A record entry of 388 yachts started in the Rolex Fastnet Race, with the Ultimes leading the charge - though Shingles Bank claimed some early groundings

A total entry of 388 yachts – another record turnout – started in this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race today, Saturday 3 August from Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

The fleet set out in the forecast south-easterly, and although some boats struggled to sail deep enough to set a spinnaker off the line, for most of the fleet it was a pleasant start of reaching conditions and flat water heading into a warm evening. For those that were OCS, however, it was a particularly painful return against the strong ebbing tide.

First off were the multihull class at 1230 with the giant UltimesSodebo, Macif, Maxi Edmond de Rotschild and Actual Leader powering out of the Solent at around 15-17 knots

The early leader was the Maxi Edmond De Rothschild, skippered by Volvo Ocean Race winners Franck Cammas and Charles Caudrelier, until they touched Shingles Bank. This allowed Thomas Coville’s brand new Sodebo Ultim 3 and Macif, where America’s Cup skipper Jimmy Spithill has joined the solo round-the-world record holder Francois Gabart, to take the lead. Going into the first evening it was Macif and Edmond de Rothschild in front, as the Ultimes approached The Lizard.

Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

The second fleet to go was an enormous startline with over 40 IMOCA 60s, all sailing doublehanded, and Class 40s. While the pre-race attention may have been on Jeremie Beyou’s aggressive new Charal and the newest, and equally radical, IMOCA in the fleet Arkea Paprec, it was Kevin Escoffier and Nicolas Lunven on PRB who took an early lead on the Island side of the Solent.

Meanwhile Solitaire du Figaro champion Yoann Richomme, sailing with Damien Seguin on Groupe Apicil were among the front runners on the northern mainland shore until they too grounded on the Shingles Bank, allowing Banque Populaire, Sam Davies and Paul Meilhat on Initiatives Coeur and Bureau Vallee 2 past.

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Going into this evening, the tracker is showing the fleet leader to be Yachting World’s boat tester and writer Pip Hare, sailing with Paul Larsen, racing on one of the older IMOCAs in the fleet. Speaking from Christchurch Bay, Hare reported:

“It looks like we’ll see the transition at around 0200 Sunday morning. The game right now is whoever gets beyond the tidal gate at Start Point really has a chance of getting away. Our current routing shows we’ll be to the west of Start Point when the wind transition comes, so we’re just ahead of it at the moment.”

Pip and Paul on Pip Hare Ocean Racing have taken a more inshore route than many, so this first night at sea will be key to see whether the more inshore or southerly boats pass through the transition zone of light winds first.

A windless transition zone showing clearly on the race tracker going into the first night of the Rolex Fastnet Race

The IRC fleets 1-4 were next to go, each with between 60 and 90 boats in the fleet. In IRC 1 James Neville’s Ino XXX may be used to competing in the inshore Fast 40+ fleet, but with reaching conditions forecast could also be a big threat in IRC 1.

In IRC 2 the 2015 overall race winner Géry Trentesaux was off to a good start on board his JPK 11.80 Courrier Recommandé, while in IRC 3 Hannah Diamond and Henry Bomby, sailing their Jeanneau Sunfast 3300 Fastrak XII double-handed were leading the class, as well as leading the competitive double-handed division.

The final gun saw the start for the biggest yachts in the race, IRC Zero and the Volvo 65s. The largest yacht in the race, and currently the boat with the highest IRC rating in the world, is Scallywag, skippered by David Witt. Witt explained that while their main goal was line honours, for which they would be dueling with Rambler 88, there was a slim change they could be in contention for IRC overall.

“In nine out of 10 races we probably have zero chance of winning overall in a 100-footer, but with this forecast there’s probably about a 50:50, because there’s a high pressure ridge and our routing has us sort of getting through it… and sort of not. So if we get through the ridge of high pressure that will basically slow up the rest of the fleet behind and give us a seriously good change of being able to win the double.”

Witt says the deciding point will be about 150 miles south-east of the Fastnet Rock. “So basically if we’re on our way back from the Rock while the rest of the fleet are stuck the other side of the ridge doing 2 knots, then were in with a chance. If not, then we’ll probably be beaten by every single boat in the race – 393 boats will beat us!”

However, it was Rambler who got the fastest exit from the Solent. Also on the Super Zero startline was the Maxi 72 Sorcha, which won back to back Fastnet Races overall as Ràn, and several former Volvo 70s. The latest generation Volvo 65s set off in their own class at the same time.

Sorcha’s navigator Steve Hayles believes that with reaching conditions if a big boat wins the race, it could well be a beamy Volvo 70. “This reaching race will be very much more on the VO70s’ teams, if I was a betting man I’d look at a 70-footer.” Going into the first night, however, it was the TP52 Outsider that led the IRC Zero fleet overall.

A packed Solent as the IRC fleets start from the RYS line, photo Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

The next challenge will be a transition zone overnight, when the breeze shifts to a more south-westerly direction, with up to 12 hours of very light conditions across the fleet.

You can follow the Rolex Fastnet Race online with the fleet tracker, as Yellowbrick trackers are fitted to every yacht so you can see each boat’s position along the course and search by fleet or by entry.

We’ll also be sharing news, video and updates on the Yachting World Facebook page, and you can read all of our dedicated Fastnet coverage at: www.yachtingworld.com/fastnet