France dominates the non-IRC classes
With events such as the Vendee Globe and Route du Rhum, as well as being the hotbed of IMOCA 60, Class 40 and Figaro racing, having conceived the world’s fastest offshore multihulls and winning the last Volvo Ocean Race, France is safely the world’s top nation when it comes to offshore racing. In addition to French entries dominating many of the IRC classes, they represent the majority in the non-IRC classes competing in this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race, which sets sail from Cowes tomorrow lunchtime.
This year’s biennial race to Plymouth via the Fastnet Rock off southern Ireland features some of the very best sailors from across the Channel, including Michel Desjoyeaux, PRB skipper Vincent Riou and Francois Gabart. Between them they have won the last four Vendee Globes. The podium from the 2012-3 Vendee are also competing with Gabart back on his winning IMOCA 60 MACIF and Alex Thomson and his third placed Hugo Boss. Armel le Cleac’h, who arrived back in Les Sables d’Olonne second this spring, has graduated up to skipper the 31.5m long trimaran Banque Populaire for this race.
Michel Desjoyeaux is the world’s most successful shorthanded offshore sailor having twice won the Vendee Globe, but also the Transat, the Route du Rhum and the prestigious La Solitaire du Figaro no less than three times. This year’s race, which he is sailing on MACIF with his protégé Francois Gabart, is only his second Rolex Fastnet Race, but represents the 20th anniversary of his first – aboard the Whitbread maxi ketch, La Poste. However he says he is very familiar with the course, the Celtic Sea and the Fastnet Rock, sailing in other classes in France such as the Figaro and the MOD70.
Desjoyeaux says he first heard of the Fastnet race when he was 14. “Two of my brothers were here with Half Tonners and they phoned home on the morning of the start and they said we’re coming back to France because there was a big storm coming. That was 1979. A few hours after that we heard on the radio that there was a big problem with a lot of boats damaged.”
Francois Gabart nearly sailed the race in 2007 aboard the ORMA 60 trimaran Sopra Group, but with bad weather forecast the competition was cancelled for his class on that occasion. So this will be the 30-year-old's first Rolex Fastnet Race, but like MichDes he knows the course well from his time in the Figaro class. He is pleased to be back in the Solent because the hull of his IMOCA 60 MACIF was built at Green Marine in Hythe.
“The Fastnet is one of the most famous offshore races. I wasn’t born in 1979, but I heard a lot about it, it is a huge race. I remember when I first sailed to the Fastnet - it was something big, so I am very happy to do this race for the first time,” says Gabart.
His steed MACIF is in much the same trim as the Vendee Globe, only her mast has been replaced and she has her pre-Vendee sail wardrobe on board.
Gabart says he likes the format of the Rolex Fastnet Race. “One of the very important things in this race is the mix of professional and amateur sailors. In France we have the Trophee SNSM which is similar, with 100 boats, but with small and big ones.”
Eight IMOCA 60s are competing in this year’s race, all of them being sailed doublehanded in preparation for this autumn’s Transat Jacques Vabre race.
For German Jörg Riechers this will not only be his first Rolex Fastnet Race, but also his first major race aboard his new IMOCA 60, mare, previously Michel Desjoyeaux's 2008 Vendee Globe winner, Foncia. Riechers is the world’s busiest offshore sailors as he simultaneously competes in the Mini, Class40 and the IMOCA classes. A less than three weeks ago he returned from competing in Les Sables-Azores-Les Sables race in the mare Class40, and since then has squeezed in the Transgascoigne aboard the mare Mini.
“When I was young I dreamed of doing the Admiral's Cup, which was strongly connected to the Rolex Fastnet Race, but I never had the chance because it disappeared before I came along! But it’s cool – it is a classic race. You get the trimarans, the IMOCA 60s and the Class40s and all the IRC boats. It is the gathering of the best boats in the world."
17 boats are competing in the Class40, and unlike the IMOCA60s they are being sailed with a full crew. Among them the favourite is probably Sebastien Rogues on his Mach40 EDF Suez, recent winner of the Les Sables-Azores-Les Sables race.
Rogues admits that this is his first participation. “The Rolex Fastnet Race is a mythical race, like the Sydney-Hobart. You have to do it at least once in your life. It has a long history, and there have been some very hard/tough races. I am very honoured to be participating.
“My boat is very well prepared, but I have never raced with so many participants. It's a good race to see the level of competition in the other Class40s and it's a very good exercise before the Transat Jacques Vabre.”
Many will be following the Class40 as it represents the race debut for two new models of this box rule class, with Spanish former World Champion Gonzalo Botin competing on Tales II, a new design from his Emirates Team New Zealand naval architect brother, Marcellino, while the Austrian-flagged Vaquita is the latest Class40 from Tom Humphreys (son of Rob). On Tales II is eminent Spanish navigator Nacho Postigo, who has spent most of the summer here, following on from the Gazprom Swan Europeans.
Damien Seguin is also taking part on his new Akilaria RC3, Des Pieds Et Des Mains, which is so brand new that is has yet to measure as a Class40 and so is competing under IRC. Interestingly, aside from being Class40 skippers, both he and competitor Bruno Jourdren, skipper of Lord Jiminy, are also world class paralympic sailors, both silver medallists in Beijing, while Seguin won gold in the 2.4mR in Athens.
The turn-out in the smaller 32ft Figaro class is growing with a strong turn out from the Artemis Offshore Academy. The race is particular special for Rockfish skipper Henry Bomby.
“The first time I sailed a Figaro was in the Fastnet two years ago," he recalls. "Then that summer I got selected for the Academy. If I’d know then that in the next two years I have would done two Solitaire du Figaros and started to get my sponsors I would have been pretty happy.”
His sponsor Rockfish, run by celebrity chef Mitch Tonks, has recently opened a new restaurant in Plymouth very close to where the Rolex Fastnet Race will moor at Plymouth Yacht Haven.
“It is the biggest event for my sponsor because we finish in Plymouth where the new restaurant is and all of my sponsors are from the southwest so it is a big event for me, so I am trying to do well and hoping to get on the podium,” says Bomby.
Most of the new recruits to the Artemis Offshore Academy are also competing in the Figaro class, Sam Goodchild, the leading British finisher in this year’s La Solitaire du Figaro is competing in the Class40 aboard Peter Harding’s 40 Degrees.
Weather is currently at the forefront of competitor’s minds as this will dictate their fortunes over the next few days.
Typically the forecast benefits either the big boats or the small boats, but this year race meteorologist Chris Tibbs says it is far from clear whether either of these groups will come out on top.
According to Tibbs, the start and first stage leaving to around St Albans Head are likely to be in southwesterlies before the wind starts veering into the northwest, making for a starboard tack-biased beat down the West Country coast. Significant for the bigger half of the fleet, is that the wind is currently forecast to stay in the northwest making for a full beat across the Celtic Sea and then a dead run back to Bishop’s Rock, with a broad reach on to the finish in Plymouth in relatively light breeze.
The wind only frees up for boats outbound to the Rock, when it backs into the west on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. The slower boats which won’t be crossing the Celtic Sea outbound to the Rock until then will be in for a fast reach across and back, but they may get held up depending on the movement of a ridge of high pressure due to encroach into the mid-southern Channel area on Thursday.
Chris Tibbs believes that this year’s race could be one for the 35-40 footers.