Up, up and away
The record-sized Rolex Fastnet Race fleet set sail from Cowes in classic conditions – a beat westward up the Solent in a building WSWerly and sunshine, but with an ominous looking cloud line over the mainland.
In the end there were 314 starters, still the largest fleet ever to start the Rolex Fastnet Race following the previous record of 303 in 1979.
The first start at 1100 BST saw the giant multihulls heading off. Fastest out of the blocks were Gitana 11, the ORMA 60 trimaran elongated to 77ft and now skippered by Vendee Globe and Volvo Ocean Race skipper Seb Josse and Roland Jourdain’s MOD70 Veolia Environnement. With round the world yachtswoman Dee Caffari manning her aft grinders, the other MOD70, Steve Ravussin’s Race For Water, was over the line early and had to restart.
Visible from most parts of the Solent with her 40m long hulls and 47m tall mast, the world’s fastest and largest offshore race 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.
Next up were the IMOCA 60 monohulls and by the Needles Marc Guillemot and Yann Elies sailing Safran doublehanded were leading the newer generation boats. This duo is of note as while sailing round the world singlehanded in the last Vendee Globe while deep in the Southern Ocean Elies broke his leg and Guillemot went to assist in his rescue.
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 was a nose ahead of the two Kiwi 40s Roaring Forty 2 of Belgium round the world sailor Michel Kleinjans and Peraspera. Shortly after passing through Hurst Narrows there was disaster for Marco Nannini’s 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 Andrew Fennell’s 43ft trimaran Strontium Dog, that also suffered a dismasting.
The most impressive display funnelling its way through Hurst Narrows at around 1300 were the smaller IRC boats slowly being overhauled by the larger boats that started at 10 minute intervals. Doing well in IRC 1 was the Ker 46 Tonnerre de Breskens, 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. “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-skippered Farr 80 Beau Geste appeared to be doing well, leading her class through Hurst narrows ahead of the two silver streak Mini Maxis - Niklas Zennström’s J-V 72 Ràn with Andres Soriano’s Mills 68 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 the only time they will prior to the start of the round the world race proper. While all three were close coming through Hurst Narrows, it was Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, skippered by double Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker that was leading former round the world race winner Mike Sanderson on Team Sanya, with Franck Cammas’ Groupama 4 bringing up the rear.
There was a 'hurrah' from 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 100ft ICAP Leopard (GBR) ahead of the more highly-rated Rambler 100 of American George David. The reason for this was that 10 minutes after the gun (the big boat and Volvo Open 70s started last at 1310 BST), Rambler had split her J2 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 Brian Cooper’s First 375 Little Spirit suffered damage to her forestay during a collision with the Bavaria 44 Emerald Star and was forced to retire, as was John Twiggs’s JOD 35 Howling Monkey holed in a collision with Stephen Morris’ J/109 Jambo!. Chris Frost’ 54ft Prodigy also retired, but with main sail damage.
Conditions for the bulk of the fleet tonight should be relatively quick, 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.
From Carlo Borlenghi/Rolex: