This Sunday, 11th August, the world's largest offshore yacht race sets sail with a fleet of 347 boats from 20 nations competing in the Royal Ocean Racing Club's Rolex Fastnet Race. This size of fleet represents a new record entry for the 611-mile biennial race from Cowes to Plymouth via the Fastnet rock off south-west Ireland.
RORC CEO Eddie Warden Owen addresses the media at today’s Race Press Conference
With the economic downturn, other yacht races have been at best static in terms of participation, but in comparison the Rolex Fastnet Race represents a phenomenal success story with the entry list having had to close less than 24 hours after opening due to extreme demand.
'It is a little bit difficult to understand,' admits Commodore of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, Mike Greville. 'We have the professional crews, but the bulk of the fleet are just amateurs, here because they want to do it, because of the adventure, the achievement, it being on their bucket list, etc. For some people it is their Everest. Or there are others, like me, for whom it is like a pilgrimage.'
First run in 1925, the Rolex Fastnet Race is one of the best known yacht races in the world, partly due to the 1979 race when the fleet was struck by un-forecast bad weather that ultimately claimed 18 lives. Today weather forecasting is vastly improved, as well as the safety equipment and communications equipment with which the boats are equipped. But the Rolex Fastnet Race remains a story of man battling against the elements. In reasonably severe weather two years ago, the keel fell off the leading monohull, Rambler 100, causing her to capsize. Fortunately, her crew were successfully rescued by the Baltimore lifeboat, but it highlights that this race has lost none of its potential danger.
New initiatives for 2013
There have been a number of changes made for this year's Rolex Fastnet Race. These include changing the orientation of the start line off the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes, which has now been shifted more to the west, making the island end of the line less favoured.
In Plymouth, the boats will be berthed at Plymouth Yacht Haven. 'We have a record entry and we need a bigger marina,' explains RORC CEO, Eddie Warden Owen. 'It may be outside of the city centre, but it has all the facilities and is where the Race Village is located.'
From a racing perspective the biggest change has come due to a modification to the latest 'Racing Rules of Sailing' (RSS). Zones at sea, where there is considerable commercial shipping, such as Dover Strait, have 'Traffic Separation Schemes' (TSS), where shipping is divided into lanes. Typically, the maritime rules of the road state that vessels must either follow the direction of these lanes or cross them at 90deg.
Mike Greville explains: 'It is practically impossible for race organisers to enforce the rules of the TSSes. Ultimately we decided the only way to go forward was to make them obstructions. I think this is going to change the race quite a bit, but we felt we had no choice.'
To sidestep this issue, the RORC has deemed TSSes on their race course to be 'exclusion zones' to the west of the Scilly Isles, south of the Fastnet Rock, and off Land's End. Avoiding these will add around 8 miles to the race course.
Ian Walker, skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, praised the RORC for introducing the new rule. 'As a skipper you don't want to be put in a position when you have to make a choice between performance and good seamanship. We don't like ambiguity, so I applaud the RORC for making it clear. Now we won't be put into a position of questioning whether we crossed a TSS at 90degs and another boat crossed it at 88deg and has taken a mile out of us.'
The two-hour start sequence takes place from midday on Sunday 11th August. For the first time, the start will be broadcast live on the internet. Eddie Warden Owen compares it to the Boxing Day start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart which is a huge television attraction in Australia. This coverage is being augmented by support from satellite communications provider Inmarsat, which is providing its equipment to eight yachts for the duration of the race.
'We hope people will be able to see what it is like living aboard on an offshore racing yacht, which most people don't understand at all,' says Admiral of the RORC, Andrew McIrvine.
It is still too early to determine exactly the weather for this Rolex Fastnet Race. According to race meteorologist Chris Tibbs, it is currently lining up to favour the smaller boats, who may have a faster run across the Celtic Sea to the Fastnet Rock while the bigger boats may be slower, hard on the wind, into a north westerly when they cross.
'My overall thought is that it will be neither a record-breaking nor a boat breaking race,' says Tibbs, who adds that the most wind the boats are likely to see will be 15-20 knots. However there may also be a park up at the Scilly Isles en route to the finish, depending on the position of a high pressure ridge.