In a major announcement the Royal Ocean Racing Club, organisers of the iconic Rolex Fastnet Race, have confirmed that the next race in 2021 and the following edition in 2023 will finish in the French port of Cherbourg instead of the race’s traditional finish port of Plymouth, UK
This is the first time that the finish of the biennial 605-mile offshore from Cowes has ever changed. The new destination adds some 90 miles to the course distance.
In today’s press release RORC report that Cherbourg and the surrounding departments “have come together to support the race finish with a package that enhances the competitor experience with increased berthing, enhanced shoreside facilities, competitor functions and events in an exciting development for the race.”
The move has not been universally popular – a Facebook group called ‘Save the Fastnet Race’ gave voice to those who wanted to keep the race in Plymouth.
I spoke Eddie Warden-Owen, the RORC CEO, immediately after the announcement. “This is not a decision that’s been taken suddenly,” he explained. “We’ve thought very carefully about how we do this, and agonised about taking the race away from Plymouth.”
A key driver in moving the race destination is the increased number of marina berths for finishers in Cherbourg, which has limited entry numbers with the finish in Plymouth.
For the past two editions of the race online entries have sold out within five minutes, and for the August 2019 race there were 150 boats on the waiting list that did not get a place, many of which are French teams (as RORC members get priority entry).
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Even among the boats which do compete, most of the largest multihulls, IRC Super Zero yachts and foiling IMOCAs do not stop in Plymouth due to lack of suitable marina space. “Plymouth has enough berthing, but it’s all over the place, and it’s not for everybody,” explained Warden-Owen.
“So whilst we accept that there are limitations, the fact that there are 150 boats that we can’t accommodate and some boats you can only accommodate by saying: ‘Sorry guys, you can come and do the race but then you need to disappear,’ that for me doesn’t work. It has limited how the race is growing.” However, it’s unlikely that the waiting lists will be instantly removed for the 2021 race.
“We want to control the expansion of the race,” he explained. [An additional 150 boats] would be a completely different ball game. I’m sure with the French interest we’ll get more IMOCAs, more class 40s, more multihulls. And suddenly where are? 500? 550? We need to control the expansion, and we’ll do it slowly.
“We’re in the very happy position where there are more people who want to do the race year on year. We will probably increase the number of IRC boats, I’m not sure how many by, and we may have to limit the number of professional boats that come.”
Ahead of the 2019 race there were rumours that Plymouth could lose the Fastnet finish, prompting RORC to issue a statement saying that they wanted to keep the race in Plymouth ‘for the foreseeable future’.
Warden-Owen says that they had wanted to give Plymouth the opportunity “to try and beat what’s available to us. And it’s pretty hard. When we go to Cherbourg we’re right in the centre of the city.”
I asked Warden-Owen if the two cities, and others, were invited to bid to host the event? “To be honest we didn’t do this as a bargaining chip. It was just, this is what we want, what can you do for us, and [Cherbourg] came in at every level. That really blew us away.
“There’s a difference where the marinas are city owned and they’re privately owned in Plymouth, so Plymouth’s hands are tied in many respects.”
This is not the first major event to leave Plymouth – the start of the 2018 Golden Globe Race was moved to Les Sables d’Olonne and the Transat, known to many of the French offshore racers as the Transat Anglais and the only major transocean race event to start in the UK, will next year start in Brest.
However, Warden-Owen confirmed that RORC is open to the idea of returning to Plymouth for the 2025 race, which would be the centenary edition of the Fastnet, if the logistical issues can be overcome.
“We also needed to think about what is the experience for competitors, and at French events it’s a very different experience,” explained Warden-Owen.
“This is not denigrating Plymouth. This is just a fact of life that Britain is not as enthusiastic about offshore racing as the passion they have for it in France. And that to me is part of it – it’s shall we say the unmentionable part of the contract. It’s very hard to reproduce that.”
The start dates of the 2021 and 2023 races have yet to be confirmed. They are likely to be after Cowes Week in 2021, however increased entry numbers, particularly an increase in French boats taking part, may have other effects.
Cowes Week, which is traditionally the week before the Fastnet, could see an increase in entries. Alternatively, if additional berthing for European boats is needed in Cowes, that could make starting the race before Cowes Week more appealing when there is less pressure on berthing space.
The Fastnet route was conceived by Weston Martyr, a British yachtsman who had enjoyed the 1924 Bermuda Race and decided England should have its own offshore.
The inaugural race saw seven yachts sail a 615-mile course from the Isle of Wight to the Fastnet Rock off the south-west coast of Ireland and back to Plymouth in 1925.
There were some variations from the modern day course – the startline was in Ryde, not Cowes, and yachts could exit the Solent to either west or east, depending on the state of tide.
The Fastnet Rock could also be rounded to either port or starboard for many years. But fundamentally the course has remained the same for 94 years and 48 runnings of the bluewater classic.