ROLEX FASTNET RACE: PERSEVERANCE PAYS

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The 46th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race deserves to be memorable. An anniversary year, it attracted a record fleet of 356 yachts; it provided a mix of weather that tested tactics, seamanship, determination and, on occasion, patience; and, significantly it was won by one of the sport’s unsung heroes: a yachtsman who has quietly gone about his business winning races and regattas without fuss in a manner that reflects well on the spirit of the sport. The victory of Géry Trentesaux and his talented crew on the 35-foot Courrier du Leon may not have been as remarkable as the last edition’s double-handed version, but they are worthy winners of the trophy. Sailors who understand the sport, competing to challenge themselves as much as testing their ability against their peers. Winners who properly embellish the already rich folklore and history of the Rolex Fastnet Race.

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The 46th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race was always destined to be special. 2015 marks the 90th anniversary of the first ever race held in 1925. Race organizers, the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC), are also celebrating. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the club’s founding in the days following the first race with the avowed intent “to encourage long-distance yacht racing”. The biennial Rolex Fastnet spearheads the club’s adherence to this ambition. The race’s size, stature, reputation and longevity are testament to a job well done.

RORC Commodore Michael Boyd, who competed this year on Quokka 8, remarked that: “The 46th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race in our 90th year is very special for us. We had a record number of entries and starters, an amazing collection of races within races and different classes with wonderful outcomes. We’ve an incredible winner. We could see she was good, but we did not know quite how good she was. If anything this race will have enhanced the prospect of another record turnout in two years time.”

The race and RORC are not the only ones to be celebrating anniversaries this year. The Royal Yacht Squadron, which traditionally hosts the start of the race from its historic clubhouse in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, is enjoying its bicentenary. The start of the 2015 Rolex Fastnet offered another focal point for a seemingly yearlong round of festivities. Rolex is a long-term partner of both yacht clubs, as well as the race which it has supported since 2001.

The timing of these significant anniversaries served to add greater attraction to an already popular race. In recent years there has been considerable pressure on the RORC to open the doors to more entries. The cap of 300, set in the aftermath of the 1979 tragedy, was finally matched in 2009, and then breached in 2011 and 2013 as the club found ways to extend the opportunity to as many yachts as wished to enter. This year the limit for the IRC fleet – those competing for the overall prize of the Fastnet Challenge Trophy and Rolex Timepiece – was set at 340, with provision for a further 50 yachts sailing for their own prizes – the so-called professional classes: multihulls, IMOCA 60s, Class 40s and Figaros.

When the doors opened the entries flooded in. The IRC list was filled in 24 minutes. In 2013, it took 24 hours. The arduous qualification process that yachts and crews are rightly required to fulfil took its toll, with an eventual total starting number of 356 yachts, including 312 yachts competing for the main prize. An entry list that improved on 2013s record fleet shows offshore racing is in rude health, reflecting the spirit of endeavour and personal challenge that courses through the veins of the sailing world. Michael Boyd, again, “Seven boats went out in 1925. They said their primary objective was to have fun. If you look at the beaming smiles of this year’s competitors and you hear the reports from each individual yacht I think in general they have had great fun. We are providing what they want. We make it hard for them to compete. We insist they are safe and well prepared. Some complain but they know it’s worthwhile.”

The race might not be recorded in the annals as a true classic. The weather gods were not kind. To begin with there was little to no wind. When the breeze did arrive it was accompanied by driving rain, mist or drizzle, and on occasion mizzle a particular brand of soaking fashioned in the south west reaches of the United Kingdom. It was a challenging race rather than a hard one. The first couple of days in relatively light airs and bright sunshine, and then a second half with a classic beat to the Fastnet and run back to the finish off Plymouth.

The maxi multihull Spindrift 2 was expected to obliterate her opposition that for the most part were close to half her 131 feet (40 metres) of length or shorter. It was a close run thing with Prince de Bretagne having the impertinence to threaten her lead particularly as they rounded the Scillies on the return leg. The Swiss trimaran, co-skipperd by Dona Bertarelli and Yann Guichard, eventually crossed the line at 22:57:41 BST in an elapsed time of 2 days, 10 hours, 57 minutes and 41 seconds, more than a day outside of her own record, set in the 2011 race.

In the monohull fleet, the line honours contest looked to be a foregone conclusion with Jim Clark and Kristy Hinze Clark’s Comanche, the 100-foot American yacht launched in 2014 and widely regarded as the fastest maxi yacht in the sailing world today, up against the older, heavier 100-footer Leopard (a former line honours winner and former course record holder) and the shorter, but also recently launched, 88-footer Rambler.

Comanche requires wind to show her true potential. In a race generally shorn of breeze for the first two days, skipper Ken Read and his seasoned, professional crew were unable to shake the annoying attention of Rambler. The race between these two unexpectedly went to the wire with Comanche arriving at Plymouth Breakwater a mere four and a half minutes ahead. “It was honestly one of the most bizarre races I’ve ever been in my life – starts and stops and people being left behind for dead and then all of a sudden they are sailing around you – it was phenomenal,” commented Read. Rambler 88 owner George David was more than satisfied by the performance of his smaller boat. “It was a light air race,” explained David. “It took us forever to get around the rock. For us to be within a few minutes (of Comanche) is remarkable.”

The race for overall victory was a complex affair. For a while it looked as though the lack of wind would play into the hands of the larger yachts, whose taller masts and bigger sail plans would enable them to sail faster and find more breeze – if it existed. Dieter Schoen’s Momo sailed a phenomenal debut race. Conceding plenty of waterline length and technology to her canting keeled, maxi rivals at the front of the fleet, the Maxi 72 crossed the line in fourth place and for a while looked a good bet for overall victory. It was not to be. Freshening winds at the Fastnet rock stabilized across the course and offered renewed hope to the smaller yachts, many of who had not rounded the rock by the time Momo docked in Plymouth.

Courrier du Leon’s start to the Rolex Fastnet Race was less than stellar. In a light wind race, starting too early and wasting 40 minutes sailing back to unwind the error would have proved fatal to most crews. If Trentesaux was angered by his error he did not show it. Instead he and his crew set about repairing the damage and gaining ground on their opposition at every opportunity.

The 56 year-old Frenchman was starting his 13th Rolex Fastnet Race since his first in 1977. Experience counts and Trentesaux was ably supported by an exceptional crew of six, five of whom have sailed with him regularly since 1999. “The Fastnet is an endurance race, like the 24 Heures du Mans. It is not important how you start, but how you finish,” reflected Trentesaux. “This year there was not much wind predicted, and the start was without wind, so it was more complicated than in previous years. We had to find the wind, to position ourselves well and not give anything away.”

“I did my first Fastnet in 1977 and it was very slow. I was on a Nicholson 51 and we needed seven days to finish the race. I also raced in 1979,” said Trentesaux shortly after his victory was confirmed. “When I was young the Fastnet was the biggest, most unique race in the world so racing it at 18 was fabulous. Things have changed a lot over 40 years but this will be a very great memory, one of the very best of my sailing career. It is incredible to win this mythic race.”

The 2015 Rolex Fastnet Race will be remembered in years to come. It delivered the test that is expected of a 600 nm offshore race. Individuals and crews rose to the challenge, exhibiting all the characteristics required to succeed in this most demanding of disciplines in yacht racing. Only ten yachts were forced to retire from the record fleet and that alone is sufficient proof of the spirit of perseverance that dominated this year’s race and characterized those which came before it.

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