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Rolex Fastnet Race – Poised to join the pantheon of greats

by Quinag on 11 Aug 2017
Intense crew work onboard Quentin Stewart's Infiniti 46 R Maverick during the Rolex Fastnet Race Quinag
On Sunday, a record fleet of 362 yachts from 29 countries set off from Cowes on the 47th Rolex Fastnet Race. By 16:00 BST today, 131 had finished the race, 27 had retired and 204 were still to arrive in Plymouth.

As yachts continue to pass the finish line off the Breakwater Lighthouse in Plymouth Sound, the spotlight is shining firmly upon the question of who will claim the race’s most sought-after prize, the Fastnet Challenge Cup and Rolex timepiece, awarded to the overall race winner and decided on handicap under the IRC Rating system.

Arriving on Wednesday morning, Ron O’Hanley’s Cookson 50 Privateer assumed leadership of the race, with an advantage which appeared unassailable until Didier Gaudoux’s JNA 39 Lann Ael 2 bettered the American yacht’s corrected time in the early hours of Thursday morning.

“The race was interesting and intense,” explained Gaudoux shortly after completing the 605-nm offshore classic. “We pushed the boat as much as possible. I was very demanding with the crew and they responded perfectly.” There was a clear point in the race when Gaudoux and his nine-strong crew realised they could put themselves in contention for the overall title. “We had a fantastic downwind leg from the Fastnet Rock to the Scilly Isles and when we saw the size of the boats around us we were pleased.”

The French crew must now wait patiently to see if any of the remaining yachts still at sea, the majority of which are sailing the final passage from Land’s End to Plymouth, can overhaul their time.

Unique achievements

Taking part in the Rolex Fastnet, organised by the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) since 1925 and partnered by Rolex since 2001, is an achievement in itself. Completing the race is success enough for most. Overcoming more than 300 other yachts to reach top spot in the standings is an accomplishment reserved for only the very best prepared, the most determined and the most exceptionally skilled crews.

One recent heralded, yet unexpected, recent successes at the Rolex Fastnet, belongs to the French father and son crew of Pascal and Alexis Loison who, in 2013, became the first ever double-handed crew to win the race. Pascal, a surgeon and archetypal Corinthian sailor, taught his son to sail. Today, Alexis, a sailor on the professional circuit, is the one instructing his father.

Reflecting on their triumph with Night and Day four years ago, Alexis explains: “It was a great achievement. There are a lot of offshore races but the Rolex Fastnet is special. It’s the race with the most boats and the handicap system means everybody has the chance of victory. Winning two-handed with my father was incredible.”

Given the highly competitive, unpredictable nature of the Rolex Fastnet, the chances of a repeat success are slim, but that does not deter the Loisons from returning. Their competitive spirit and passion for the race is undiminished. In 2015 and out of contention for the overall title, they lost the double-handed class by 14 seconds, a painful defeat which sharpened their motivation for this year. “We can’t get it off our minds. We want to come back and win our class. Night and Day has won a lot of races but the Rolex Fastnet is hard to win because there are so many boats.”

The Loisons were succeeded in 2015 by another French yacht, the JPK 10.80 Courrier Du Leon. For owner Géry Trentesaux, then 57, winning the Rolex Fastnet, was the fulfilment of a long and proud sailing career. “I did my first RORC races at the age of 14. Winning your class is one thing but winning overall is really incredible. The success was down to the crew but also our knowledge of the Channel and Celtic Sea built over the last 30 years.” 2015 proved a special year for Trentesaux, one in which he won some 30 trophies. The engraved Rolex timepiece he received for the Rolex Fastnet Race victory remains a unique, priceless memento he reserves for ‘special occasions’.

Passion for offshore racing is embedded in French sailing culture and with many RORC races taking place in the expanse of water between England and France, it is little surprise that yachts flying the ‘tricolore’ have enjoyed significant success at the Rolex Fastnet Race over the years. In 2005, Jean-Yves Chateau triumphed with one of the smallest yachts to ever win the race; his boat, Iromiguy, he admitted was probably ‘worth less than its sails’. “I never thought it would be possible to win the whole race,” explained a shell-shocked Chateau at the time. “It is unbelievable, a childhood dream.”

Twice winner of the race, Swedish entrepreneur Niklas Zennström is well placed to appreciate what it takes to win the Rolex Fastnet; and, in particular, what it means in terms of achievement. In 2011, Zennström’s British Mini Maxi Rán 2 became the first yacht to claim back-to-back Rolex Fastnet Race titles since 1957. 'You take that trophy (the Fastnet Challenge Cup) and you see the plaques with all of the names of the yachts,” explained Zennström. “There is a lot of history there, you see all the names, a lot of classic boats, boats that as a kid you watched and read about.'

In 2001, the first year of Rolex’s partnership with the race, Dutchman Piet Vroon triumphed with his Lutra 52 Tonnerre de Breskens. It had taken Vroon twenty races spread over four decades to win overall. A genuine lesson in persistence, determination and the value of accumulated experience. Vroon recently reflected on how the race has developed and how winning has become even more difficult. “The evolution has been such that you wouldn’t sail on the boats which were there in the beginning, which took a week to complete the race with people dressed for dinner. Today the boats are faster and competition keener than it ever was.” Today well into his 80s, Vroon is still as passionate as ever about the race. While he hasn’t sailed the Rolex Fastnet since 2013, his Tonnerre 51 remains a fixture in the entry list.

The winner of the 47th Rolex Fastnet Race will be confirmed tomorrow and the Fastnet Challenge Cup and Rolex timepiece, symbols of true sailing achievement, awarded to the victorious crew during the final prize giving.

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