New benchmarks continue to be set in the Rolex Fastnet Race. The Royal Ocean Racing Club's biennial flagship event this year saw the entry list sell out in less than 24 hours. Its position as the world's largest offshore yacht race was further confirmed when a record-sized fleet of 336 yachts set sail from Cowes on 11th August.
Spindrift 2 leads the charge at the start in Cowes.
As ever, entries covered the complete range of offshore racing hardware. Among the biggest boats several cut throat match races were to take place. Of note, this year's Rolex Fastnet Race was the first occasion the world's two fastest offshore yachts, the 40 and 31.5m long maxi-trimarans, Spindrift 2 and Banque Populaire, had ever lined up in anger at a major event. Similarly, the European-flagged Esimit Europa 2 was to take on another 100ft maxi-monohull in Mike Slade's two-times monohull line honours winner, ICAP Leopard.
There was also a 72ft Mini Maxi match race, with Niklas Zennström's Rán 2, gunning to enter the history books by scoring a third consecutive overall win in the race, although she was up against her newer sistership, American Hap Fauth's Bella Mente. The Rolex Fastnet Race was also the first ever competitive outing for the fledgling all-women's Volvo Ocean Race entry, Team SCA, which used its VO70 training boat (the former Puma) to line up with the Rolex Fastnet Race monohull record holder, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, once again skippered by double Olympic medallist Ian Walker.
Rolex Fastnet Race 2013
At the slower end of the fleet, it was fantastic that the gaff pilot cutter, Jolie Breeze, was participating. She was winner of the first Fastnet Race back in 1925 (that subsequently caused the formation of the Royal Ocean Racing Club) and the only boat in the event's history to have won it three times.
Within the fleet, 292 boats were competing for the overall IRC prize. With the VO70s this year racing in the IRC fleet, an additional 43 grand prix boats - the Multihulls, IMOCA 60s, Class 40s and for the first time, the Figaros - were racing for their own class prizes. The giant IRC fleet was divided into classes, but with numerous one-design battles going on within this, including between the three Swan 60s, four Ker 40s, three Ker 39s, the fifteen First 40.7s or the twenty J/109s. Also of note were the twelve Sigma 38s, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the David Thomas one-design, that the RORC was integral to commissioning.
Significantly, the weather this year was upwind, with a nasty shift into the northwest putting the bigger boats hard on the wind across the Celtic Sea to the Fastnet Rock, followed by some light patches as a ridge encroached on to the race course mid-week. As it transpired, conditions this year very much favoured the smaller boats.
There was a key modification to the course this year. For the first time the traffic separation schemes (TSS) off Land's End, Fastnet Rock and Bishop Rock were deemed 'obstructions', no competitor permitted to enter them. This marginally lengthened the race course to 611 miles and provided competitors with choices over how to pass the TSSes.
The ante had also been increased on the media and communications side with Fastnet Radio providing not only live audio coverage from the event, but also live video and commentary from the start of the race for the first time.
The Royal Ocean Racing Club had teamed up with Inmarsat, the leading provider of global mobile satellite communications services to enable competitors to send content, including video, audio, blogs and social media, back during the race. To help achieve this, eight boats were provided with Inmarsat FleetBroadband. Four of these were lent FleetBroadband 150 terminals and four others, already equipped with FleetBroadband 500 and 250, were provided with complimentary airtime.
Inmarsat FleetBroadband on board eight competing yachts allowed competitors to send back audio, video, stills & blogs direct from the race course. This is Pace pitman Craig Nutter enjoying his 7th Rolex Fastnet Race.
The 45th edition gets underway
The Sunday lunchtime start on the Solent provided a magnificent spectacle with the giant multihulls leading the charge down the Solent followed by the IMOCA 60s - this fleet including the winners of the last four Vendée Globe round the world yacht races.
Between the maxi-multihulls, the Dona Bertarelli and Yann Guichard-skippered Spindrift 2 was at the front of the fleet over the first night, but made a small error passing west of the TSS off Land's End, while the competition went east. This allowed the MOD70 Oman Air-Musandam to lead into the Celtic Sea. In turn she was subsequently overtaken by the Armel le Cleac'h-skippered Banque Populaire with the mighty Spindrift 2 only regaining the lead just before Fastnet Rock. These two boats then match-raced back to Bishop Rock, their sheets cracked finally with the longer Spindrift 2 slowly pulling ahead.
