After 695 miles, less than 30 seconds decided the podium in the double-handed IMOCA fleet. Sam Davies and Simon Fisher explain why this race is one to remember

After three days of racing over 695 miles, less than 30 seconds decided the podium finishers in the double-handed IMOCA fleet of the Rolex Fastnet Race.

The class winner was never in doubt. Charlie Dalin and Paul Meilhat on Apivia finished in the early hours of this morning with a seven-hour advantage over the rest of the pack. 

But the rest of the podium results came down to seconds as a shifty and puffy breeze off the Cherbourg shore carried seven boats across the line within half an hour.

Paul Meilhat and Charlie Dalin won the IMOCA class in Apivia

At one stage the 13-boat double-handed IMOCA fleet was spread across the race track from Fastnet Rock to Land’s End. However, the fleet compressed in the final stages, building to a nail biting finish with 2nd-placed Charal crossing the line just 28 seconds ahead of 11th Hour Racing in 3rd. Half a mile further offshore, Arkea Paprec caught a puff of wind to reach in at pace and finish two minutes further back.

There was an especially close battle for 5th, Sam Davies and Nico Lunven on Initiatives Couer finishing just a few minutes ahead of Fortinet/Best Western, skippered by Sam’s partner Romain Attanasio.

Apivia had taken an early race lead, pulling out a two mile advantage by the time they had passed the Needles. But their major gains came from executing a key strategic move sailing south in the early stages, a strategy employed by all the leading IMOCAs.

Sam Davies explains: “This race was a really tactical race and I love that. Going upwind there’s obviously always lots of choices. I’d been working with Nico Lunven, my co-skipper and we’d been working on the weather routing for days before the start because we knew that there were some big options to take.

“And luckily we got it right, lucky left! It was lucky left, big time because we headed straight out from the Needles on a long starboard all the way down past Jersey. And we tacked pretty much on the north Brittany coast and actually, incredibly, tacked on the layline to the Runnel Stone, about 150 miles [from it as] there was a left shift. 

“But it was a big call to make because you had to make that pretty much right from the start because of the TSS [zones] in the middle and the islands. And another thing that we thought was going to help us a lot was once getting behind Alderney the sea state calmed down a lot, and then you gain a lot of boatspeed as well.”

This was Davies’s eighth or ninth Fastnet Race – she admits to having lost count after completing her first aged 19 – but says that the start of this one will stick in the memories.

“This Fastnet race is I think going to be remembered for a long time for the start, which was absolutely incredible – very, very nerve-wracking for us especially on the 60s because we’re sailing double-handed. Our boats are really not designed to short tack out of the Solent in any conditions and having to do that in 30 knots, gusting 35 was pretty epic.”

New double-handed IMOCA pairings

Davies was sailing her first race with new co-skipper Nico Lunven, ahead of this autumn’s Transat Jacques Vabre, which has 22 IMOCA pairs entered as the competitive level in the offshore class continues to build.

She commented: “I think the IMOCA fleet is just going up and up in terms of performance. [With] the new boats coming in and the experience that the sailors have now there’s no room to make mistakes in this class now. 

“And I think everybody is now pushing their boats to the limits, where perhaps over the last two or three years, we’ve been discovering the newer big foils and everybody’s kind of being gently pushing the boats a little bit harder and harder. Now everyone’s got their foot in the floor.”

The IMOCA 60 Macsf rounds the Fastnet Rock in the Rolex Fastnet Race

Charlie Dalin echoed Sam’s observations on the IMOCA fleet development. He was racing the 2019 Verdier designed Apivia which he sailed first across the line in the 2020/21 Vendée Globe (overall victory was later awarded to Yannick Bestaven following time redress for his part in the rescue of Kevin Escoffier), but which has had a serious refit since the solo around the world race. 

“We have new foils and some new sails. You have to keep these boats evolving to stay at the top of your game,” Dalin explained. 

Another new double-handed IMOCA pairing taking part in the Rolex Fastnet Race was Simon Fisher and Justine Mettreaux on 11th Hour Racing

Simon Fisher – or Si Fi as he is widely known – is one of the most experienced ocean racers and navigators in the world, with five Volvo Ocean Races behind him.

This year’s Rolex Fastnet Race, however, was the first time he has ever raced double-handed, pairing up with another former Volvo Ocean Race crew Mettreaux.

Simon Fisher and Justine Mettreaux on 11th Hour Racing starting the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race 
Photo: James Tomlinson/RORC

‘What a race!” he told Yachting World immediately after crossing the finish line.  “It’s actually a great achievement for us as a team. It’s actually our first double-handed race, so we’re really, really happy with the result. 

“It was pretty chaotic at the start – upwind in 35 knots in the Solent is probably a little more than we would have wanted for our first race, but we were happy to get through it. And then once we got out of the Solent we were going well, happy with our pace, fighting up with the front.

“And I mean, you couldn’t ask for a closer finish. We were definitely looking over our shoulder. It was brilliant. But it’s also an older generation boat, so to be scrapping up with the latest and greatest is really good for our team.

“The double-handed stuff is actually a great adventure. All of my sailing career really has been in teams and this is a really fresh and new challenge. And I’m loving it.”