It was a wet and wild start to the 2023 Fastnet Race with early retirements pouring in and the worst is yet to come with 40 knot winds set to hit the fleets overnight

The 50th Rolex Fastnet Race got underway today, Saturday 22 July, with the largest offshore racing fleet ever setting off from Cowes in rain and 20-25 knot headwinds .

With strong headwinds and a significant seaway forecast overnight on the first night of the race, the near-3,000 sailors taking part knew they would be in for a hard fought opening of the race.

However, there were a significant number of retirements just hours into the race, with 50 boats no longer racing. Going into the first night at sea the trackers shows yachts seeking safe refuge in Yarmouth, Lymington, Poole, and small harbours along the south coast.

Given the predicted windy conditions for the start of the race, the race management team had wisely chosen to change the start order to ensure the biggest and fastest boats were the first to set off – as was the case in 2021 when similar conditions delivered another challenging start.

With the wind coming from the south-west most of the boats in most fleets elected to start on port, giving them a long first tack out to the middle of the Solent before they took a hitch back to the Island side.

Banque Populaire leads SVR Lazartigue out of the Solent

This was particularly true for many of biggest and least manoeuvrable boats. Although expected to be the fastest boats around the course by quite some distance, short tacking out of the Solent is not the ideal start for the 100ft Ultim foiling trimarans.

Both Armel Le Cléac’h’s Banque Populaire XI and Francois Gabart’s SVR-Lazartigue were very tentative getting off the line, with their clear priority being to try to avoid traffic around the start before they would be able to stretch their legs once beyond Hurst Point.

The sheer distance the Ultims can cover was driven home shortly after – just two hours after the race start, with most of the fleet still working hard to exit the Solent, Armel le Cleac’h’s Ultim Banque Populaire was tacking off Brittany, having flown across the Solent to set themselves up for a long reach west.

The other Ultim competing in this year’s Fastnet, Francois Gabart’s SVR-Lazartique, remained on the northern English shore and held the advantage according to the race tracker – but with likely more tacks to put in towards Lands’ End the two are likely to be close as they make the turn for Fastnet Rock.

Even upwind many of the newer IMOCA 60 were foiling upwinnd after the start

IMOCA fleet off to a flying start

Due to the huge fleets and tidal effects in the Solent, the Rolex Fastnet Race rules give early starters no option to return behind the line and if you are caught over at the start you immediately incur a a 2-hour time penalty. Given this it was key to get a conservative start for most.

Unfortunately, with the tide now running under the boats, pushing them to the start, during the IMOCA start both Pip Hare on Medallia and Jeremie Beyou on Charal were OCS.

As an indication of just how breezy conditions were, despite the early stages being upwind out of the Solent and most of the IMOCAs being well-reefed, several of the newer IMOCAs were impressively foiling as the fleet flew out of the Solent.

Frustratingly for Pip Hare, who is racing her newly modified Medallia for the first time with co-skipper Nick Bubb, as well as picking up a time penalty for being OCS she incurred some early gear damage.

“It was a mixed start – we know we were over, by about a second – so really gutted about that but actually really, really pleased with the start. All the way up to Hurst [Narrows] we were flying. I was so happy, we were keeping pace with new boats, everything was looking rosy.

“And then just when we got through Hurst the stopper knot on the J2 fuller pulled out, and the J2 just came out. It was flapping like crazy, it hit the J3 and made a hole in the J3… and then we had to go downwind. We had to re-rig the furling line and swop our J3 little jib for our storm jib. So now we’re back upwind, we’re back on track. We can only use our storm jib, so we’re a bit handicapped but that’s sailing for you.

“We’ll carry on, we’ll get through tonight, and whatever gets thrown at us – we’ll take it.”

In the IMOCA class there is also a hotly anticipated chance to see some of the latest generation designs go head to head, and they haven’t disappointed: Bayou’s new Charal leads going into the first night from Thomas Ruyant on his brand new For People, after a cracking start, with Yoann Richomme on his brand new Paprec Arkéa in 3rd, again after a strong start. The newest IMOCA on the block, Charlie Dalin’s box-fresh Macif is in 4th.

Jajo got the best start of the IRC Super Zero fleet

IRC Zero / Super Zero

The multihulls, IMOCAs and Class 40 had largely started with significant reefs in and smaller headsails in anticipation of the 30-40 knot winds they will see later in the day and once they exit the Solent. However, among the highly competitive Class Zero and Super Zero fleets there was a more variation.

The boat aiming to take line honours – and hoping to set a new course record – Lucky, the ex-Rambler 88 crossed the startline heavily reefed, however others in the fleet including INO Noir and Warrior Won set off under full sail.

Sadly some key boats in the IRC Super Zero and Zero fleet were among the early retirement, with the Maxi 72 Notorious retiring before the start, and seasoned offshore campaigners Ran and Tonnere de Glen among those that returned to port shortly after the start. The Cookson 50 Privateer was another well proven offshore boat which retired in the very early stages.

Within the first six hours of racing, around 50 boats had retired – many before the start having examined the forecast, and others with sail and rigging damage.

For those that raced on, conditions continued to deteriorate as forecast, though gusts may be even stronger than predictions.

The J/120 ‘Scream 2’ reported seeing 46 knots on the wind gauge at times, adding: “The storm sail is up and the crew is wet, very wet!”

Conditions are anticipated to be wet, with strong winds and a 1.5-2.5m sea state for many competitors overnight, but should moderate fairly rapidly tomorrow.

Follow all of our coverage of the 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race

Follow the Fastnet Race tracker.

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