The approach to the finish line in the early hours of Tuesday morning coincided with the land breeze shutting down. As Spindrift 2 parked, Banque Populaire was able to close to within half a mile of her. Ultimately Spindrift 2 just managed to stay ahead, arriving at the finish line off Plymouth Breakwater in an elapsed time of 38 hours 53 minutes and 58 seconds - some way off the 32 hour 48 minute course record this same boat set in the stronger winds of the 2011 race.
A more devastating finish line park-up occurred between the leading monohulls 24 hours later. Esimit Europa 2, skippered by triple Olympic medallist Jochen Schümann, managed to ghost into Plymouth Sound to claim monohull line honours. Her elapsed time of 60 hours 27 minutes and 49 seconds was substantially outside Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's 2011 record of 42 hours 39 minutes.
Esimit Europa 2 Line Honours
Mike Slade's ICAP Leopard came off worst, with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing able to pip her at the post, the UAE VO70 crossing the line at 07:25 on the Tuesday morning.
As Ian Walker put it: 'There was a bit of land breeze in the harbour and Leopard was completely marooned. We came in with the new wind from behind. The same could have happened to us, but fortunately we managed to get ourselves into a position where we went around the outside, away from the cliff.'
With the wind filling in, over the next 12 minutes there was a diverse range of finishers:
ICAP Leopard (100ft maxi) 07:29:43
MACIF (doublehanded IMOCA 60)- 07:32:1
Maître CoQ (doublehanded IMOCA 60) 07:33:16
Bella Mente (72ft Mini Maxi) 07:33:53
Rán 2 (72ft Mini Maxi) 07:35:19
Team SCA (VO70) 07:37
Hugo Boss (doublehanded IMOCA 60) 07:39:38
In the VO70 battle, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing had been overtaken by Team SCA at Start Point. The girls crew (albeit including three male coaches, VOR veterans Brad Jackson, Joca Signorini and Pepe Ribes) had led around the Fastnet Rock and as they powered back to the southeast on the Tuesday afternoon, impressively had taken the lead overall in the Rolex Fastnet Race fleet under IRC. However Walker's higher rated VO70 passed them on the approach to Bishop Rock and never looked back.
The Mini-Maxi show down seemed to be going well for Bella Mente. Higher rated, more powerful and newer than the defending champion, she was leading Rán 2 on handicap until she fell into a light patch close to Bishop Rock, causing her painstakingly earned eight mile advantage to be halved. As a result Niklas Zennström's team had the small consolation of beating Bella Mente under IRC, while conditions conspired against their achieving a third consecutive overall Rolex Fastnet Race victory.
'We had a good race, it's just a bit of a shame we couldn't finish it off - the wind gods just weren't on our side,' said former Volvo Ocean Race winning skipper Mike Sanderson, helmsman on Bella Mente.
The leading IMOCA 60s' performance was the most exceptional of this group. Despite their being some 10ft shorter and sailed doublehanded, the top two not only beat the Mini Maxis, but finished between the two canting keel VO70s. Strangely the IMOCA 60 podium was not only in the same order but also had, relatively, similar deltas to this year's Vendée Globe solo non-stop round the world race, with Francois Gabart's MACIF narrowly beating Maitre CoQ (ex-Banque Populaire) and with British skipper Alex Thomson on his generation older Hugo Boss, once again coming home third.
'It was a crazy finish,' commented Thomson of the park-up. 'When we came round Ram Head we were only expecting to see a couple of boats, but we could see Leopard and everyone else right there!'
Come Thursday, and with the smaller boats looking ever stronger on handicap, a French whitewash seemed on the cards.
The VO70s and maxis had been knocked off the top spot in IRC Canting Keel, by the smallest boat in the class, the Mach 45, Cartouche, skippered by a works team from manufacturers JPS Production in La Trinité -sur-Mer, led by Nicolas Grouleau. This was the latest French win following those in the Multihull and IMOCA 60 classes and the Class40. In the latter, after leading for much of the race, Spain's Gonzalo Botin, sailing a brand new design from his elder brother Marcellino, was finally beaten by the race favourite, Sebastien Rogues aboard GDF Suez, a Sam Manuard-designed Mach 40, from the same yard as Cartouche.
