Matthew Sheahan and James Boyd ask four former winners of the Rolex Fastnet Race for their advice on how to get onto the podium
As the world’s largest and most notorious offshore, the Rolex Fastnet Race, has gained in popularity, so the competitiveness of the 380-boat fleet has increased. Some crews may be ticking another item off their bucket list, but the majority of competitors are out to win in some way, whether they be chasing overall victory, a podium in their class, or seeking to settle a friendly wager with rivals.
Diversity within the fleet has also increased. From heavily crewed supermaxis, to short-handed 33-footers, from paid to race to paying to race, the Rolex Fastnet Race continues to draw a huge variety of sailors, boats and teams.
What remains the same, though, is that the 605nm race is famously tricky when it comes to tactics and can be physically challenging when conditions pipe up. So what are the tips and tricks to doing well?
Here four previous Fastnet winners offer their advice on how to get onto the podium.
Seasoned front runner
Gery Trentesaux – Courrier Du Leon JPK 10.80. Overall winner 2015
Frenchman Gery Trentesaux is well known for his long-term success in RORC offshore racing, including leading the French team to victory in the 2006 Commodores’ Cup. The 2015 Fastnet Race was his lucky 13th.
Going into the 2015 Rolex Fastnet Race, Trentesaux, aboard his new JPK 10.80 Courrier Du Leon, had won consecutive victories in the RORC’s Cervantes Trophy, Myth of Malham and De Guingand Bowl to place him and his team in the lead in the overall points for the IRC fleet.
It was little surprise then that he is considered a Fastnet Race favourite.
In recent years, French sailors have dominated the overall Rolex Fastnet Race results. In 2013 nine of the top ten finishers (including Trentesaux) were from across the Channel. Trentesaux attributes this to the large number who, over the last four decades, have regularly competed in the Figaro class or the Tour de France à la Voile. On board Courrier du Leon, he and two others are old Figaro hands.
Trentesaux also holds the advantage of having managed to carry a regular crew between his numerous Courrier yachts for the past 15 years. For this year’s Fastnet he will sail with seven crew, and four of them are good helmsmen.
“I think the boat is fast enough upwind, so we want to be light,” he says. “I will ensure that the crew only brings 20lt bags on the race – no more.”
They run no watch system. Instead they adapt their routine to the conditions, with the crew sleeping on the rail. Trentesaux handles the navigation, using both paper charts and PC-based routeing software.
Before the race he studies the course, figuring tide changes with the forecast, creating a ‘roadbook’ of the course (as the Figaro sailors do).
While they run PC-based routeing and carry an Iridium phone to download the latest forecasts, Trentesaux says a common mistake, in his view, is to place 100 per cent faith in electronic routeing.
“Often the routeing is stupid, so we use the routeing, but we don’t follow it automatically. We choose our course and compare it with the routeing and, if there is a difference, we try to understand why.”
This year he says he will work with a meteorologist beforehand to get the best forecast available.
2015 1st IRC overall
2013 1st Class IRC2
2007 1st Class IRC0
2001 1st Class IRC1
1997 First Fastnet Race
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Pascal Loison – Night & Day, JPK 1010. Overall winners 2013
With hindsight, the first clue to who might do well in the 2013 Fastnet came when French father and son team Pascal and Alexis Loison won the RORC Channel Race outright at the end of July. A month later the pair took overall Fastnet victory in their 33ft JPK 1010 Night & Day.
As well as beating the entire fleet, they had trounced a total of eight JPK 1010s. This was a spectacular result and in many people’s minds, one of the most impressive Fastnet performances ever, particularly as this was also the first time in 88 years that the race had been won by a double-handed crew.
Yet this wasn’t the first time that the Loisons had made their mark in the Fastnet. Aboard their previous Night & Day, a J/105, they won the double-handed class in 2005 and were 2nd overall in IRC Two.
“Since teaching Alexis (31) to sail when he was a child we have sailed together a lot,” says Pascal, 55, a surgeon in Cherbourg. “Now, as a professional sailor on the Figaro circuit where he has raced for the last ten years, he teaches me. Our speciality is in two-handed sailing.”
Clearly there is a close relationship between father and son, but Pascal also points to some of the basic set-ups aboard their boat: “I think having two rudders is important for a short-handed boat. It is faster for this type of racing as it is better balanced. Making the right choices about a boat that will suit your sailing is very important too and that starts well before the race.
“When there are just two of you, you have to think carefully about how you sail the boat. If you are fully crewed you can change the sails a lot. But we have a medium headsail that goes from 0-22 knots. We rarely change, but we trim all the time and we trim everything that we can.”
Although a sail wardrobe that includes four spinnakers, including a Code 0 and a Code 5, is important, keeping the boat moving quickly is a priority for the Loisons. Boat speed is at the heart of their performance and that means staying on the ball.
