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A Q&A with the RORC’s Nick Elliott about the 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 1 Aug
The lure of the Fastnet Rock as captured by Daniel Forster in the Rolex Fastnet Race Rolex/Daniel Forster http://www.regattanews.com
When one stops to consider the world’s best ocean races, the Royal Offshore Racing Club’s (RORC) Rolex Fastnet Race is never far from mind. This 605-nautical-mile biennial bluewater classic began in 1925, when the Jolie Brise, E.G. Martin’s 73-foot gaff-rigged pilot cutter, took first prize in a fleet of seven contesting yachts. Flash forward to the 2017 race, and the event reached its maximum number of entries-340 boats-in less than five minutes, setting an all-time sell-out rate for this regatta (and likely a world record for a regatta of this size and complexity), despite the race’s stringent safety requirements, equipment checklists and other expensive and time-consuming prerequisites.

To say that offshore racing is popular in Europe is perhaps a bit like saying that windward-leeward courses are popular at most inshore regattas.

And while the Fastnet Race and other storied offshore competitions have their moments of pure glory (read: big breeze, kite up, surfing hard and fast down offshore rollers), they can also have their moments of boredom (read: no breeze), terror (read: the 1979 Fastnet Race, when 15 sailors and three rescuers were lost to a vicious storm) and beauty (read: night sailing, under a canopy of stars), as well as a pinch of everything in between, which makes the 2017 Fastnet Race’s sub-five-minute minute sell-out time all the more impressive.



Racing starts off of historic Cowes, on the UK’s Isle of Wight, and takes the fleet out through The Solent via The Needles Channel before following England’s south coast westward down the English Channel. The fleet then rounds historic Land’s End, crosses the Celtic Sea and rounds namesake Fastnet Rock off of Ireland’s southwest coast before sailing a (more or less) reciprocal course that rounds the Isles of Scilly and takes competitors to the finishing line off of Plymouth.

The RORC’s 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race is set to kick off on Sunday, August 6, so I caught up with Nick Elliott, RORC Racing Manager, via email to learn more about the race’s history and evolution, its challenges, and the amount of work that goes into pulling off this world-famous regatta.



Given the deep history of the Rolex Fastnet Race, do you and the other race organizers try to add new elements (say, new parties or perhaps some sustainability/environmental partnerships) each year, or is it more about preserving the historical integrity of the event?
We are very protective of the history of the race and the way that the club created the event and the event created the club, but the thing we do each year is develop the media coverage and the live streaming of the starts. We endeavor to make it more accessible to the public and to the sailors that can’t be there so that they can get a feel for it. This includes the Virtual Regatta Fastnet game and live streaming at the start of the race on Sunday 6th August.

Will we see foils in this year’s Fastnet Race?
We will definitely see foiling boats in the race. This year we will see the foiling IMOCA 60s racing and without doubt, looking at the modern offshore multihulls, the likes of Maserati (MOD70) has raced with the RORC now across the Atlantic and for the Caribbean 600 and that’s a fully foiling 70ft trimaran, so yes, it is well on its way into offshore sport.



How many months of preparation time go into ensuring that the race comes off without a hitch? Can you give us a brief overview of the operational processes and also when you and your team begin work in earnest?
It starts as soon as the last race finishes. From debriefs on all aspects of the race, from the qualification criteria and the boat preparation side of it, deciding on the next Notice of Race, to liaising with the marinas and towns for the organizing elements that they put into the race. Plus of course liaising with sponsors.

The Fastnet is pretty much constantly being organized and the two-year cycle gives us time to work on [it] and develop it as we go along.



In your mind, what is the gravity that keeps pulling sailors back to this racecourse, edition after edition?
It’s the oldest and original 600-mile offshore race. The location puts it in the real heart of the offshore world where there is the greatest market for something like this, with the northern coast of France where offshore racing is hugely popular, and the south coast of the UK.

Starting from the Royal Squadron in Cowes (Isle of Wight), [the race] is very central to the south coast and that level of competition draws people from all over the world to give it a go. It’s famous for many reasons. One for being the first, but also for the events that have put it in the limelight over the years. Unfortunately they are not all good, but it means there is a real kudos to people having competed [in] and completed the Rolex Fastnet Race, and I think that’s what makes it the Everest of offshore yacht racing – a huge desire to do and to say they’ve done it.



I read that the 340-boat limit was reached in just 4 minutes and 24 seconds on January 9, 2017…is the race always this popular or is 2017 an exceptional year? Also, are people writing bots to enter the race for them, or was this really a situation of owners/captains sitting at computers/smartphones, madly hitting refresh, perhaps a bit like teenagers-or their parents-trying to buy Rolling Stones tickets?
It’s been hugely popular for a long time. I think the modern boats and modern equipment and safety equipment make it accessible to more people so the market is growing for the race. But the difference is the electronics and the ability to promote the opening of the Fastnet Race. Plus the fact that in 2013 and 2015 the race was sold out very, very quickly and it puts a lot of pressure on people putting their entries in on that day.

It would be lovely to think it has got to the stage where people are writing bots but no, it’s most definitely owners, captains, sailors, standing there hitting the button and getting in. We joke that it’s like a Rolling Stones or Glastonbury concert sell-out, but obviously it has a very limited number of places so it can full up very quickly.

We do promote the club through this though and offer our members first chance of getting into the race so it’s a big perk of being a member to get your space in the Fastnet Race.



Given the race’s popularity, could you envision the race being run annually?
The fact that it is [run] biennially keeps people coming back. If it was every year then people would maybe give it a miss every now and again but maybe every two years, people build [up] to it and it gives people an opportunity to prepare crews and train them up and develop boats and sails in order to be able to win it. I think the two-year cycle enhances the popularity of the race.

Of the 340 boats entered, what percentage do you think actually have a shot at winning the race? Or, does it all boil down to weather and conditions?
It most definitely boils down to the weather and conditions. We’ve [recently seen the overall] winner coming from the fastest class in the race to the winner coming in the slowest and everything in between.

You have to first of all sail well in your own class against the boats that are similar to you and win that battle before you have any chance of winning the overall battle. Every boat has its day as they say so there are probably somewhere between 30-40 percent of the fleet have a shout at the win if everything comes together for them and they have a great race.



Are you eyeing any racecourse favorites yet, or is it still too early to tell?
[It’s] quite nice to see some of the ultra-modern, fast raceboats doing very well offshore. We’ve seen INO XXX, James Neville’s Fast40+, doing very well in the offshore races, having a second overall in the Cowes-Dinard-St Malo Race and winning the Myth of Malham, which covers quite a significant part of the Fastnet course and so they hopefully will be confident that in the right conditions they can give it a really good go. We are also seeing the fabulous and well organized and sailed Teasing Machine, Eric de Turckheim’s new [Nivelt – Muratet-designed] Jmd 54 and we know that will be well-sailed, so they’ve got a really big shout at winning and it’s a big, fast boat.

Then we have Pomeroy Swan, Paul Kavanagh’s Swan 44, which we’ve seen doing fantastically well in the right conditions with plenty of reaching. It could easily be an older boat that takes the win.

Many thanks to Nick Elliott and the RORC for this interview. For the latest updates, please stay tuned to www.sail-world.com, or for latest news, videos, images and updates, aim your browser at www.rolexfastnetrace.com.

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