The Rolex Fastnet Race 2011 is now underway with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, the first Arab entry, opening up a slim lead over the team’s rival entries for the Volvo Ocean Race after making a slick start to their keenly awaited three-way battle on Sunday.
Abu Dhabi, skippered by Britain’s twice Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker, were around two miles ahead of Franck Cammas’ Groupama Sailing Team with Mike Sanderson’s Team Sanya a fraction behind in third as the boats headed upwind towards Portland Bill.
That left well over 500 miles still to go in the 608-nautical mile classic offshore race from Cowes on the Isle of Wight to Plymouth, via the Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland. The fastest monohulls are expected to finish on Tuesday morning, in what could break the current record of one day 20 hours 18 minutes.
'The mood on board is really good right now,' said Abu Dhabi’s American Media Crew Member (MCM) Nick Dana, speaking by sat phone. 'The fact that this race is so much shorter than a Volvo Ocean Race leg just means that we can push twice as hard. That means not a lot of sleep and everyone on deck for most of the time.'
The three Volvo Open 70 boats, all competing in the Volvo Ocean Race starting in Alicante in October, were a spectacular sight as in bright sunshine and in around fifteen knots of breeze they blasted off the Royal Yacht Squadron start line off Cowes and powered their way up the Solent in close formation.
Walker admitted to having butterflies in his stomach on the morning of the race – the first chance for the teams to race competitively against each other. The Briton employed the most aggressive starting technique, throwing Azzam around like a dinghy to ensure control of the port end of the line. In the last few seconds to the start gun it briefly appeared they might have overcooked their final approach, but a short, sharp bow down manoeuvre just before the gun saw him pull off a near faultless start.
Groupama 4, who had chosen to start closer to the middle of the line, also crossed bang on the gun, while simultaneously, further down the line still, Sanderson nailed the starboard end. While Azzam appeared untroubled, Groupama 4 had to overcome a technical problem with their canting keel. 'A little metallic piece broke and stopped the engine from moving the keel,' explained Groupama’s MCM Yann Riou. 'We were surprised to see it broke, but we fixed it. It was an issue for the start since we had to tack a lot, but our repair seems to work now and we are not tacking as much. There shouldn’t be any issue with that any more.
'Last time I was on deck, thirty minutes ago, I could perfectly see the other Volvo Open 70. Sanya as next to us and Abu Dhabi a bit further ahead.' Team Sanya are the only one of the three teams not in a latest-generation Volvo Open 70, having chosen to refit the Telefónica Blue boat that finished third in the last Volvo Ocean Race. Sanderson’s team have had less preparation than the others as well, having only entered the race seven weeks ago.
'Abu Dhabi have the advantage right now but we know that this is a long race and we are ready for the challenge and planning to push as hard as we can,' said MCM Frankie Leonard. 'I think the pressure is on the other boats.'
Three other teams have so far entered the 39,000 nautical mile Volvo Ocean Race starting in October – Team Telefónica, Puma Ocean Racing powered by Berg Propulsion and Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand.
Volvo Ocean Race visit website
Rolex Fastnet Race website