With big wind forecast at the start and a record entry, predicting the winner of the 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race is going to be tough. Helen Fretter takes a look at the key runners and riders
This Saturday’s 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race will be the biggest offshore race of all time, with a record-breaking entry list of over 490 yachts for its 50th anniversary edition (the only race to get close to it was the 50th Rolex Sydney Hobart Race in 1994, which saw 371 boats set off).
That makes picking a winner pretty close to picking this week’s Lottery numbers.
The Fastnet Race has only once run over its extended course, after the finish moved from Plymouth to Cherbourg for 2021. This increases the course distance from 605 to 695 miles, and adds a whole new dimension navigating from the Scillies to Cherbourg (don’t miss our superb navigator’s guide to the new Fastnet course by 2021 winner Tom Cheney).
It also means we don’t have much data on which type of boats tend to perform well over the new course. The 2021 race saw 40-footers dominate the overall prizes: 1st in IRC was Thomas Kneen’s 40ft JPK 1180 Sunrise. 2nd the HH42 Ino XXX, and 3rd the Lombard 46 Pata Negra.
For many crews the new course will extend the race by about a day – enough time for the arrival of a new weather system from the north Atlantic. Together with the fact that there are now at least half a dozen key points where the race can be won and lost, it remains a very open contest.
Big breeze forecast for 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race start
Less welcome news for some of the 3,000 sailors taking part is the early forecast. The Solent will see strong breezes of up to 30 knots – and likely quite lumpy seas – for an upwind start on Saturday 22 July (similar to the conditions faced by competitors in the 2021 race, when conditions moderated after the first 24 hours).
In such punchy conditions, the largest offshore designs are likely to make the smoothest exit of the Solent. Though there are no 100-footers gracing the startline this year, the IRC Super Zero fleet includes two Volvo 70s and two VO65s which are likely to be among the early leaders in the predicted wind and sea state. They include Wind Whisper, which won The Ocean Race VO65 series and is de facto the big boat to beat.
While the IMOCA 60s are also designed to contend with serious ocean conditions, they aren’t eligible for for the overall prize (awarded to a boat racing under IRC) and as they’ll be racing double-handed, short-tacking out of a crowded Solent is likely to have their skippers sailing conservatively for the initial stages at least.
Picking a class winner in the IMOCA fleet is a bit like picking your favourite child these days – there are so many fantastic designs and skippers to follow – but Jérémie Beyou’s Charal is likely a favourite, as one of the latest designs with the most miles under its keel. However, it’s going to be fascinating to see how Charlie Dalin’s brand new Macif performs straight out of the box, while long-time close rival Thomas Ruyant will also be racing his new Finot-Conq/Antoine Koch design For People – on which he won the Guyader Bermudes 1000 Race straight out the box.
The Fastnet is also Pip Hare’s first race with her newly optimised Medallia, complete with new upsized foils, while fellow British skipper Sam Goodchild competes in his For Planet (Ruyant’s former LinkedOut) – another one to watch closely.
The big boats fighting to win the Fastnet Race
Back to those chasing IRC overall, and one of the most interesting boats contending for the win in IRC Super Zero is Peter Morton’s Notorious, the Mills-designed Maxi 72 originally launched as Allegre in 2013 (later renamed Caol Ila R). After being highly successful on the Med-based Maxi circuit, Notorious is likely to be something of a damp ride in the Celtic Sea, though has been carefully optimised along with an all-star crew onboard for this year’s offshore campaign.
Owner Morton explains: “2023 is a big year for me: I did my first Fastnet in 1973, so it will be 50 years on from that. This will be the 50th Fastnet.
“I won the Fastnet in 1993, 30 years ago on Indulgence and again in 2003 on Enigma. So this also has a ‘3’ in it. Plus I will be 70, so the stars are aligned. They say you need a foot for every year you are old…especially to go offshore.”
