The Rolex Fastnet Race is one of those rare events where weekend sailors can truly take on the pros. The 2019 Fastnet saw legendary performances right across the 388-boat fleet
They say you should never meet your heroes, lest they be found to be merely mortal. Yet one of sailing’s rarest qualities is that there are a handful of events where the ordinary weekend racer can line up against their yachting idols, even if they don’t expect to meet them after.
For few events is this truer than the biennial Rolex Fastnet Race. The time frames may vary hugely – this year the fastest boat completed the course in just 28 hours, the slowest took over six days – and so the weather experienced by the line honours yachts and small boats may be wildly different, but the course – 605 miles from Cowes to Plymouth around the Fastnet Rock – is identical.
First timers and school crews set off from the same start line as sailors like François Gabart, Dean Barker, Sam Davies and Jimmy Spithill on Saturday 3 August. This is no small part of the race’s huge appeal – entries sold out in four minutes and 13 seconds this year, with a record fleet of 388 boats starting.
The other big draws include the course itself, a famously tactical route dodging tidal gates along the south coast of England, and slaloming around Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS) zones before – usually – beating into the Celtic Sea to round the iconic Fastnet Rock lighthouse and turn for home.
There is also the respect that this true blue riband event earns, and demands. This year, 2019, was the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Fastnet tragedy. While the race may be held in August (and a week earlier than usual this year) competitors were never more keenly aware that beyond Land’s End there is no guarantee of balmy summer conditions and very few places to hide. To compete in the Fastnet is to test yourself, and your yacht.
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Among the 300-plus boats in next month’s record-sized Rolex Fastnet Race fleet, many of the 3,000 crew members are competing…
It’s a gloomy, grey afternoon on the Solent and I’m in a camera boat taking pictures of a yacht sailing…
Fastnet 2019 was a heady experience for Pip Hare, sailing her IMOCA 60 Pip Hare Ocean Racing, who not only lined up against her heroes but had the surreal experience of leading them on the water. Hare was competing in the 20-boat double-handed IMOCA 60 fleet with race co-skipper Paul Larsen.
The Rolex Fastnet Race is a qualifier for next year’s Vendée Globe and was a key test event for many of the most innovative and highly funded IMOCA teams in the world: Jérémie Beyou with the new VPLP-designed foiling Charal; Samantha Davies on Initiatives Couer with its enormous latest generation foils; Vendée Globe winner Armel le Cleac’h on Banque Populaire.
Against them Hare was sailing the oldest boat in the fleet; her 2000 non-foiling design, light years behind in development terms. With a transition zone of light winds forecast for the first night at sea, many of the bigger boats, including the bulk of the IMOCA fleet, headed out into the Channel in the hope of picking up new south-westerly pressure.
Not so Pip and Paul, who went for a more coastal route to pick up a light northerly breeze while the rest faded to a near-standstill. Their decision was rewarded with an overall class lead for the first day of racing – not only on the theoretical tracker line, but also sailing past the Lizard first on the water before the faster foiling designs overhauled them.
“We were leading Class IMOCA until four miles off the Scillies, we were ahead of all those guys and it was just absolutely incredible,” said an elated Hare after the race. “At one stage we were winning on line honours.”
“My computer had crashed, and we were just laughing at the fact that I have an old boat, an inherited sail wardrobe, I was navigating on my phone, we’re on a scratch budget, and we still led the fleet.” Inevitably, the latest generation foilers pulled away on the long leg out to the Rock, with Beyou’s Charal taking the class win into Plymouth.
Million euro match race
Meanwhile, as the IMOCA fleet powered their way towards Ireland, the Ultimes were on their final approach to the finish in Plymouth. Ahead of the race there had been speculation that the mighty foiling Ultimes – Macif, Sodebo and Maxi Edmond de Rothschild – could decimate the course record. But the initial forecasts looked distinctly unpromising – with light winds at the start, and stronger following breezes only forecast for the slowest classes.
In the event the transition zone was smaller, and the new south-westerlies and westerlies much stronger, than many had predicted, making for a faster race for the big boats – and a tougher one for the smaller yachts.
Even the Ultime teams’ own weather routers, the very best in the business, didn’t expect the record to fall. “We knew it would be quick, but we didn’t think we would break the record because the transition at the south of England was very slow,” recalls Charles Caudrelier, co-skipper of Maxi Edmond de Rothschild.
