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An interview with Chris Stone about the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race

by David Schmidt 1 Aug 08:00 PDT August 3, 2019
2018 Rolex Fastnet Race © Rolex / Kurt Arrigo

Ask any sailor, on any dock, anywhere, to name two or three of the world’s most famous ocean sailing races and odds are excellent that the conversation will include the Rolex Fastnet Race. This 605-nautical-mile race, which has origins stretching back to 1925, is organized biennially by the Royal Ocean Racing Club and contested on England’s historic southwestern waters. This year’s race, which will feature exponentially more boats than the inaugural running, is set to begin on the waters off of Cowes, on Saturday, August 3.

As its name implies, the course rounds the world-famous Fastnet Rock, situated off of Ireland’s southwest coast, before then returning, rounding the Isles of Scilly, and punching for the finishing line off of Plymouth.

Given the event’s beautiful racetrack, its proud history, and its always-challenging conditions, it’s no wonder that the Rolex Fastnet Race consistently attracts some of the world’s best offshore racing teams. Some of this year’s head-snapping entries include four Ultime class trimarans; the maxi monohulls Scallywag 100 and Rambler 88; three Volvo Open 70s; three Volvo Ocean Race 65s, plus many, many extremely well-sailed boats—crewed by some of the world’s best professional and Corinthian offshore sailors—that measure in the 60-, 50-, 40- and, for the intrepid, 30-foot ranges.

And while the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race is continuing its tradition of attracting world-class boats and sailors, something that has changed are the dates for the 2019 edition, as this year’s starting guns will sound two weeks earlier (year-on-year) than in previous years. This was done to (ideally) align the race, and its 400-plus starting fleet, with a fairer weather window than previous mid-August events have delivered.

I checked in with Chris Stone, the RORC’s racing manager, via email, to learn more about the 2019 edition of this classic offshore contest.

How fast did the spots for the Fastnet race sell-out for 2019? Also, are we at a point where people are writing BOTS to help them beat their competitors to the punch, entry-wise? Or, have race organizers taken steps to ensure that all sailors have an equal shot at entry?

The 2019 Rolex Fastnet sold out on the 7th January in 4 minutes and 13 seconds, although 13 seconds slower than 2017 we have had roughly 50 more on our waiting list than we have ever had before. I [think] there have been a lot rumors about BOTs helping people with entries, but they have only ever been rumors. Our web team monitors the flow of entries throughout this process, and [they] monitor this type of behavior.

We always take steps to ensure our non-members have the same access to the race. Our RORC members are given priority entry status, it’s one of the great benefits in being a RORC member, and this year over 230 RORC members took up entries. I always say to those who ask, if you want a guaranteed entry, ‘become a member’.

From your perspective, what are the hardest aspect of the race to manage and organize? Also, can you give us a sense of the Fastnet Race’s sheer scale and how this plays into the complexity of organizing and managing the race?

There are several parts to the Rolex Fastnet that make it particularly hard to manage or organise.

Firstly we organize a multitude of other races all over the world throughout the year. We are immensely proud of the quality of the other events but with a relatively small team it can sometimes be a challenge keeping up that momentum and an eye on the detail.

Secondly, the sheer volume of entries and the famous Fastnet waiting list. Every day we receive multiple telephone calls and emails with regards Fastnet entries or how a competitor is progressing in the waiting list. Talking competitors through the process and maintaining the entry list as competitors withdraw is an enormous undertaking. We are in an amazingly privileged position to have such a popular race, and for that reason we also take our responsibilities in trying to have as many competitors racing as possible quite seriously. We want people out there, enjoying their offshore racing.

Make no bones about it, we are the largest ocean race in the world, every part of the Rolex Fastnet is a challenge from paperwork, safety inspections to berthing and then managing the results for 400+ competitors. None of its possible without the RORC team and our trusted event teams, they make it all possible.

Can you describe the course to the uninitiated? Also, is Fastnet typically one long continuous race, or is it comprised of numerous races rolled into one, each with its own set of challenges?

The Rolex Fastnet is not only a 600 nautical miles race but it’s a race where the course has numerous challenges. Seasoned competitors quite often refer to these challenges as the races within the race. Take the start as an example; we exit the Solent to the west on a typically a runout tide and remembering the tidal ranges are between 4-6 meters.