One brand new design that could make a strong bid for the overall prize is RORC Commodore James Neville’s stunning new Carkeek 45 Ino Noir, in IRC Zero. Neville is looking to go one better overall after coming 2nd in 2021, also winning class with his previous boat.
Seasoned contenders in the big boat class include the NMYD 54 Teasing Machine, owned by RORC Vice Commodore Eric de Turckheim. Teasing Machine is on storming form, leading the RORC Season’s Points Championship with overall victories in last year’s Rolex Middle Sea Race, the RORC Transatlantic Race in January and Myth of Malham at the end of May, as well as finishing runner-up in the Caribbean 600.
And you can’t discount Rán. Swedish owner Niklas Zennström won back-to-back Fastnet Races in 2009 and 2011 and his current Rán 8, a CF 520, was 4th in last year’s Rolex Middle Sea Race.
“The first goal when we built the boat was for the 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race – the 50th anniversary, so obviously a big race,” explains Rán skipper Tim Powell.
US entry Warrior Won, a Pac 52, is another with proven offshore winning credentials, having won last year’s RORC Caribbean 600 and the Transpac overall in the same year. The crew includes round-the-world veteran Stu Bannatyne, well known as a heavy-airs expert, and Adrian Stead, who won the Rolex Fastnet Race twice with Rán.
If conditions moderate over the course of the race (and if they don’t, frankly, it’ll become a race of attrition), then the highly competitive 40-footers in IRC 1 are likely to be in with a good chance of taking the overall prize.
Favourite among them has to be reigning champions Sunrise, Thomas Kneen’s JPK 1180. After winning the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race they went on to nearly win the Rolex Middle Sea Race (only losing after a highly controversial course change), and then shipped the boat to Australia for the Rolex Sydney Hobart in 2022.
So while they might not have been clocking up the miles in the Channel, the Sunrise team has kept working to squeeze more performance out of the boat. Crew member Dave Swete says the Sydney Hobart revealed a weak spot in boatspeed when VMG running. “So we’ve put a 6.5 metre spinnaker pole on the boat, which is pretty long for the size of the boat, and we’ve had some smaller, flatter spinnakers made.
“The new Fastnet course is more like a big windward-leeward track, so we think the spinnaker pole could work out to be pretty useful. We’ve paid a bit of a price on the rating but with the right conditions it will be worth it.
“By my calculations we only need to fly the spinnaker for an hour and a half and it will have paid for itself because it looks to be about 10 per cent quicker.”
The well optimised and hard raced J/121 Darkwood, owned by Irish skipper Michael O’Donnell is currently leading the IRC points series in IRC 1, and will be well practised going into what looks like a demanding Fastnet opening stage.
There are also some outstanding French entries in IRC 2. Didier Gaudoux, who won the Fastnet in 2017 on Lann Ael 2, this year has a new Sam Manuard and Bernard Nivelt design. With its distinctive semi-scow, reverse-bow design Lann Ael 3 will likely be turbo-charged in strong reaching or downwind conditions.
Double-handers taking on the 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race
The strong winds forecast is likely to make for a tough start for the smaller boats, but 30-35-footers have a good track record in this race (a JPK 10.10 won in 2013 and JPK 10.80 in 2015) and the IRC 2 fleet is one of the most competitive in the whole race.
Of the double-handed teams, Brits Rob Craigie and Deb Fish on the Sun Fast 3600 Bellino will be among the strongest contenders. They currently lead the IRC Two-Handed leaderboard and also posted an impressive 2nd overall in last year’s Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race.
But if conditions in this year’s Fastnet ease in the second half of the race to make it a slower boat affair, with victory decided in light, tidal conditions of the Alderney Race, it would be hard to bet against one of the French teams that know the coastline best.
Hugely experienced skipper Noel Racine has won class in the Fastnet no fewer than four times, making his team on the JPK 10.30 Foggy Dew surely one of the favourites for an overall win if the wind gods are in their favour.
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