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World's fastest offshore racing yachts join Rolex Fastnet Race fleet

by James Boyd / RORC 15 Jun 2023 21:23 PDT 22 July 2023
Two of the world's fastest offshore racing yachts will battle for multiihull line honours in this year's Rolex Fastnet Race - including Armel le Cleac'h's Ultim trimaran Banque Populaire XI © Jérémie Lecaudey / BPCE

The Ultim trimarans are set to become especially newsworthy over the next months with the first ever race for five of these extreme 32m long by 23m wide flying trimarans, around the world, non-stop, singlehanded, setting sail from Brest, France on 7 January next year.

Before then two of the main contenders will be leading the charge on the rather shorter 695 mile Rolex Fastnet Race, which sets sail from Cowes on 22 July. SVR-Lazartigue and Banque Populaire XI are skippered by two titans of offshore racing, Francois Gabart and Armel le Cleac'h respectively. Both are Vendée Globe winners (Gabart 2012, le Cleac'h 2016). Le Cleac'h is part of the exclusive club of triple winners of La Solitaire du Figaro (the unofficial world championship of solo offshore racing). He has been racing Ultims since 2013, this being his second boat. Similarly, Gabart joined the Ultim class in 2015 winning many events with his MACIF trimaran, culminating in his record for sailing singlehanded non-stop around the world of just 42d 16h 40m 35s, incredibly just under two days shy of the fully crewed record.

Gabart has competed in the Rolex Fastnet Race twice before, winning on his IMOCA MACIF in 2013 and then, in 2019, leading into the Plymouth finish line aboard his Ultim trimaran, only to be pipped at the post by Groupe Edmond de Rothschild, finishing less than one minute astern. "That was a little disappointing," Gabart admits.

For Le Cleac'h this will be his fourth Rolex Fastnet Race having competed in it twice on his IMOCA and once before on his previous Banque Populaire Ultim. However, like Gabart, he is very familiar with the Fastnet Rock and Celtic Sea: "In the Figaro we have a lot of legs and races with the Fastnet as a mark, so I know the difficulties of this course."

So what do the French offshore racing titans think of the Rolex Fastnet Race? Gabart: "It is part of sailing history. Even as a kid sailing Optimists, you hear about the Fastnet Race. Then you grow up and learn what it is and it becomes something that you want to do. In France it is not as well-known as the Route du Rhum or Vendée Globe, but people have heard about it, especially now it is a 'little bit more French' (ie it finishes in Cherbourg). And it is way older than the French races - it is a classic like the America's Cup. It is also a story with some good and bad sides - I am thinking about 1979."

Le Cleac'h: "The Rolex Fastnet Race is a real mythical race. I knew this race when I was young because my father followed it. Although he never sailed it, he explained it's dramatic history, including 1979 and the storm. The start is incredible: all those boats on the line - it is the only place in the world where you can experience this. The race has such a long history, I am very happy to be here this year because it is the 50th edition. I am very proud of my team and my boat that we might be the first boat to finish."

Both skippers enjoy the fact that by racing in the Rolex Fastnet Race they are part of an event that involves all echelons of the yacht racing community, from amateurs through to the top professionals.

Neither of these Ultims competed in the 2021 race, when Charles Caudrelier and Franck Cammas on Maxi Edmond de Rothschild established the record for the new course to Cherbourg of 1d 9h 14m 54s. Their Ultims are more than capable of bettering this - both are contemplating Jules Verne Trophy attempts where the next step is to sail non-stop around the world fully crewed, not in 80 days, but in under 40. Similarly, the 14-year-old outright record for the most miles covered in 24 hours (908.2 miles/average speed 37.84 knots), is also capable of being broken, given enough runway with suitable conditions and the will. If pressed, the latest Ultims could cover 1000 miles in a day (average speed 41.6 knots).

The top speed on Banque Populaire XI for example to date is 47 knots, but it is not top speed but high average speeds that Le Cleac'h says is the objective. "40-42 knots for one or two hours is very good, or 35-37 knots for 24 hours. We know that it is possible with our boat if the conditions are good." The performance of the Ultims has taken a massive leap in recent years, since new foil configurations have enabled them to fly. For Banque Populaire XI getting airborne requires 12-13 knots of wind/22-23 knots of boat speed. Ideal conditions are no more than 20 knots as above this the sea state becomes too rough to use the foils effectively. Upwind in 15-17 knots Banque Populaire XI flies and will be making 27-30 knots. "That is the big step forward compared to the last Ultims, and that difference is very important compared to the older generation Ultims."

