helicopter which came by and gave her crew the difficult decision to accept crew retrieval as they struggled with limited success to implement emergency steering. Owner Hugh Coveney, like his shipmates, was game to struggle on. But the SAR pilot gave him a take-it-or-leave-it option, while warning of a new gale approaching to sweep them in among the maze of rocks which make up the Isles of Scilly. So crew safety became paramount and they were soon brought ashore, with Hugh Coveney the last to be lifted into the helicopter.

SAR rescue13The SAR Helicopter crews were hyper-busy throughout the emergency

Compared to the fatal outcomes which several boats experienced, the situation of Golden Apple’s crew served instead to emphasise the extremity of the weather. This was one of the most accomplished crews in the entire fleet. Yet even they had never experienced anything like it.

But despite their brutal choice with the helicopter overhead, Golden Apple drifted clear of the rocks of the Isle of Scilly. Eventually, she was brought in to Hughtown in the Scillies by a fishing boat. Since then, it’s believed new owners have taken her on a round the world cruise.

Published in W M Nixon
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