Rolex Fastnet's “Coup De Cherbourg”
Yacht Style|Issue 61
Fierce sou’west winds gusting 30 knots greeted 337 yachts starting the Rolex Fastnet Race, as the 49th edition of this famous offshore classic set off not for Plymouth as usual, but for Cherbourg in France, via Ireland’s Fastnet Rock.
Bruce Maxwell

Wind against tide created a vicious chop as they left the Solent, between the Isle of Wight and the English Coast, and the first of 95 yachts began to retire. The attrition rate is always high in this event, and trophies offered for circa 250 crews who complete the course require considerable stamina to achieve.

Ahead lay a patch of fog and some surprising calms, the rounding of Fastnet Rock off Cork in Ireland, and the newly-included, very tricky Alderney tidal “race”, which can run up to 9 knots, before a 1,600-berth maxi marina in Normandy beckoned.

It was a race like none other, since the Fastnet began in 1925, and Royal Ocean Racing Club organizers seem to be regarding it as a tryout for yet more changes planned for the historic 50th Rolex Fastnet Race in 2023.

No longer would the English traditionally gather on Plymouth Hoe, where Sir Francis Drake reputedly dallied over a game of bowls in 1588 before dealing with the invading Spanish Armada, to watch their yachtsmen finish the 608-miler.

Instead, non-French entrants would be packing their passports and tackling a course that is now officially 695 nm, and given the upwind beats and other vicissitudes of the Channel and Celtic Sea, most would sail well over 800 nm before sipping a local calvados or two.

Facilities in Plymouth were admittedly getting a little thin to handle really large fleets, although this pleasant naval city still hosts smaller regattas such as SailGP the previous month. Cherbourg by contrast has a four-basin marina in the city center, developed in 1975, that can accommodate the visiting yachts, and was keen to do so.

French racers triumphed in nine of the 11 classes in the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race, although they didn’t achieve such an almost clean-sweep this time. The French public is also seen, arguably, to be more supportive of yacht racing, particularly of in-vogue multihulls, so the RORC, which includes French members, was won over to Cherbourg for 2021 and 2023, and probably beyond.

Twelve classes were listed, being IRC Overall, IRC Zero, IRC 1-4, IRC Double-Handed, Class40, Open Multihull, MOCRA Multihull, IMOCA 60, and Figaro 111. IRC 1-4 was sub-divided into A and B Classes, and IRC per se forms the nucleus of the Rolex Fastnet Fleet. The premier trophy goes to the IRC Overall winner.

Class40s introduced this millennium are designed for shorthanded offshore sailing and are very popular. Similarly, multihulls have come to the fore, although obviously, they can’t race fairly against monohulls. A few giant Ultimes have recently entered the event. The IMOCA 60s stem from the recent Vendée Globe round-the-world race. These monohulls have some foiling ability that is developed from canting keels and America’s Cuppers, but they require elite pro crew, and there are still safety concerns in a heavier seaway.

Another factor RORC had to deal with was the pandemic. English restrictions were lifted literally on the morning of the race, so several pre-race bases had to be set up in Cherbourg, Hamble and Cowes to handle “situations arising”.

It became a very European affair, whereas in the past, America, Australia, and even Hong Kong have played a prominent part. New Zealand, Singapore and an ex-pat side from Papua New Guinea have competed too, and Japan had an entry.

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