Another match race in the Multihull class will be between the two MOD70 trimarans. Although originally a one design class, these are now all out of class, many, for example, fitted with improved foils. Eric Defert's Axciss Group (ex-Race For Water) will line up against one of the most optimised MOD70s - Frenchman Erik Maris' Zoulou. Originally Jean-Pierre Dick's Paprec Recyclage, this MOD70 achieved most as Tony Lawson's Team Concise when it won multihull line honours in the 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race, before becoming Peter Cunningham's Powerplay, winning the 2020 RORC Caribbean 600. Present owner Erik Maris had a long history in keelboats before transitioning to multihulls, passing through many classes such as the Extreme 40, D35 and TF35, but spending almost a decade racing GC32 flying catamarans on the GC32 Racing Tour.

Maris personally has ancient memories of the Fastnet Race from when he competed in the 1987 Admiral's Cup as part of the Belgium/France B team. As he puts it: "It is simply the greatest offshore race in world, alongside the Rolex Sydney Hobart."

While the Ultims are about to make headlines, more discretely on the ascent are the Ocean 50 trimarans. Formerly known as the Multi50, these are smaller versions of the ORMA 60s that originated in the 1980s and raced until 2007, when they were replaced by the MOD70s. Ocean 50s have competed in the previous Rolex Fastnet Races, but recently the class has been growing in France with a race programme including the class' own Pro Sailing Tour series (now in its third season), plus the major French classics such as the Route du Rhum and Transat Jacques Vabre and, this year, the Rolex Fastnet Race.

An Ocean 50 has a 15-15.24m LOA by 15.24m max beam platform with a 23.7m air draft, 3.5m draft and a minimum displacement of 3.2 tonnes. The class has strict materials limitations so, for example, hulls must be constructed in glass but carbon fibre reinforcement is permitted. Six foils are permitted and this includes mandatory one design C-foils fitted in the floats.

On July's start line will be an unprecedented eight boats, including the highly experienced Erwan Le Roux, winner of last year's Route du Rhum and this year's Pro Sailing Tour with his 2020 generation VPLP design Koesio. Newest boat will be Seb Rogues' Primonial, designed by Romaric Neyhousser (part of Guillaume Verdier's design team) and due for imminent launch. Rogues won the Class 40 in the Rolex Fastnet Race in 2013.

Meanwhile new to the class is Anglo-Frenchman Luke Berry who for this season has graduated up from the Class40 to the Ocean 50 with his 2009 vintage boat Le Rire Médecin - Lamotte. Berry won the Rolex Fastnet Race in the Class40 in 2019 but was pipped to the post in 2021, finishing third.

After two cycles in the Class40 Berry says: "I could sense there was an opportunity to move up and some of my sponsors were looking for new adventures, so we managed to put all that together just after the Route du Rhum last year." Berry's campaign is backed by numerous smaller sponsors (20 in total and rising) but has one of the smallest budgets. Despite being older, his boat has had a strong track record recently, winning the 2018 Route du Rhum with Armel Tripon (racing in this year's Rolex Fastnet Race aboard his 2013 vintage Neyhousser-designed Kombawa) and previously having been campaigned by Seb Rogues, who won the Transat Jacques Vabre aboard her in 2021. Berry says that the latest Ocean 50s have a similar performance to the last generation ORMA 60s from 15 years ago.

Berry is just coming to terms with the transition from monohull to trimaran, but has with him experience in the form of talented multihull sailor Antoine Joubert.

Of the Rolex Fastnet Race he says: "I have done the real Fastnet three times, plus many Normandy Channel Races and many Mini Fastnets - I love it, it is a great race. It is never over until you are over the finish line, as we discovered last time when we were first all the way up to Alderney, only to be pipped at the post, which was frustrating."

The 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race will have the greatest line-up of French multihulls gathered outside of France.

The 50th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race starts from Cowes, Isle of Wight on Saturday 22nd July. For further information, please go to the Rolex Fastnet Race website:

Race entry list available here.

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