“We don’t do watch systems,” explains Pascal. “When one of us is tired we will go for a sleep, but only if doing so doesn’t affect the boat speed.”
But when Pascal says sleep, he is using the French solo sailor’s definition meaning a 15-minute catnap. So how much sleep would they accumulate typically in 24 hours?
“About one to two hours,” he says. “It’s enough, if you have trained for it like the Figaro sailors do. Also, if you are tired you will sleep, but if you have a regular system that you are trying to work to you will not sleep, which is not good for the speed of the boat.”
Such an uncompromising approach to running a boat offshore may not be to everyone’s taste, but then neither is sailing double-handed. And yet with each edition of the race the double-handed fleet grows.
For overall success at least, catnapping around the Fastnet Rock looks like being the way to go.
2013 1st IRC overall
2013 1st Two-handed
2013 1st IRC 3
2005 1st Two-handed
2005 2nd IRC 2
Pay to play
Sailing Logic, Top Sailing School Boat 2005-2013
Sailing Logic was awarded ‘RORC Sailing School Boat of the Year’ for five Fastnet Races in a row. The Southampton-based race charter outfit has fielded multiple yachts made up of mixed experience crews in the race, and has had boats on the podium for every race from 2005-2013.
“People come to us because they want to do well, but we have to be careful with how we manage those expectations,” explains Allie Smith before the 2015 race, then Sailing Logic’s operations and logistics manager. “We avoid the temptation to load a particular boat with the best experience and instead go to great lengths to set up evenly matched teams with a mixture of abilities. We have found that teams not only gel quicker and more effectively, but achieve better results.”
Planning is vital to the teams’ successes and that starts with the season’s campaign. Smith believes that the balance between offshore and inshore racing, along with day training sessions, is an important factor.
“Our Fastnet campaign seasons involve two training weekends and four RORC offshore races: the Myth of Malham, Morgan Cup, Cowes-St Malo race and the Channel Race,” she says. “Starting with the Myth of Malham race is important. This race rounds the Eddystone lighthouse so it’s a bit like a mini-Fastnet and is long enough to separate the men from the boys.
“We then have our second training weekend after this to give us a chance to work on offshore skills. But we also include a day of inshore racing to help the teams appreciate the importance of being slick with manoeuvres.”
What do crewmembers need most help with when planning their campaign?
“Mostly it is help with understanding the time and logistical implications of the programme and organising their time to make those commitments,” says Smith. “It’s surprising how many people with high-powered jobs struggle with the personal planning part of the campaign. Given that they, as a team, have decided what their goals are and how hard they want to push, that’s where we can help.”
And what are the things that surprise their clients the most?
“How quickly they gel with team mates,” she says. “That’s very rewarding for us, but is also at the heart of their success.”
2009-2013 Seven podium finishes in IRC Classes 1 & 2
Adrian Stead – Rán 2, J/V72. Overall winner 2009 & 2011
Britain’s Adrian Stead was tactician aboard Rán 2 when Niklas Zennström’s Judel Vrolijk 72 won the Rolex Fastnet Race in 2009 and 2011.
“I think any well sailed, well prepared, well optimised boat has always got a chance of winning the Fastnet Race,” says Stead. “It’s about doing your preparation and not giving things away – making sure when the tidal elevators are there, you’re on the fast one and not putting yourself where you’re going to lose miles quickly because you’ve missed out on something.
“If you keep getting those right around the course, gaining ten minutes here, five minutes there, then suddenly you’ve gained yourself an hour at the Rock.”
Boats such as Maxi 72s take the race seriously and, with the Rán campaign, they commissioned their own tidal study of the Lizard in 2011. For the next race navigator Steve Hayles researched the exact position of the Shambles off Portland Bill. As Stead points out: “It just gave you confidence in what you thought was happening.”
Even though the race is relatively short for a Maxi 72, they run a three-watch system – on, off and standby – with the off watch asleep down below. On Rán 2, Stead and Hayles were out of the watch system.
However, flexibility is also required: “If there’s a really important headland or something that you need to get round, that essentially is a ‘race breaker’. You push yourselves there and if then there’s 15 hours on the wind on starboard, that’s the time when people can get some proper sleep. But you’ve made the jump by having everyone on the game at the key part.
“In 2011, when we got to the Scilly Isles, everyone was totally knackered, but we had to pump the boat to the finish before the wind dropped. That was hard and we did it with energy bars . . .”
Stead points out that the Traffic Separation Scheme exclusion zones today have a major bearing on the course, particularly off Land’s End, where there remains the possibility of sailing the longer route, leaving this to port.
“If you think the breeze is going to shift right, then although it looks wrong, you know it could be a potential winner.”
2011 1st IRC overall Rán 2
2009 1st IRC overall Rán 2
2003 2nd IRC overall Alfa Romeo
1993 First Fastnet Race on one tonner GBE International