Drying out in Plymouth Yacht Haven.
Class Zero and Class One were the only ones to fend off the French onslaught. In the former, the Mini Maxis plummeted as the smaller boats came in with breeze, and finally it was Johnny Vincent's TP52 Pace that came out on top. On corrected time she was 2 hours 20 minutes ahead of the Swan 80, Plis Play, with the furthest travelled yacht, Geoff Boettcher's Reichel Pugh 51 Secret Men's Business 3.5 from South Australia, claiming third place.
Pace's victory came despite being upwind most of the way to the Rock with a shift to the south then putting them on a tight reach back. 'We knew we'd be alright downwind against the other boats,' said the team's Volvo Ocean Race winning navigator, Jules Salter. 'The last bit from Bishop Rock was pretty fast.'
Pace Inmarsat FleetBroadband on board eight competing yachts allowed competitors to send back audio, video, stills & blogs direct from the race course.
Another British boat came out on top in IRC One, with Andrew Pearce's Ker 40, Magnum 3, finishing ahead of Frenchman Laurent Gouy's Ker 39 Inis Mor, with the other three Ker 40s all in the top seven.
'Tactically it was an upwind race, which caused us some concern, because this is more of an off-the-wind, surfing-type boat,' said Pearce of his steed. 'We were thinking this race would be better for the classic 40 footers.'
They pulled into the lead crossing the Celtic Sea outbound to Fastnet Rock and enjoyed a blistering ride to Bishop Rock, on the edge, under fractional spinnaker. 'We were coming down there at 17 knots, on our ear, in the driving rain and a black-as-ink night - it was very challenging,' recounted Pearce. 'We had to rotate drivers every hour or less, because it was very difficult.'
Otherwise the race was a clean sweep for the French. The impeccable Gery Trentesaux, sailing the M34 Patton, Courrier Vintage, came out on top in IRC 2 despite this powerful Marc Lombard design preferring stronger conditions. 'We didn't sail so badly,' said Trentesaux. 'We were lucky to have some reaching between the Pantaenius mark and the Scilly Isles. We hit 15 knots - not bad for a small boat.'
Two handed winner
On the Thursday afternoon it became clear that history was in the making with the first ever doublehanded crew set to take the top prize under IRC.
Cherbourg-based father and son team, Pascal and Alexis Loisin, and their 33ft JPK 1010, Night And Day, had already made an impression, when, again sailing doublehanded, they had won the RORC Channel Race outright at the end of July.
Pascal, a 53-year-old surgeon and past competitor in the Transquadra transatlantic race and Alexis, 29, who is a professional Figaro sailor, had won the Rolex Fastnet Race doublehanded class in 2005 aboard a J/105. This time they were 20 minutes faster on corrected time than Noel Racine's second placed JPK 1010 sistership, Foggy Dew - no mean feat, given Foggy Dew was well sailed by a full crew.
The smaller boats, like Night And Day, benefitted from sailing the latter part of the crossing to the Fastnet Rock on a reach and were able to reach back. They then enjoyed good breeze all the way to the finish.
Night And Day was certainly well optimised for IRC, with a short fixed bowsprit and a spinnaker pole instead of the standard JPK 1010 retractable prod, however Alexis said of the reasons for their victory: 'We sail together all the time and we have good tactical knowledge - our tactics were good all time. We made sure we slept well and we had good weather.'
Impressively while Night And Day claimed IRC Three, lower rated JPK 1010s, all fully crewed boats, took the top four spots in IRC Four, with Foggy Dew beating the Belgium crew on Vincent Willemart's Wasabi - the same positions the two boats occupied at the top of IRC Three two years ago.
Overall France took the five top spots under IRC and eight of the top 10, and all of the Grand Prix classes, with the exception of the Figaro class, won by an Anglo-French doublehanded team of Nikki Curwen and Charlie Dalin. Andrew Pearce's Ker 40, Magnum 3, was the top British boat.
Generally the move across the Cattewater to Plymouth Yacht Haven to accommodate the bigger fleet was considered a success, while the Friday afternoon prizegiving on Mountbatten Green coinciding with the arrival of Jolie Brise, made for a memorable conclusion to another historic Rolex Fastnet Race.
The next and 46th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race will start from Cowes, Isle of Wight, on 16th August 2015.