50th Rolex Fastnet Edition – How it all began

COWES, UK, 20 JULY 2023: 2023 and 2025 will be landmark years for the Royal Ocean Racing Club, with this year seeing the celebrations for the 50th edition of its premier event, the Rolex Fastnet Race. This sets sail from Cowes on Saturday afternoon bound for Cherbourg-en-Cotentin via the Fastnet Rock. This will be followed in two years by the centenary of the club, first set up in Plymouth immediately following the inaugural edition of the Fastnet Race in 1925.

With around 450 entries, ranging from the world’s fastest offshore yachts down to 30 footers and classics, the race has come a long way in its 50 editions, reflecting the monumental changes in society and technology.

Most significant about the first Fastnet Race, at the time known as the ‘Ocean Race’, was that it effectively launched offshore racing as a sport on this side of the Atlantic. Surprisingly at the time in England sailing was a much more significant sport than it is today, thanks largely to the participation of the Royal Family. During the 19th century Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had been keen supporters of it, her majesty spending much of the latter part of her reign close to Cowes in Osbourne House. The first edition of what would become the America’s Cup had taken place in 1851, meanwhile royal regattas were being held annually all over the British isles, with an entourage of aristocracy and the wealthy following the royal party between them.

Yacht racing’s position was further enforced in 1893, when the Prince of Wales, at the time Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, launched the royal cutter Britannia. This the future King Edward VII would campaign on into his monarchy, a tradition embraced with equal enthusiasm by his heir George V, who still raced her in the 1920s, until his death in 1936. This was also the era of Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock America’s Cup challenges. But, significantly, these forms of yacht racing were mostly inshore and mostly for yachts with a professional crew, their owners often not even on board.

Rolex Fastnet Race entries between 1925 and 2021
Rolex Fastnet Race entries between 1925 and 2021

Meanwhile in America 1906 had seen the first editions of both the Transpac from Los Angeles to Hawaii and what would become the Newport-Bermuda. The latter in particular had been set up to break with tradition, to prove small boats could be raced offshore by a small crew including the owner. One participant in the 1924 Bermuda Race was Weston Martyr, an English former seaman and yachting journalist based in New York. The experience and adventure racing to Bermuda had so struck a chord with the WW1 veteran, that he was inspired to write to Yachting Monthly magazine in the UK: “It is without question the very finest sport that a man can possibly engage in for to play this game at all it is necessary to possess in the very highest degree those hallmarks of a true sportsman: skill, courage and endurance.” In other correspondence, Martyr threw down the gauntlet to British yachtsmen suggesting a similar ocean race in British waters.

As an indication of how foreign this idea was to the English yachting community, at the time it was felt to have more in common with cruising to the extent that Martyr contacted the Bermuda race’s organisers for their list of equipment and gear yachts racing offshore should carry.

Not all were in favour of the idea. Pioneer cruising yachtsman and author Claud Worth was one of the first, and by no means the last, to raise the question of whether racing offshore might come at the expense of good seamanship.

However the idea of a British ocean race strongly resonated with one Lt Commander EG Martin. Of the Martin Bank family, he was a polymath typical of the era, an accomplished musician and artist while as a sportsman his achievement as a county cricketer outstripped his later sailing accomplishments. A lifelong yachtsman with a keen interest in the working boats, Martin had successfully raced 6 Metres, was Rear Commodore of the Royal Western Yacht Club and also a member of the Royal Cruising Club.

Meetings between Martyr, Martin, Yachting Monthly editor Malden Heckstall-Smith (the trio who would form the ‘Ocean Race Committee’) plus Olympian Algernon Maudslay and other influential figures such as Sir Ralph Gore and the King’s Sailing Master Sir Philip Hunloke, resulted in an agreement on what would become the ‘classic’ course – from the Solent to the Fastnet Rock and finishing in Plymouth. It would be open to ‘any fully decked yacht of any rig with a waterline length of 30-50ft’. They had to be in cruising trim and carry a lifeboat. Following the Bermuda race’s example, the Committee was quick to limit professionals only to those that could ‘normally be accommodated in the fo’c’sle,’ although these were more professional seafarers than modern day pro yacht racers.

