Following months of meticulous preparation for crews and organisers alike, a record-breaking edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race is underway and in some style. The largest fleet in the race’s 92-year history, comprising 368 yachts from 29 countries, were treated to kind conditions, blue skies and a consistent, building westerly breeze as they were divided across seven start sequences in front of the Royal Yacht Squadron’s clubhouse in Cowes.
The 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race fleet is truly diverse, a quality clearly evident to all of those watching on the shore in Cowes or the thousands following the live start of the race on the internet. First away were the nine multihulls with the MOD70 Concise 10 immediately asserting her status as favourite to arrive first in Plymouth. Speaking before the race skipper Ned Collier Wakefield was comfortable with this prediction, less so of setting a new race record. “The forecast has got a little slower. It’s not looking like record breaking conditions. We are expecting a 48-hour race.” The current multihull line honours record stands at 32 hours, 48 minutes.
Following the departure of the multihulls, the subsequent starts provided a showcase for a range of boats from cutting-edge to historic, professionally-sailed to family-crewed, the IMOCA 60s, Class 40s, through to the bulk of the fleet embodied by yachts in the 30-50-ft range including a large number sailing double-handed.
The final start was reserved for the largest and fastest monohulls. In this class, the range of designs and size of yachts is remarkable. At 115-ft Nikata, a high-performance cruising yacht, has become the largest monohull to ever compete in the race. Her nearest rival in size, Ludde Ingvall’s 100-ft CQS, was built with the more single-minded objective of racing fast. “CQS consists of a lot of different and radical ideas at the same time,” explains Ingvall. “It’s a very interesting boat and we are still learning a lot.” Ingvall was the last skipper to claim line honours and overall victory in the same year. That 1995 success is one he self-deprecatingly puts down to ‘getting lucky with the weather’. George David’s Rambler 88 is an offshore racing yacht par excellence and has the added experience of finishing the last edition of the race. The final starting group also comprised the seven competing Volvo 65s.
The general consensus among weather forecasters points to a ‘big boat race’, with good breeze on the upwind leg to the Fastnet rock before a cold front sets in heralding lighter conditions which may thwart the ambitions of the chasing fleet in their quest to claim the Fastnet Challenge Trophy and Rolex timepiece awarded to the overall race winner on IRC handicap.
Shortly after the race start the fleet converged in the Solent to offer one of sailing’s most iconic vistas. Safely negotiating the first congested few nautical miles of the course is a challenge in itself. The 605-nm race is a constant and genuine test of seamanship, resources, tactics and navigation. “The course is fantastic,” explains Pascal Loison, race winner in 2013 on Night and Day. “There are several headlands, and at each headland you have a new challenge. This is unique to the Fastnet course. Other offshore races are more direct, less complicated.”
The Solent laid on 'classic' conditions for the start of the Royal Ocean Racing Club's 47th Race. In brilliant sunshine and with brisk westerly winds gusting up to 20 knots, the giant fleet tacked up the western Solent before compressing through the usual bottleneck at Hurst Narrows.
The first start got underway at 11:00 BST for the nine multihulls and within minutes, the blue three-hulled streak that is Concise 10 had pulled out a lead, frequently heeling to an alarming degree, just one hull immersed. By the time IRC One was starting at 12:20 Tony Lawson's MOD 70, skippered by Ned Collier Wakefield, was already off Poole. Crewman Paul Larsen, who five years ago became the world's fastest sailor setting a world record of 65.45 knots, reported Concise 10 was sailing under reefed mainsail and staysail. "We're making 20 knots tacking past Poole and just dropping into the watch system. Glamour start conditions in the Solent. I can just see the next boats clearing Hurst Castle." However Larsen warned that unless the wind freed up, there was little chance for them to break the multihull race record. By 1500 Concise 10 was already level with Portland Bill.
The multihulls were followed away from Cowes by two other 'non-IRC' classes - the nine doublehanded IMOCA 60s and twenty seven Class40s. Given the upwind conditions, the older, conventionally foiled IMOCA 60s were prevailing. At 1630 Paul Meilhat and Jules Verne Trophy record holder crewman Gwénolé Gahinet aboard SMA, the 2012-3 Vendee Globe (and the 2013 Rolex Fastnet Race) winner as MACIF, were leading the 60s past Portland Bill. The first 'foil-assisted' IMOCA 60 was favourite Alex Thomson and Nicholas O'Leary on Hugo Boss in third place, taking a northerly route, close to the land.
In the Class40s present championship leader Phil Sharp on board Imerys led past St Alban's Head, but later there was little too choose with the British boat neck and neck for the lead in this incredible fleet with the Maxime Sorel-skippered V And B, Burkhard Keese's Stella Nova, Benoit Charon's LMAX Normandie and race veteran Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron on Campagne de France.
The five IRC handicap classes, chasing the race's overall prize of the Fastnet Challenge Cup started with the smallest boats first at 1120.
This afternoon at 1600, the IRC One fleet had fanned out across the course to the southeast of St Alban's Head. James Neville's HH42 Ino XXX was leading the charge inshore as Staffan Wincrantz's Arcona 465 SALT 2.0 was ahead on the water to the south, just ahead of the venerable 1960s maxi Kialoa II, owned by Patrick Broughton.
Mid-afternoon, competitors in IRC Two were favouring the inshore route with Dutchman Frans Rodenburg's First 40 Elke, closest to St Alban's Head at 1620, with class favourite Gilles Fournier and Corinne Migraine's J/133 Pintia nearby.
The IRC Three boats were following a similar tactic with the offshore tack being less popular. Having started 20 minutes earlier, they were still successfully fending off the advances of the larger, faster IRC Two fleet. The Russian JPK 10.80, Igor Rytov's Boyatyr, was leading the pack inshore while the brilliantly-named Seafarers Ale Anticipation, the First 40.7 of former 470 Olympian Pete Newlands, was ahead on the water offshore.
The inshore-offshore spread was more evenly distributed among the smallest boats in IRC Four. Here Noel Racine's impeccably sailed JPK 10.10 Foggy Dew was ahead inshore while Dan Rigden's Elan 37 Tacktic was furthest down the track out to sea.
The last to start were the largest in the IRC fleet, IRC Zero, including the line honours contenders George David's Rambler 88 and Ludde Ingvall's 100ft CQS. By 1520 Rambler 88 was off and close into St Alban's Head, leading IRC Zero on the water just ahead of the biggest boat in the fleet, the 115ft Nikata.
Among the seven one design VO65s competing in 'Leg 0' of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race, it was very close, with the Charles Caudrelier-skippered Dongfeng Race Team a nose ahead and making 12.3 knots but facing a threat from Team Brunel, skippered again by Dutch race veteran Bouwe Bekking, making 12.5 as the boats passed St Alban's Head.
This morning Xabi Fernández, skipper of MAPFRE, looked forward to the race: "Once out of the Solent it will be upwind sailing up to the Fastnet rock, and finally we will sail downwind towards Plymouth. This is the first time I've competed in the Rolex Fastnet Race. It is a historic race, much like the Rolex Sydney Hobart."
Joan Vila, MAPFRE's legendary navigator confirmed the forecast: "Once we leave the Solent, the wind will blow at around 20 knots. From there, it will drop until tomorrow morning, with the probability of encountering areas of very light wind. As we get closer to Plymouth, the wind will build again."