Rolex Fastnet Race change
The Rolex Fastnet Race sets sail this Sunday with a fleet of 348 boats (in fact now 346) from 20 nations competing in the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s Rolex Fastnet Race. This size of fleet represents a new record entry for the 611 mile biennial race.
While the rest of the yacht racing world remains at best static in terms of participation, the Rolex Fastnet Race represents a phenomenal success story with the initial entry having to close less than 24 hours after opening due to the extreme demand.
“When fleet numbers are down everywhere it is a little bit difficult to understand,” says Commodore of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, Mike Greville, himself competing in what will be his 16th Rolex Fastnet Race. “We have the professional crews, but the bulk of the fleet are just amateurs, here because they want to do it, because of the adventure, the achievement, it being on their bucket list. For some people it is their Everest. Or there are people like me for whom it is like a pilgrimage.”
This year once again the fleet is divided into boats competing for the overall handicap prize for winning the Rolex Fastnet Race under IRC rating. This represents the bulk of the fleet with 300 boats taking part. Another 48 boats are competing in addition to this. These are mostly high profile race boats, including the two world fastest multihulls, the IMOCA 60s that compete in the singlehanded Vendee Globe and the mostly French Class 40 and Figaro shorthanded classes. Among the IMOCA fleet are the winners of the last four Vendee Globe races, Michel Desjoyeaux, Vincent Riou and Francois Gabart, while expected to lead the charge around the race course is the world fastest offshore racing boat, Spindrift 2, the 40m long trimaran that holds the record of the most number of miles sailed in one day - 907 miles or an average of 37.84 knots.
There have been a number of changes made for this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race. This includes changing the orientation of the start line off the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes. This has now been shifted more to the west, making the Isle of Wight end of the line less favoured.
“It allows us to have a spectator zone along the Green, and it will help protect those people who want to go out watch the race. Hopefully it will make it a good spectacle while keeping it nice and safe and even across the start line.”
The host in Plymouth has also changed with the boats now mooring at Plymouth Yacht Haven. “We have a record entry and we need a bigger marina – Plymouth Yacht Haven does that for us,” explains CEO of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, Eddie Warden Owen. “It may be outside of the city centre, but it has all the facilities and it has a race village there and we welcome everyone to come down there.”
From a racing perspective the biggest change has come about due to a modification to the latest Racing Rules of Sailing published earlier this year. Traffic Separation Scheme must be crossed 90° but recently the Maritime Coastguard Agency has taken a much tougher line on boats contravening this while boats can also be protested (as was the case famously off La Coruna in the Vendee Globe). However as within races this issue is self policing one could imagine the potential nightmare scenario with a race for 350 or boats, and a course where it is possible to infringe three TSSes.
To side step this issue, the TSSes on the Rolex Fastnet Race race course have now been deemed ‘exclusion zones’. As a result competing yachts are simply banned from entering or crossing them. This effects where the yachts sail to the west of the Scilly Isles and to the south of the Fastnet Rock, with the biggest diversion going to the west of the Longships TSS off Land’s End. Avoiding these will add around 8 miles to the race course.
Mike Greville explains: “It is practically impossible for race organisers to enforce the rules of the TSS. Ultimately we decided the only way to go forward was to make them obstructions. Personally, having done a number of Fastnet Races I think this is going to change the race quite a bit, but we felt we had no choice other than to go this way.”
Ian Walker, skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, which two years ago set the present monohull record for the race, was pleased with the marginally longer course. “There is more chance our record will stand for longer!” The double Olympic silver medallist also praised the RORC for introducing the new rule. “As a skipper you don’t want to be put in a position when you have to make a choice between performance and good seamanship. We don’t like ambiguity, so I applaud the RORC for making it clear. Now we are not going to be put into a position of questioning whether we crossed a TSS at 90degs and another boat crossed it at 88deg and taken a mile out of us.”
The starts of the Rolex Fastnet Race take place over two hours starting at midday on Sunday 11 August. For the first time the start will be broadcast live on the internet. Eddie Warden Owen compares it to the start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart where the Boxing Day start is a huge television attraction. This coverage is being augmented by a deal the RORC has entered into with satellite communications provider Inmarsat who are providing their equipment to eight yachts in the Rolex Fastnet Race.
“We hope people will be able to see what it is like living aboard on an offshore racing yacht, which most people don’t understand at all,” says Admiral of the RORC, Andrew McIrvine. “We hope to be able to give them stills, video and text will be able to go each day.”
It is still too early to determine exactly how the weather for the Rolex Fastnet Race is going to pan out. According to race meteorologist Chris Tibbs, it is currently lining up to favour the smaller boats, who may have a faster run across the Celtic Sea to the Fastnet Rock while the bigger boats may be hard on the wind, into a northwesterly.
“My overall thought is that it will be neither a record breaking boat or a boat breaking race,” says Tibbs, who adds that the most wind the boats are likely to see will be 15-20 knots. However there may also be a park up for the boats at the Scilly Isles en route to the finish depending on the position of high pressure ridge.