Caudrelier and Cammas made a strong start in their debut race together, leading away from Cowes before the shifting sands of Shingles Bank demonstrated that even with two Volvo Ocean Race-winning skippers on board the Solent can be a tricky place to sail.
“We had a big crash,” admits Caudrelier. “The Shingle Bank was very far away from the chart position – more than 200m, so it was a big surprise. We were sitting at 20 knots, and the boat stopped at zero – not in one second, but we climbed a bit of a hill! We had to hoist the daggerboard to get off the sandbank.”
The impact damaged the T-foil tip of the daggerboard, but they were able to continue racing, chasing François Gabart (with last minute co-skipper Jimmy Spithill) on Macif by a couple of miles, and covering Macif’s line.
“It was a 24 hour match race,” explains Caudrelier, “It’s the first time there has been such a tight race in the Ultimes, and our speeds were very close. We spent a lot of time 1-2 miles apart and sometimes less than 100m, so it was a really fantastic fight for the first time.”
Caudrelier estimates that Maxi Edmond de Rothschild was sailing between 1-5% slower on its damaged board, but they managed to stay with Macif to the very end, before snatching victory on the final gybe layline the finish.
Maxi Edmond de Rothschild pipped Macif by just 58 seconds on the line, both Ultimes also smashing the Fastnet race record. Caudrelier and Cammas took Multihull line honours in 1d 4h 2m 26s, beating Loïck Peyron and the crew of Banque Populaire’s 2011 time by 4h 45m.
Monohull line honours went to George David’s Rambler 88, the American team setting a new record to the Rock in the power reach conditions. They were also first home to Plymouth, crossing the line after 1d 19h of racing, just outside the race record, but half an hour ahead of the biggest boat in the fleet, the 100ft Scallywag.
For George David, Fastnet 2019 was his fifth race to the Rock. It is now eight years since he, his wife and crew were rescued from the Celtic Sea after his previous yacht, Rambler 100, lost its keel and capsized at the Fastnet Rock, but that moment still has a strong hold on David. On the pontoon in Plymouth, he was emotional in recalling how this year’s rounding was in strikingly similar conditions.
“This was a little bit sentimental for me to come back and go through that same experience, same time of day. Blowing 25-30. Big, lumpy sea. The conditions were almost dead-on the same.”
Hot on Rambler’s tail was Wizard. The former Groupama 4 VO70, which Cammas sailed to victory in the 2012 Volvo Ocean Race, powered into Plymouth just two hours later to sit at the top of the IRC overall leaderboard, a position it never relinquished.
There were no secrets to Wizard’s win. Baltimore brothers David and Peter Askew took the Fastnet Challenge Cup on their first attempt by having the right boats for the conditions – the VO70s were built for windy reaching conditions and severe sea states – and by building an experienced team who could push the boat hard for every one of those 605 miles.
The boat is skippered by Charlie Enright, along with fellow Volvo sailors Mark Towill and Rob Greenhalgh, with Will Oxley navigating. Slick decision-making meant there were no errors or hesitations.
While Scallywag skipper David Witt reported that they made a mistake with their sail choice at the Rock, blowing out a key headsail, Mark Towill says that was an equally key moment in Wizard’s victory.
“It was quite a busy point in the race because the frontal passage happened right as we were getting to the Rock, so we had lots of changes in pressure, and we weren’t sure if we were going to be rounding in 28 knots or 10. But the guys did a pretty good job of being ready for everything and it all worked pretty smoothly,” he explained.
What was full-power sailing in a Volvo 70 inevitably became firehose conditions in some of the lighter designs. Among the leaders in IRC 1 was Ino XXX, an HH42 that normally races in the Fast 40+ inshore circuit.
“It was very, very, very wet,” crew member Ben Cooper reported. “There was a lot of bailing and bilge pumping, but we had enough pumps and arms and buckets so it wasn’t a problem at all. We didn’t hold back, that’s for sure.
“Going across the Irish Sea was quite straightforward, then we had about six hours of upwind before a very, very fast reach home. It was very entertaining – like being on a bucking bronco, you couldn’t cook, you couldn’t eat, sleep was quite hard.”
One of the most punishing rides was on the diminutive blue Seacart 30 trimaran Buzz. “It’s an extreme boat,” owner Ross Hobson describes. “It’s physically and mentally abusive, because you’re sitting there getting beaten up, we’re all sore from getting hit by waves.
“You’re depowering all the time – we were on four reefs and a reef in the jib. We played it a bit safe, because it was more important to get round safely. We knew that the organisers were taking a wee bit of a risk letting us out there.”
