The biggest and best offshore racing boats from around the world will be descending on the Solent for the start of the Rolex Fastnet Race, beginning from Cowes on Sunday, 11 August. At present the tally for the Royal Ocean Racing Club's flagship event, the world's largest offshore yacht race, stands at a record breaking 351. Of these, 47 are in the 'non-IRC classes' including the multihulls, Class 40s and IMOCA 60s, while the remaining 304 are gunning for the overall IRC prizes of the Fastnet Challenge Trophy and a Rolex chronometer.
Impressively, this year one third of the fleet, 119 boats are from overseas.
The boat having travelled furthest is Geoff Boettcher's Secret Men's Business 3.5, from Adelaide in South Australia. The 3.5 refers to how the boat's original hull was chopped away from the deck, and somehow replaced with an upgraded design four foot longer, now up to 51ft. This dramatic modification worked, for in 2010 she won the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.
Boettcher admits this will be his first Rolex Fastnet Race, although several of his crew, including Will Best and Andy Mieklejohn are old hands. "I did the Etchell Worlds there in 1996 and I have been saving up ever since!" he quips of his return to the UK.
Secret Men's Business 3.5 rates well under IRC and is expected to be a strong contender for the overall IRC prize. Boettcher says she is more 'offshore orientated' than the TP52s she regularly races against. As to how the Fastnet Race stacks up against the Rolex Sydney-Hobart, he hedges: "I'm sure it won't be a walk in the park. I've heard mixed reactions... I gather it is 20 miles shorter."
Also gunning for Rolex Fastnet Race honours will be Bella Mente. American Hap Fauth's 72ft Mini Maxi is certain to be a thorn in Rán 2's side, as Niklas Zennström's team attempts to become the first to ever win the Rolex Fastnet Race three times in a row: Bella Mente is a newer generation Judel-Vrolijk design and beat Rán 2 to the Mini Maxi World title last year.
Fauth admits that this will be his first Rolex Fastnet Race. "It has been on my bucket list! It is an iconic race - one of the four majors. We have won the Bermuda race. We hold the record in Transpac. We haven't done Sydney Hobart, but it is a long way to go and quite frankly too expensive for one race. I must be getting cheap in my old age!"
On board Fauth sails with a fully pro crew including Volvo Ocean Race winner Mike Sanderson, navigator Ian Moore and America's Cup veterans John Cutler and Dee Smith. "We have spent about six years developing this crew and the chemistry is terrific and a great experience base line and they work very well together. You have to have professionals, because amateurs can't practice with you. I commit about 90 days a year and a large percentage of that is practice. We practice a week before every regatta."
As to their prospects, Fauth says: "I know Rán has won the Rolex Fastet Race twice before and has just put a new fin and bulb on to optimise her offshore performance. I have been sailing against Niklas [Zennström] for a long time and have a great relationship with him. We are extremely competitive on the water - the boats rate almost evenly and are equally quick, so it is about tactics and who puts the boat in the right place the fastest. We'll have a great race."
The Russians are out in force. While some are sailing on Monster Project, the former Team Russia VO70, the most substantial Russian presence will come from the three Gazprom-backed Swan 60s, two set to be sailed by Russian crews.
Vladimir Liubomirov, Commodore of the Yacht Club of Saint-Petersburg Russia and owner of one, is looking forward to the Rolex Fastnet Race: "This is the first time we will be racing in the Rolex Fastnet Race with the Swan 60 Bronenosec and we are excited to be taking part in such a renowned and popular race.
"The crew now have experience of sailing in these waters thanks to both the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race and the Gazprom Swan 60 World Championship where we took the winning title. We also have experience of offshore racing in tough conditions, so hopefully we are prepared for all weather types. We are all looking forward to competing in the largest offshore race in the world and meeting our competition."
Hoping to be back for a return visit to the Rolex Fastnet Race after competing in 2011 is the Lithuanian team on the Volvo Ocean 60, Ambersail. The boat is owned by a collective of around 50 people and has notched up huge mileage. "We calculated roughly that we have sailed 150-180,000 miles in five years," says the team's Simonas Steponavicius. This includes the Rolex Sydney Hobart, a transatlantic race, the RORC Caribbean 600, Rolex Middle Sea Race and the Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race.
Sadly last week Ambersail, their 2001 vintage former ASSA ABLOY training boat, dismasted off her homeport of Klaipėda. According to Steponavicius they have located a replacement rig, but their chance of being on the start line is now in the hands of their insurers.
Steponavicius says he will be deeply disappointed, if Ambersail can't make it: "The Rolex Fastnet Race is one of my favourites. It is very challenging tactically and extremely interesting upwind along the coast with all the tidal gates, etc. I enjoy it very much. It is truly one of the classic races, absolutely on a par with the Sydney Hobart. I have been looking forward to doing this race since we finished the last one."
It is perhaps this widely shared sentiment that attracts such strong international entries back to compete in the world's largest offshore race again and again.