In the Rolex Fastnet Race, hiding amid the big monohull finishers that arrived into Plymouth this morning, the closest was between the top IMOCA 60s. Vendée Globe winners François Gabart and Michel Desjoyeaux on the former's MACIF and her sistership Maître CoQ (formerly Armel le Cleac'h's Banque Populaire), sailed by Jérémie Beyou and Christopher Pratt, crossed the line off Plymouth breakwater, separated by just 57 seconds after 611 miles of racing.
Rolex Fastnet Race: Doublehanded, MACIF, captured here at the Fastnet Rock, beat the 70 footers into Plymouth
Most impressively MACIF, sailed doublehanded, arrived at 07:32:19 BST this morning. To put this into context, on the water she beat both of the leading Mini Maxis, Bella Mente and Rán 2, as well as the VO70 Team SCA; all of these boats at least 10ft longer and being sailed with a full crew.
Alex Thomson and Spaniard Guillermo Altadill on Hugo Boss, arrived six minutes after MACIF, behind Team SCA but still ahead of the Mini Maxi. By coincidence this IMOCA 60 podium was the same as this year's Vendée Globe, with Alex Thomson doing an excellent job to hang on to the coat tails of the newer VPLP-Verdier designs.
This was the first major event for Gabart, since he won the 2012-3 Vendée Globe in February. 'Of course, it is always a pleasure to win,' he said. 'But mostly it's nice to get back to some sailing! Plus, when it is with Michel [Desjoyeaux] it's just perfect. We still have to tweak a few details, but we have already seen that the work done this winter is going in the right direction. With the new mast, we have gained some extra speed.'
Gabart observed that not only was the finish order identical to the Vendée Globe podium, but also the difference between the finishers. 'It promises for an interesting Transat Jacques Vabre.'
Second placed Jérémie Beyou commented: 'We were second for almost the entire race - that was really good. We sailed well tactically, but François and Michel are faster. At the Fastnet Rock, we crossed MACIF, and she was well ahead of the rest of the fleet. But when we cracked off, the other competitors caught us up.'
Alex Thomson agreed that the repeat of the Vendée podium was strange. 'Guillermo and I felt we sailed a very good race. There were times when we struggle a little bit compared to the new boats.'
Their crossing of the Celtic Sea was intelligent and in their older generation IMOCA 60, Hugo Boss, they rounded the Fastnet Rock two miles behind the front runners, falling back further, to trail them by six miles at Bishop Rock.
They made up ground on the approach to Plymouth. 'It was a crazy finish!' recounted Thomson. 'When we came round Ram Head we were only expecting to see a couple of boats and we could see ICAP Leopard and everyone was right there!'
They ghosted across after overhauling some potentially much faster fully crewed boats. 'It was a very tactical race,' Thomson concluded. 'We didn't make any mistakes but we didn't benefit from any luck either. I am really happy.'
Meanwhile, back on the race course...
Plis Play in action during the 2012 Rolex Swan Cup
At present, of the 336 starters, there have been just eight retirements, the last being the Nicholas 43, Emily. There have been 21 finishers in the IRC fleets and 13 in the non-IRC boats.
Of the boats that have finished, Johnny Vincent's 52ft Pace is on top followed by Vincente Garcia's Swan 80 Plis Play (the top two boats in IRC Zero) and the Nicolas Groleau-skippered Cartouche, the winner in IRC Canting Keel.
Jules Salter, navigator on Pace, said that the crew was confident in their performance downwind against the competition. The only issue was that three quarters of the race were upwind - even after passing the Fastnet Rock they were tight reaching after the wind backed into the south.
Unlike the bigger boats, Pace rounded Bishop Rock in 15-20 knots of wind and from there had a fast run to the finish at Plymouth breakwater. So will they win? 'I think the little boats will do it - they reached in and reached out from the Fastnet Rock,' said Salter. 'We'll win our class hopefully.'
After the French 1-2 in the IMOCA 60 class, another Breton boat, Cartouche, skippered by Nicolas Groleau, ended up beating the Maxis, Mini Maxis and VO70s to the IRC win in the Canting Keel class. Groleau runs the JPS Production boatyard in La Trinité-sur-Mer, and Cartouche is an example of the biggest boat they produce - the Sam Manuard-designed Mach 45.
With a crew from La Trinité, including round-the-world sailor Ludovic Aglaor, Groleau also complained about there being too much upwind work in this Rolex Fastnet Race, despite seeing the wind back into the southwest en route to the Fastnet Rock. Their win in IRC Canting Keel was down to their fast finish. 'Coming into the Bishop Rock we were very fast, reaching at over 15-16 knots and then it was downwind from the Scillies to Plymouth, full speed under spinnaker at 20 knots, always over 16. I imagine the big boats in our class were very slow around the Scillies, at Land's End and when they finished.'
It was generally a good day for Groleau's company. It also made the Rolex Fastnet Race winning Class 40, Sebastien Rogue's Mach 40, GDF Suez.
Of the boats still at sea, three boats have been doing consistently well today in GeryTrentesaux's Courrier Vintage and Andrew Pearce's Ker 40 Magnum III and Laurent Gouy's Ker 39 Inis Mor.
Having shipped his boat all the way from Australia to compete, Goeff Boettcher was pleased with the third place for his Reichel Pugh 51, Secret Men's Business 3.5 in IRC Zero.
'It was a great race. It is a pity there was so much on the nose work and at the Fastnet Rock we ran into a no wind situation,' said Boettcher. 'If we'd had a bit more running and reaching... but overall I think we ended up where we thought we would.'
Boettcher now plans to ship the boat back to Australia for this year's Rolex Sydney Hobart. 'I'm glad we did the Rolex Fastnet Race - it is totally different, a lot of scenery. There are a lot of places to go and see! I was surprised - the seas were quite flat. Coming to new places on the yacht is cool.'
Fastnet Race website