They say you should never meet your heroes, lest they be found to be merely mortal. Yet one of sailing’s rarest qualities is that there are a handful of events where the ordinary weekend racer can line up against their yachting idols, even if they don’t expect to meet them after.
For few events is this truer than the biennial Rolex Fastnet Race. The time frames may vary hugely – this year the fastest boat completed the course in just 28 hours, the slowest took over six days – and so the weather experienced by the line honours yachts and small boats may be wildly different, but the course – 605 miles from Cowes to Plymouth around the Fastnet Rock – is identical.
First timers and school crews set off from the same start line as sailors like François Gabart, Dean Barker, Sam Davies and Jimmy Spithill on Saturday 3 August. This is no small part of the race’s huge appeal – entries sold out in four minutes and 13 seconds this year, with a record fleet of 388 boats starting.
The other big draws include the course itself, a famously tactical route dodging tidal gates along the south coast of England, and slaloming around Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS) zones before – usually – beating into the Celtic Sea to round the iconic Fastnet Rock lighthouse and turn for home.
There is also the respect that this true blue riband event earns, and demands. This year, 2019, was the 40th anniversary of the 1979 tragedy. While the race may be held in August (and a week earlier than usual this year) competitors were never more keenly aware that beyond Land’s End there is no guarantee of balmy summer conditions and very few places to hide. To compete in the Fastnet is to test yourself, and your yacht.
This year’s race was a heady experience for Pip Hare, sailing her IMOCA 60 Pip Hare Ocean Racing, who not only lined up against her heroes but had the surreal experience of leading them on the water. Hare was competing in the 20-boat double-handed IMOCA 60 fleet with race co-skipper Paul Larsen.
The Rolex Fastnet Race is a qualifier for next year’s Vendée Globe and was a key test event for many of the most innovative and highly funded IMOCA teams in the world: Jérémie Beyou with the new VPLP-designed foiling Charal; Samantha Davies on Initiatives Couer with its enormous latest generation foils; Vendée Globe winner Armel le Cleac’h on Banque Populaire. Against them Hare was sailing the oldest boat in the fleet; her 2000 non-foiling design, light years behind in development terms.
With a transition zone of light winds forecast for the first night at sea, many of the bigger boats, including the bulk of the IMOCA fleet, headed out into the Channel in the hope of picking up new south-westerly pressure. Not so Pip and Paul, who went for a more coastal route to pick up a light northerly breeze while the rest faded to a near-standstill.
Their decision was rewarded with an overall class lead for the first day of racing – not only on the theoretical tracker line, but also sailing past the Lizard first on the water before the faster foiling designs overhauled them.
“We were leading Class IMOCA until four miles off the Scillies, we were ahead of all those guys and it was just absolutely incredible,” said an elated Hare after the race. “At one stage we were winning on line honours.”
“My computer had crashed, and we were just laughing at the fact that I have an old boat, an inherited sail wardrobe, I was navigating on my phone, we’re on a scratch budget, and we still led the fleet.”
Inevitably, the latest generation foilers pulled away on the long leg out to the Rock, with Beyou’s Charal taking the class win into Plymouth.
Million euro match race
Meanwhile, as the IMOCA fleet powered their way towards Ireland, the Ultimes were on their final approach to the finish in Plymouth.
Ahead of the race there had been speculation that the mighty foiling Ultimes – Macif, Sodebo and Maxi Edmond de Rothschild – could decimate the course record. But the initial forecasts looked distinctly unpromising – with light winds at the start, and stronger following breezes only forecast for the slowest classes.
In the event the transition zone was smaller, and the new south-westerlies and westerlies much stronger, than many had predicted, making for a faster race for the big boats – and a tougher one for the smaller yachts.
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