Off Cowes, the rain stopped and the sun came out for today's commencement of the world's largest offshore race, the Royal Ocean Racing Club's biennial Rolex Fastnet Race. In the end, 335 boats set sail for Plymouth via the Fastnet Rock off south-west Ireland, with 292 racing for overall honours under IRC rating and a further 43 non-IRC boats.
Rolex Fastnet Race First Start, Multihulls, Dona Bertarelli and Yann Guichard’s Spindrift 2
As is tradition, the start was upwind into a West-South Westerly that for the first starts was around 10 knots, but slowly built to 15 as the sea breeze developed.
First away were the Multihulls, including the world's two fastest trimarans, Dona Bertarelli and Yann Guichard's 40m long, Spindrift 2, and Armel le Cleac'h's 31.5m, Banque Populaire, with the latter very late starting. Meanwhile the Sidney Gavignet-skippered, Oman Air-Musandam, was charging along up the mainland shore. Four hours in and Gavignet's team had managed to fend off the two larger trimarans as well as the new 80ft, Prince de Bretagne, trimaran campaigned by double Route du Rhum winner Lionel Lemonchois.
Among the IMOCA 60s it was fellow Vendée Globe winners François Gabart and Michel Desjoyeaux aboard the former's, Macif, that nailed the start line to perfection. They continued to lead four hours into the race with the Vendée Globe boats approaching St Alban's Head. At this point Marc Guillemot's Safran was taking a more offshore course, as two-time Velux 5 Oceans winner Bernard Stamm on Cheminées Poujoulat had opted to shave the coast at Swanage.
The third group away were the Class40s and Figaros. The Spanish team on the brand new Marcellino Botin-designed Tales II, skippered by Botin brother Gonzalo, also benefitted from heading down the mainland shore of the Solent and at 1600 BST was neck and neck for the lead with the Anglo-American couple Dan Dytch and Emma Creighton on Momentum Ocean Racing, both boats just off Swanage. Catherine Pourre's Earwen was also performing well, having taken a more offshore course.
The double-handed Figaros were still in the middle of Poole Bay at 1600 BST with the Artemis Offshore Academy's Sam Matson and Robin Elsey level pegging with British Solitaire veteran Nick Cherry and Lizzy Foreman on Magma Structures, both boats closest to Swanage.
The IRC Class 4 fleet at the start of the 45th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race
The IRC classes set off from Cowes with the smallest first, the boats in IRC Four bunching up at the favoured mainland end of the line. At 1600 they too were in the middle of Poole Bay with the French JPK 10.10, Alkaid III, of Gerard Quenot leading the charge inshore, while another French JPK 10.10, Leon, of Jacques Pelletier was in front of the offshore group.
Having started 10 minutes after them, the IRC Three fleet was in the process of overtaking IRC Four. Ian Kirkpatrick's X-37, Fatjax, was ahead in the inshore group with the J/109 sisterships, Kevin Armstrong's Jazzy Jellyfish and Stephen Morris' Jambol, front-runners among those offshore.
Again in IRC Two, the bulk of the fleet was sticking to the shortest course further inshore. This group was being led on the water by two French boats with Samuel Prietz's A-40, Vitaris, inshore and Guy Sallenave's X-442, Ster Wenn 5, doing well further out into the Channel.
The bigger boats in IRC One were also pulling ahead of the smaller, slower boats with overall Season Points Championship leader Piet Vroon's Ker 46, Tonnerre de Breskens, out in front, also on the direct route, close to Swanage. In this class the in shore boats are clearly doing better than those offshore, where the Clipper 68, Edinburgh Inspiring Capital, is ahead.
The IRC Zero boats have already overhauled the smaller boats and, as expected, the 72ft Mini Maxis American Hap Fauth's Bella Mente and Niklas Zennström's Rán 2 are locked in their own private match race, hugging the coast off Swanage. The Volvo Ocean 60, Team Heiner One, is on a flier offshore. Prior to leaving the Solent, there was disaster in IRC Zero for the brand new Botin 65, Caro, which went hard aground on Salt Mead Ledge.
Among the canting keel boats, the 100 footer Esimit Europa 2 is ahead, but not that far in front of Mike Slade's similarly long, but substantially heavier ICAP Leopard, both having just passed St Alban's Head. In the inter-Volvo 70 fight it is the Ian Walker-skippered Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing that is ahead of the (mostly) female crew on Team SCA.
This evening, the crews are expecting the wind to veer increasingly into the north-west putting them on to a starboard tack-favoured beat down the south coast of the UK.
Prior to leaving, Andrew Cape, navigator on Esimit Europa II, reckoned that it would take the biggest, fastest monohull in the fleet just over two days to complete the course, while he believed the forecast was favouring 40 footers. 'Towards the end, it is not looking great for us. I don't think it will be a big boat race, but things change and we'll just get out there and do our bit. I'd say it would be a small boat race because, on average, they will have better shifts getting to the Rock and back. We will have a lot of beating and running, we won't be able to sail a direct course and we'll be sailing through a light patch.'
Ian Moore, navigator on the IRC 72, Bella Mente, also felt that the present forecast wasn't playing to their strengths, with the forecast lining up to be a 'very classic 2.5-3 day race. It is not playing to our strengths: We are fine going upwind, but we were hoping for a bit more breeze and a bit more reaching. Right now, the TP52s are looking pretty good, because they get to come home in some decent pressure, a lot better than our run home in the light air.'
At the smaller end of the fleet, Alexis Loison, is sailing doublehanded with his father Pascal on the JPK 10.10 Night and Day, which won the RORC's Channel Race not only in the double-handed division, but also overall. 'For my boat it is good weather I think, not strong wind, good conditions for us,' said Alexis. 'It is south-westerly to the finish into the Fastnet, with 20-25 knots which will be good.'
Nigel Goodhew, racing double-handed with his son Tim on the Sigma 38, Persephone of London, predicted: 'I think it will be a relatively slow race compared with the last few, and very tactical. The headlands are going to be decisive and it'll be very interesting to see what happens when we go around the traffic separation schemes which are effectively two new marks of the course.'
The smaller boats like Persephone will enjoy being able to sail directly across to the Rock in south-westerlies, however Goodhew predicts that they will miss the best pressure at the Rock which is due for the faster boats that arrive there on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.