The record-sized Rolex Fastnet Race fleet set sail from Cowes, Isle of Wight, in classic conditions – a beat westward up the Solent in a building west-southwesterly and sunshine, but with an ominous looking cloud line over the mainland.
In the end there were 314 starters, the largest fleet ever to start the Rolex Fastnet Race following the previous record of 303 yachts in the disaster-stuck 1979 event.
The first start at 1100 BST saw the giant multihulls heading off. Fastest out of the blocks were Gitana 11 (FRA), the 23.5m trimaran skippered by Vendee Globe and Volvo Ocean Race skipper Sebastien Josse and Roland Jourdain’s MOD70 Veolia Environnement (FRA). With round the world yachtswoman Dee Caffari manning her aft grinders, Veolia’s sistership, Steve Ravussin’s Race For Water (SUI), was over the line early and had to restart.
Visible from most parts of the Solent with her 40 meter long hulls and 47 meter tall mast, the world’s fastest offshore boat, the Loick Peyron-skippered Maxi Banque Populaire (FRA) trimaran, thundered across the line and had reached the Needles within an hour, sailing upwind at more than 20 knots. Five hours after starting, Banque Populaire was already approaching Start Point, close to 100 miles down the southwest coast from the start.
Next up were the IMOCA 60 monohulls, and by the Needles, Marc Guillemot -- Yann Elies doublehander Safran (FRA), were leading the newer generation boats.
The ebb tide was beginning to kick in by the time the Class 40s started and most chose to hug the island shore in the most favourable current. By the time they reached the Needles, Tanguy de la Motte’s 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race winner, Initiatives-Alex Olivier (FRA), was a nose ahead of the two Kiwi 40s, Roaring Forty 2 (BEL) and Peraspera (ITA). Shortly after passing through Hurst Narrows there was disaster for the Italian entry, Eutourist Serv-System, when she dismasted.
The wind against tide conditions, that were particularly severe at Hurst Narrows at the western entrance to the Solent, would subsequently take their toll on the 43-foot trimaran, Strontium Dog (GBR), that also suffered a dismasting.
The most impressive display were the smaller IRC boats, funnelling their way through Hurst Narrows, and slowly being overhauled by the larger boats that started after. Doing well in IRC 1 was the Ker 46 Tonnerre de Breskens (NED), skippered by veteran sailor Piet Vroon, competing in his 23rd Rolex Fastnet Race.
Prior to leaving Cowes Yacht Haven this morning, Vroon wasn’t keen to make many predictions about how this race would unfold. He offered, 'A big boat race? It could be an advantage for the bigger boats as they will make Portland and they could get to the Rock before the big wind comes.
'But I don’t know. We are bigger than a lot of the small ones! If it is going to be in excess of 30 knots to windward, then it will be hard for the small boats.'
Vroon, who won the Rolex Fastnet Race in 2001 said he was expecting to finish sometime on Wednesday morning. 'Once we took six days and once we took 68 hours, I believe. So anything in between is good!'
As expected in IRC Zero, the Jim Swartz/Karl Kwok co-skippered Farr 80 Beau Geste (HKG) appeared to be doing well, leading her class through Hurst Narrows ahead of the two silver streaks: Niklas Zennström’s 72 foot Ràn (GBR) with Andres Soriano’s 68-foot Alegre (GBR) hot on her heels.
Forging their way up the fleet was the intriguing match between the three Volvo Open 70s, due to set off on their round-the-world race this autumn. This is the first time these boats have lined up in anger, and while all three were close as they beat through Hurst Narrows, it was Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (UAE), skippered by double Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker, that was leading former round-the-world race winner Mike Sanderson on Team Sanya (CHN), with Franck Cammas’ Groupama 4 (FRA) bringing up the rear.
There was a hurrah for British sailing fans as the two largest monohulls in the Rolex Fastnet Race fleet thundered up their way up the Solent, with Mike Slade’s 100 foot ICAP Leopard (GBR) ahead of the more highly-rated Rambler 100 (USA) of George David. The reason for this was that ten minutes after the gun, Rambler had split her headsail in two and the crew had to scramble to set a replacement.
Before the giant fleet had left the Solent, there were a number of casualties. In addition to the two dismastings, the First 375 Little Spirit (GBR) suffered damage to her forestay during a collision with the Bavaria 44 Emerald Star (GBR) and was forced to retire, as was IRC 3 Howling Monkey (GBR) holed in a collision with the J/109 Jambo! (GBR). The canting-keeled Prodigy (GBR) also retired, with mainsail damage.
Conditions for the bulk of the fleet tonight should be relatively fast, particularly for the smaller boats, which will benefit from the wind veering north of west, as the boats further up the course are set to remain headed.
In addition, there are more than 30 other trophies that will be awarded at the prize giving on Friday, 19 August at the historic Royal Citadel. The Citadel, home to the 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, overlooks Plymouth Sound and Sutton Harbour, where the majority of the fleet will berth.