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Battle Royal Over the Course for the Fastnet Race

16th November 2020
Will Ireland's Fastnet Rock be the only Great Unchangeable? If the Royal Ocean Racing Club Executive's decision of a year ago to change the finish for the next two Fastnet Races in 2021 and 2023 to Cherbourg is upheld at an EGM of all members on December 7th, then Irelands Fastnet Rock will be the only enduring feature of the course of a race which was first staged in 1925 Will Ireland's Fastnet Rock be the only Great Unchangeable? If the Royal Ocean Racing Club Executive's decision of a year ago to change the finish for the next two Fastnet Races in 2021 and 2023 to Cherbourg is upheld at an EGM of all members on December 7th, then Irelands Fastnet Rock will be the only enduring feature of the course of a race which was first staged in 1925

It says everything about the iconic nature of the Royal Ocean Racing Club's Fastnet Race that a General Meeting about the route for the race, which should be a private matter among the admittedly many members of the RORC, has already become a matter of public discussion despite the announcement of the forthcoming AGM and EGM on December 7th being issued via email as recently as 00.00.45 on Saturday, November 14th.

The timing thereby avoided publication on a gloom-laden and fateful Friday 13th by just 45 seconds. But inevitably there has already been much turmoil and dissent among traditionalists who felt that the time-honoured Plymouth finish was an integral and essential part of the Fastnet experience. When the proposed Cherbourg finish was announced a year ago, the RORC officers, committee and executive pointed out that they felt that facilities at Plymouth no longer met the requirements of a very varied fleet approaching 400 boats, some of them very large.

But traditionalists pointed out that expecting Plymouth to be able to cope with such a demand for an event which occurred only once every two years was like expecting a household to be permanently prepared for Christmas lunch, and that a bit of crowding was inevitable.

Plymouth after the Fastnet RaceIt may not be Monte Carlo, let alone Cherbourg, but packing them in at Plymouth after the Fastnet Race has always been an integral part of the Fastnet experience.

Nevertheless, it seemed that Cherbourg's offer of the sun, moon and the stars in terms of facilities had won the day. But apparently, a significant group of the grassroots members of the RORC think differently, and they've been quietly gathering their forces and under Club Rule 16.1, they've secured this EGM with the proposal, for decision by a simple majority of full members, that something as significant and central as the Fastnet Race course to the RORC's existence and ethos should be decided only by the agreement of the full membership, albeit through virtual voting under the current pandemic circumstances.

Interesting times. For a year, it has looked as though our own revered Fastnet Rock was going to be all that was left of the original Fastnet Race course. Between 1925 and 1947, it started eastward out of the Solent from the Royal Victoria YC at Ryde, the only exception being 1935 when it started westward from the Royal Solent YC at Yarmouth. But then in 1949 under the persuasion of John Illingworth, the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes took over starting duties for a westward-going start sequence which has now become one of global sailing's great wonders as they exit the Needles Channel in a vast panoply of sail with the full ebb roaring along under them.

The Fastnet fleet beating westward through the Needles Channel. One of global sailing's great wonders – the Fastnet fleet beating westward through the Needles Channel.

It is so much a part of sailing consciousness that modern sailors have assumed that's the way it has always been, but it hasn't. However, the rounding of the Fastnet Rock and the finish at the lighthouse on Plymouth Breakwater have always been an integral part of it all, particularly as the formation of a new organisation, the Ocean Racing Club which was to become the RORC in 1931, was successfully proposed at the post-race dinner in Plymouth’s Royal Western Yacht Club attended by all the crews of the seven yachts that had finished, including Harry Donegan’s Gull from Cork which had placed third. But in November 2019, the RORC's Flag Officers, Committee and Executive presented the change to Cherbourg as a fait accompli.

Quite so. It's now perfectly possible that this fait accompli will be overturned by force majeure on December 7th. Plus ca change. Mais c'est la vie. And now that the populist provocateur extraordinaire Dominic Cummings is at a loose end, this might be just the job for him. Sacre bleu…

Fastnet Race course as it has been 1949-2019 (gold line), with the planned new finish to Cherbourg (red).Fastnet Race course as it has been 1949-2019 (gold line), with the planned new finish to Cherbourg (red)

Published in Fastnet, RORC
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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RORC Fastnet Race

This race is both a blue riband international yachting fixture and a biennial offshore pilgrimage that attracts crews from all walks of life:- from aspiring sailors to professional crews; all ages and all professions. Some are racing for charity, others for a personal challenge.