Buzz was taking so much water over the trampoline that the crew helmed in full survival suits and in Plymouth discovered two fish tucked next to the port beam.
For some of the smaller boats, the prospect of beating up to the Rock in a punishing sea state was one thing, but a developing forecast of 45-knot winds predicted to sweep the fleet by Thursday were quite another, and several dove for shelter in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
Others pushed on towards Ireland, all the while forming a get-out plan of bailing into Baltimore or Kinsale if conditions worsened. Among these was Assent. Assent is the famous cyan Contessa 32 which was the last boat to finish in the 1979 Fastnet, and went on to be sailed from the high north to Antarctica by solo adventurer Willy Ker.
For this year’s race Assent was sailed by Simon and Kit Rogers, sons of Contessa designer Jeremy Rogers, and their respective eldest children, students Hattie and Jonah. The slowest rated boat in the entire Fastnet fleet, their race was always going to be a grand adventure, and it more than lived up to the promise, says Simon Rogers.
After a brief anchor in Lyme Bay on the outbound leg, the Contessa 32 – which has a waterline length of just 24ft – had a very, very long beat to the Rock. “Going up to the Rock was frankly bloody hard work. It was 300 miles basically on the nose, and it just went on… and on…” Rogers recalls.
With 25-30 knot winds by the second night the Assent crew were getting what Simon describes as ‘a proper beating’, with pitch darkness and a lot of rain. But, with severe winds forecast to sweep the south-west by Thursday there was no let up – the crew were racing the clock.
All on board are highly competitive (Hattie is a 29er squad sailor) and pushed the diminutive vintage yacht hard. “We were thrashing the pants off her!” admits Simon. “All the way to Ireland you just couldn’t take your foot off the gas – we were working the jib and two reefs at one stage.”
Their efforts paid off, and as they reached the Rock the forecast conditions had been pushed back 18 hours, so the team decided to continue racing and turned for home. “As soon as we saw the Emerald Isle, the spirits lifted and the dolphins arrived,” Rogers recalls.
But still their race was not straightforward. Becalmed off the west coast of the Scillies, they were forced to anchor in 308ft of water for 11 hours. “We were just clinging onto the planet so we didn’t’ reverse back through the TSS. It was absolutely flat calm, but we had the benefit of seeing dolphins hunting at night and phosphorescence streams all around, it was breathtakingly wonderful to watch.”
Having hauled in the longest anchor line imaginable the Assent team resumed racing in a building breeze, but by their final approach to Plymouth the forecast storms had begun lashing the south west of England. “It was horizontal rain, blowing 30 and gusting 35, and just as we were coming into Plymouth the lightning storm started,” recalls Simon.
“I just thought surely we’d done enough? It was a dead run in 3m breaking waves, the waves were going straight over the top of the outer pier, and we were struggling to steer. So we dropped the main and centred it.”
Assent finally finished under just one third of her furled headsail – the family crew wet, very tired, more than a little overwhelmed by the support their story drew, and justly proud of their accomplishment. “It was a bit like going back to the grass roots of what RORC racing was all about,” Rogers explains.
Willy Ker, Assent‘s indomitable former owner, died just before the Fastnet and his funeral was held on the last day of Assent‘s race. But the 2019 Fastnet proves that the spirit of amateur offshore racing lives on.
Just two design houses dominated the awards ceremonies at Fastnet 2019. Juan Kouyoumdjian designed the monohull line honours winner Rambler 88 and originally drew the VO70 that is now Wizard, with the Groupama team. Wizard won IRC Zero and overall. Juan K-designed foils had also been recently fitted to the 2010 IMOCA PRB, which took an impressive 2nd in class.
Meanwhile the smaller IRC fleets were a near total command for designer Jacques Vader and builder Jean Pierre Kelbert, who together create the JPK line of yachts. In IRC 1 Jacques Pelletier took 1st in his Milon 41 L’Ange de Milon, which he describes as a ‘prototype’ of the JPK 1010, also designed by Vader. In IRC 2 Géry Trentesaux’s JPK 1180 Courrier Recommandé took 1st place, with three of the top four boats also being 1180s.
In IRC 3 their domination was even more complete. Kelbert was sailing with Alexis Loison double-handed, the pair winning class in the JPK 10.30 Léon, with six of the top seven boats being JPK 1030s or 1080s.
First published in the November 2019 edition of Yachting World.