Add that to the other 400 competing boats out there and the hundreds upon hundreds of spectator craft, just getting away from the start cleanly and then out of the Solent is an enormous challenge. Races have been won and lost in the very first 20 miles of the race.

The course after the exiting the Solent at Hurst Narrows then takes us along the Southwest coast of England again at times severely tide affected and a place where a navigator is always seeking the little gains and watching the wind out wider. The course continues southwest down to the southern-most point of mainland GBR, the lizard or Lizard Point.

From there, it’s a navigators heaven as the fleet move around shallow waters, Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS) around the Isles of Scilly and then popping out into the Celtic Sea.

The Celtic Sea is no place to rest on ones laurels, the weather and sea can be fierce and despite the it being a dash to Fastnet Rock and winning the accolades for being ‘first around the Rock’, the Irish coast is a place to be respected. Rounding Fastnet Rock is spectacular, a mythical place for competitors, a place marking the run for home.

After navigating safely around the Rock then comes the Isles of Scilly where the fleet pass to the south this time while navigating through two TSS zones and enormous tides. From there it’s a 100 nautical mile sprint back around the Lizard heading towards the finish in Plymouth. And just like the start, the Plymouth finish has its own challenges with fickle breeze in the evenings and tricky areas of tide and current testing competitors literally until the moment they cross the line.

What about the culture surrounding the Fastnet Race? How is a Fastnet different than, say, the Caribbean 600 in terms of culture. They’re both 600-milers that are organized by the RORC, so they are fairly similar, right?

Yes and No is the simplest answer. Yes, [they’re] both 600nm’lers and both run by the RORC, but we do see a different crowd in both events.

Firstly, the Fastnet is a milestone event for so many of our competitors, potentially something they have been working towards for a long time. It’s also a Cat 2 race so everything is a little bit harder than doing a RORC Caribbean 600.

We find there is a great sense of comradery in both events, like so much of offshore racing, but I would say that in the Caribbean, although the racing is as tough (some may say harder at times), there is definitely a more relaxed party atmosphere to the general competitor group.

Of course this is enormously helped by the race starting and finishing in the same location. That’s also not to say there isn’t an enormous party in Plymouth, of course there is, but I think people have invested more into their Fastnet campaigns and the general relief in finishing is palpable.

Looking at the entry list, do you have any pre-race favorites? What about any intriguing dark horses?

Watch the Cookson 50’s, there [are] seven of them this year and I haven’t known too many races where they don’t feature in the chocolates. Wizard is also back from the Caribbean 600 win [sailed] the Transatlantic [Race 2019] from Newport to Cowes, they have to be right up there again. Then there is the JPKs, I would think any of the 1180s or potentially the new 1030 may pull out something magical.

After that its truly anyone’s game and it’s all guessing until we are in that last week and we know the weather.

Conditions-wise, what’s typical for this regatta? Also, what are the best-case and worst-case scenarios?

Summer sea breezes along the coast and anything from 12-20 knots on most days. In truth, it’s so variable depending on where you are in the race. Storms are always there, with the severity changing daily. Typically, competitors see a lot of conditions and use a lot of sails.

Has Fastet always been welcoming to cutting-edge machines such as foiling (or semi-foiling) Ultimes and other hardware exotica? Also, provided that conditions prove favorable, how confident are you that a competitor such as Francois Gabart will foil off with a new race record this summer?

I am pretty confident that an Ultim is going to break the multihull record. Thomas Coville’s new Sodebo is the unknown beast here and will ultimately pressure Francois [Gabart] around the course. I would say the race amongst the Ultim’s themselves will ensure a race record there.

Can you tell us about any steps that you and the other event organizers have taken in the last couple years to help green-up the race or otherwise lower its environmental wake?

This year we focus on doing away with the plastic, no to bow stickers, no to plastic bags or non-recyclables. We encourage competitors to use reusable bottles with our provided water stations, we try to dispense with the unnecessary use of paper and now even use hessian bags. And, of course, we are a club that insists on people taking their trash with them, on and off the water.

Follow the race website: www.RolexFastnetRace.com

#RolexFastnetRace

Live streaming of the start - RORC Facebook Live: @royaloceanracingclub

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