For the world's top professional sailors, it is a 'must-do' race. For some, it will be their first-ever race, and for others, something they have competed in for over 50 years! The race attracts the most diverse fleet of yachts, from beautiful classic yachts to some of the fastest racing machines on the planet – and everything in between.

The testing course passes eight famous landmarks along the route: The Needles, Portland Bill, Start Point, the Lizard, Land’s End, the Fastnet Rock, Bishop’s Rock off the Scillies and Plymouth breakwater (now Cherbourg for 2021 and 2023). After the start in Cowes, the fleet heads westward down The Solent, before exiting into the English Channel at Hurst Castle. The finish for 2021 is in Cherbourg via the Fastnet Rock, off the southern tip of Ireland.

  • The leg across the Celtic Sea to (and from) the Fastnet Rock is known to be unpredictable and challenging. The competitors are exposed to fast-moving Atlantic weather systems and the fleet often encounter tough conditions
  • Flawless decision-making, determination and total commitment are the essential requirements. Crews have to manage and anticipate the changing tidal and meteorological conditions imposed by the complex course
  • The symbol of the race is the Fastnet Rock, located off the southern coast of Ireland. Also known as the Teardrop of Ireland, the Rock marks an evocative turning point in the challenging race
  • Once sailors reach the Fastnet Rock, they are well over halfway to the finish in Cherbourg.

Fastnet Race - FAQs

The 49th edition of the biennial Rolex Fastnet Race will start from the Royal Yacht Squadron line in Cowes, UK on Sunday 8th August 2021.

The next two editions of the race in 2021 and 2023 will finish in Cherbourg-en-Cotentin at the head of the Normandy peninsula, France

Over 300. A record fleet is once again anticipated for the world's largest offshore yacht race.

The international fleet attracts both enthusiastic amateur, the seasoned offshore racer, as well as out-and-out professionals from all corners of the world.

Boats of all shapes, sizes and age take part in this historic race, from 9m-34m (30-110ft) – and everything in between.

The Fastnet Race multihull course record is: 1 day 4 hours 2 minutes and 26 seconds (2019, Ultim Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, Franck Cammas / Charles Caudrelier)

The Fastnet Race monohull course record is: 1 day, 18 hours, 39 minutes (2011, Volvo 70, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing).

David and Peter Askew's American VO70 Wizard won the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race, claiming the Fastnet Challenge Cup for 1st in IRC Overall.

Rolex SA has been a longstanding sponsor of the race since 2001.

The first race was in 1925 with 7 boats. The Royal Ocean Racing Club was set up as a result.

The winner of the first Fastnet Race was the former pilot cutter Jolie Brise, a boat that is still sailing today.

Cork sailor Henry P F Donegan (1870-1940), who gave his total support for the Fastnet Race from its inception in 1925 and competed in the inaugural race in his 43ft cutter Gull from Cork.

Ireland has won the Fastnet Race twice. In 1987 the Dubois 40 Irish Independent won the Fastnet Race overall for the first time and then in 2007 – all of twenty years after Irish Independent’s win – Ireland secured the overall win again this time thanks to Ger O’Rourke’s Cookson 50 Chieftain from the Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland in Kilrush.

©Afloat 2020

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Fastnet Race 2021 Date

The 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race will start on Sunday 8th August 2021.

At A Glance – Fastnet Race

  • The world's largest offshore yacht race
  • The biennial race is 605 nautical miles - Cowes, Fastnet Rock, Plymouth
  • A fleet of over 400 yachts regularly will take part
  • The international fleet is made up of over 26 countries
  • Multihull course record: 1 day, 8 hours, 48 minutes (2011, Banque Populaire V)
  • Monohull course record: 1 day, 18 hours, 39 minutes (2011, Volvo 70, Abu Dhabi)
  • Largest IRC Rated boat is the 100ft (30.48m) Scallywag 100 (HKG)
  • Some of the Smallest boats in the fleet are 30 footers
  • Rolex SA has been a longstanding sponsor of the race since 2001
  • The first race was in 1925 with 7 boats. The Royal Ocean Racing Club was set up as a result

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