With just under forty days to the start of the Rolex Fastnet on Sunday, 9 August, the 300 registered crews are hard at work completing their qualification miles and other prerequisites. The 608 nautical-mile offshore classic has a fearsome reputation – not always lived up to – but one which deserves respect by all involved; especially in the year marking the thirtieth anniversary of the saddest chapter in the race's illustrious history.
The fleet is in excellent shape. With participants from sixteen different nations on the start-line, it will be an international gathering of the yacht-racing fraternity. The British and French make up the bulk of the fleet, but entries have been received from Hong Kong, Australia and the USA too, proving the lure of the Rolex Fastnet still crosses the oceans as it did in its earliest days.
The Americans are fielding half-dozen entries, including 2005 Rolex Sydney Hobart winner, Rosebud, owned and campaigned by Roger Sturgeon. The STP65 is an out-and-out racing machine with a pro-crew onboard, a far cry from Australia's most famous entry this time around: Alex Whitworth achieved notoriety in the sailing world for undertaking a circumnavigation of the globe with Peter Crozier that coincidentally started with the 2005 Rolex Sydney Hobart and ended at the finish of the 2006 edition of the race, after taking in the 2005 Rolex Fastnet en-route. All this in the tiny, but robust, Brolga 33, Berrimilla, a different proposition to the carbon machine that Sturgeon has at his command, but certainly an indication of the diverse nature of the competing boats.
Hong Kong's flagship is under the ownership of Karl Kwok. Kwok is one of the region's top owners and has launched a series of yachts under the name Beau Geste. 2009 sees that latest addition to the fold, an 80-foot (24-metre) Farr designed racer that steps a 38-metre, “5 spreader, cathedral in-line rig, built from high modulus carbon fibre mast, stayed with the same continuous carbon rigging as the Volvo Ocean 70s”. Hong Kong's second set of representatives will be sailing something quite different to Beau Geste. Frenchman, Denis Lazat who lives and works in Hong Kong will compete in his Pogo 40, Jumpa Lagi, half the size and around a quarter of the crew, since the Class 40s are typically sailing with five. Lazat is a member of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and all his crew are from the territory.
Italy's challenge also comes in large and small versions. Another yachting dynasty, Luna Rossa, will be part of the battle for mini-maxi supremacy alongside Rosebud and Niklas Zennstrom's Ran (GBR). The Luna Rossa name is associated most commonly with the America's Cup. Whilst Patrizio Bertelli's latest racing yacht is an STP65 and an offshore boat, expect to see many sailors from the Cup world in the pro line-up. Sadly, regular crew and Olympian Robert Scheidt will not be on board. We dip back into the Class 40s for the second Italian representative – solo round the world sailor, Giovanni Soldini, who became a hero in France when he rescued Isabelle Autissier from her upturned hull in the 1998/99 Around Alone Race. Soldini will be racing Telecom Italia.
Britain, too, has its fair share of stark contrasts. ICAP Leopard will be the biggest and fastest boat in the race, aiming to lop more time off the existing course record if conditions suit, as owner Mike Slade remarks, “we are really looking forward to the Rolex Fastnet Race this year. It is always special and we will definitely be out to beat our 2007 record. The improvements to ICAP Leopard that have been made since the '07 race have put an average of 7% onto the boat's speed, but we were exceptionally quick coming back from the Rock to Plymouth last time in 24-25 knots of breeze, so it will be very much dependent on the weather.” Slade views the Rolex Fastnet as part one in a two-part offshore classic being attempted this year, as he heads to Australia for a Christmas rendezvous with the Rolex Sydney Hobart.
At the other end of the design spectrum, the 45-foot (or 60-foot if you include the bowsprit) Morwenna, may be brand-spanking new, but she is built from ash and larch rather than carbon-fibre. In fact, she is a Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter – just as the 1925 race winner, Jolie Brise. Morwenna is based upon the 1906 design, Mischief, once owned by the boy's own adventurer Bill Tillman. According to her skipper, Stuart Jenkins, “we want to show that traditionally built boats are strong, reliable and safe and to encourage people to learn traditional way of sailing.”
With other crews and competing boats drawn from Austria, Belgium, Bermuda, Chile, Germany, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, The Netherlands it would not be unreasonable to expect a feeling of an international convention when the yachts start finishing in Plymouth.
The main trophy for overall victory in the Rolex Fastnet is the Fastnet Challenge Cup. In addition, there are more than thirty additional trophies that will be awarded at the prizegiving on Friday, 14 August at the historic Royal Citadel, home of the 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, overlooking Plymouth Harbour.
The first signal for the start of the 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race sounds at 11.50 BST on Sunday, 9 August.
Further information about the RORC and the Rolex Fastnet Race including a provisional entry list may be found at fastnet.rorc.org and competitors are encouraged to keep a close eye on these web pages since all administrative documentation and race notices will be posted there.