Boats would be measured according to a modified version of the Boat Racing Association’s system to create an offshore rating. Martin donated the race’s Challenge Cup (which the overall IRC winner of the Rolex Fastnet Race receives to this day).

The start of the first race at noon on Saturday, 15 August 1925 was given from the Royal Victoria Yacht Club in Fishbourne. Of the original 16 entries just seven started. They all were British-flagged although the Bristol Channel pilot cutter Saladin was sailed by a Spaniard, Ingo Simon, while Martin’s own Jolie Brise had been built in Le Havre, France where she had briefly operated as a pilot cutter. Under the BRA system, Jolie Brise, both the newest (built in 1913) and longest entry (at 17m), was scratch boat. At this point no purpose-built offshore racing yachts existed (this would arrive in the 1930s with the ground breaking Sparkman & Stephens yacht Dorade, back to back winner of the Fastnet Race in 1931 and 33). The nearest to an offshore racing yacht at this time were the pilot cutters and even they were an extinct breed by 1925, killed off years earlier by steam-powered vessels.

As expected, given that the race took 6 days 2 hours and 45 minutes for the eventual winner Jolie Brise (in the first of her three victories) and seven and a half for the fifth and final boat to arrive HR Barratt’s Colin Archer cruiser Banba IV, the competitors in the first race experienced the full range of conditions. Light winds continued from the start out into the Celtic Sea with Jolie Brise and the Irish cutter Gull locked in a match race for the lead. Jolie Brise was first around the Fastnet Rock at 19:50 on the Wednesday, followed by Gull at 08:35 the next morning, with the Royal Engineer YC’s Fulmar and Saladin in her wake.

The slower boats astern were treating the race as a spirited cruise. For example dinghies were launched to visit fellow competitors as they too were becalmed or to buy fish from a passing smack.

For the latter stage of the race the wind built to Force 7 for Jolie Brise on her return passage to Plymouth while others were caught in the Celtic Sea in gale force winds with Jessie L retiring into Ireland.

At the finish of the race a dinner at the Royal Western Yacht Club, up on Plymouth Hoe, was held were competitors and stakeholders in the first Fastnet Race formally founded the Ocean Racing Club.

98 years on, present RORC Commodore James Neville, who sets sail on Saturday aboard his brand new Carkeek 45 Ino Noir, reflects: “It is a great honour to be at the helm of the Royal Ocean Race Club for the 50th anniversary of our club’s greatest race. In 1925 the first Fastnet Race launched offshore racing as sport and at the end of it, our club was founded and its winner, Lt Cmdr EG Martin, became the club’s first Commodore.

“Since then we have seen the Fastnet Race peak to more than 300 boats during the Admiral’s Cup period and over the last two decades it has grown still further to its present level of 450+ boats; a phenomenon in itself. As we will see yet again over the next few days, the Rolex Fastnet Race course remains as challenging as it ever has been with its combination of coastal and oceanic passages, plus its complex tide and wind conditions – effectively it is a much longer race compressed into just a few days. This, plus it huge fleet, is what makes the Rolex Fastnet Race such a revered classic among offshore sailors.”

Past Rolex Fastnet Race competitors will gather at the RORC Cowes clubhouse on Friday night for a special celebratory dinner in the presence of HRH The Princess Royal and Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Lawrence.

To read more about the history of the race click HERE

The 50th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race starts from Cowes, Isle of Wight on Saturday 22nd July. For further information, please go to the Rolex Fastnet Race website: https://www.rolexfastnetrace.com/

James Boyd

M.O.S.S Australia
Cyclops Marine
JPK August 2023
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