Conditions drop in the Rolex Fastnet Race fleet

CHERBOURG, Sunday 23 July 2023: After a tough first 24 hours in this 50th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race, conditions have abated in the English Channel and Celtic Sea. This afternoon the Seven Stones lightvessel between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles was reporting 17 knots from 250°. This had dropped to 15 this evening, with the wind in the western English Channel typically 10-15 knots.

In fact the current arrivals at the Fastnet Rock are already encountering the light winds of the much forecast trough, currently centered over the south coast of Ireland. For this group last night’s gale must seem long ago with just 7 knots at the Rock. Here the next arrival, Erik Maris’ modified MOD70 trimaran Zoulou was making just 10 knots when she rounded at 16:32:52 BST. Conditions going from survival to sailable enabled her crew, that includes offshore race legend Loick Peyron, to put their pedal to the metal. Their margin over the lead Ocean Fifty trimaran Pierre Quiroga’s Viabilis Oceans was as much as 27 miles but had dropped to 20 at the Rock. The Ocean Fifty field has been diminished from five to three over the last 24 hours, but the battle for the lead remains tight with class newbie Luke Berry on Le Rire Medecin-Lamotte just five miles behind.

While these three had all rounded the west side of the Land’s End TSS, the next group preferred staying east. Leading up here, passing Land’s End at 0700 this morning was the first IMOCA, Paprec Arkea skippered by Yoann Richomme. The double Solitaire du Figaro winner had done a remarkable job overnight, slowly eking out a 11 mile lead over the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race’s IMOCA winner Charlie Dalin, aboard his brand new IMOCA MACIF.

Crossing the Celtic Sea this afternoon four IMOCAs had broken away from the other 25 in their class. They also included Jérémie Beyou on Charal and, impressively, Britain’s Sam Goodchild, sailing one of his first major IMOCA races here aboard For the Planet (his team mate Thomas Ruyant on For People having retired to Cherbourg with damage).

Meanwhile Bryon Ehrhart’s 88ft Lucky, previously George David’s Rambler 88 and the monohull line honours favourite in the IRC fleet, had overhauled the IMOCA frontrunners through the sheer might of her superior waterline length and pointing ability. The powerful canting-keeled machine has previously raced across the North Atlantic and was already well tested in the stormy weather of the first 24 hours but her the crew will be looking forward to letting Lucky rip on the fast downwind conditions once they’re past the Rock and setting course for Bishop Rock and then Cherbourg.

Chasing this group was Adrian Keller’s Irens 84 catamaran Allegra which holds the largest class lead across the whole pantheon of Rolex Fastnet Race classes, almost 13 hours ahead of Ken Howery’s Gunboat 68 Tosca. Paul Larsen reported from Allegra: “Everyone has had hot meals and a decent off-watch. Any moment now we should hit this expected big shift where the wind goes north and we tack towards the legendary Rock about 50 miles away. We could come in there at pace. All the necessary tools are on the bow to drag us there and home. Hot showers once we round the Rock. We’re not pulling all this comfort around the course so as not to use it. It really is remarkable how well these compromised boats can perform. I had to laugh as we made the MOD70 pass behind us having done so many miles on them… and that one in particular. We’ve got five bathrooms onboard… they could at least have two buckets…!”

With Peter Morton’s Maxi 72 Notorious DNS, it’s down to the tough-as-old-boots VO65s to see if they can hold Lucky to account in IRC Super Zero. Recent winner of The Ocean Race VO65 Sprint, Pablo Arrarte’s Wind Whisper was holding a two-mile advantage over Clarke Murphy’s all-star cast on Team Jajo with Gerwin Jansen’s Sisi-Kraken Travel X Austrian Ocean Racing another 25 miles astern.

In the ultra-competitive IRC Zero, in which the most impressive new hardware has been built especially for this race, two French yachts are jockeying for the lead. This afternoon Jean-Pierre Dreau’s well-travelled and well-sailed Mylius 60 Lady First III, with a crew including top Figaro sailor Xavier Macaire, was overtaken on corrected time by the NMD 43 Albator whose crew line-up includes navigator Alexis Loison, the 2013 Rolex Fastnet Race winner and multiple IRC Two-Handed winner, and other top French pros including Benoit Briand and Cedric Pouligny.

The Class40s too are just breaking out into the Celtic Sea where the leader continues to be Italian Ambrogio Beccaria on Alla Grande Pirelli, however putting in a superb performance is Amelie Grassi (fresh from the Ocean race) and her La Boulangere Bio, just three miles astern and Erwan Le Draoulec’s Everial in third.

On the water it is a different story with Caro setting out across the Celtic Sea ahead of Warrior Won and Teasing Machine, all three race favourites. In last December’s Rolex Sydney Hobart Race, Max Klink’s Botin 52 Caro came out ahead of Chris Sheehan’s Warrior Won, which took victory in the 2022 RORC Caribbean 600 and Transpac races. Currently Caro leads Warrior Won by just three miles, however with Volvo Ocean Race veterans like Richard Clarke, Stu Bannatyne and navigator Will Oxley on board, Warrior Won will be working hard to turn the tables on their rival.

As the front of IRC One reached Land’s End early this evening, the 2021 overall winner Sunrise III is once again setting the pace. Two years ago skipper Tom Kneen and crew were battling in IRC Two but the JPK 1180 has been rerated for IRC One this year. The British team find themselves marginally on top in a close battle with J/133 Pintia which is just six minutes behind on corrected time. Gilles Fournier and his well-known daughter Corinne Migraine head up an experienced French team on Pintia who, like Sunrise, are always testing new ideas to make their boat go faster. Stripping out a few hundred kilos might not have helped Pintia so much over this race’s blustery start, but could prove critical in the lighter winds to come.

Not far behind the front two is a sistership to Sunrise and friends and close training partners, Dawn Treader. Still being in the race will in itself be seen as a victory by owner Ed Bell. Ironically his JPK 1180 lost her rig in a similarly breeze start during the 2021 edition, following an unfortunate collision with Pintia.

It’s a very international top 10 in IRC One in these early stages, with four French, three British and one apiece from Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. With the breeze now much lighter, the game has shifted firmly from survival to tactical, and now is the chance for Dawn Treader and others in the chasing pack like Codiam and Cocody to prove they have the ability to outsmart the frontrunners.

In IRC Two at one point Fujitsu British Soldier held a four hour advantage over Hey Jude on corrected time. Major Henry Foster and his crew of colleagues in the British Army like the rough stuff in their Sun Fast 3600 and they came through the boat-breaking conditions of the first 24 hours in good shape. However, now the race has moved from stormy to much softer breeze, their hard-won advantage is rapidly diminishing as Foster’s troops make slow progress along the west country coast. While Fujitsu British Soldier has stayed inshore, coming in fast from further out into the Channel is J/120 Hey Jude skippered by Philippe Girardin. Like Fujitsu, the doublehanded J/99 Axe Sail skippered by Maxime Mesnil is another boat to have taken a more coastal option and holds third place.

Early evening the IRC Three leaders were on their approach to the Lizard. Here Tim Goodhew and Kelvin Matthews, racing doublehanded on the Sun Fast 3200 Cora were leading under both on the water and under IRC corrected time ahead of the two JPK 1010s, Loeiz Cadiou’s Tracass and Rmain Gibon’s Les P’tits Doudous en Duo. This trio was also leading IRC Two-Handed, where sadly attrition over the last 24 hours has seen the 100-strong entry reduced by 32.

In IRC Four the leader on the water and under corrected time is also one and the same: Francois Charles’ Sun Hill III, which early evening was half way between Start Point and the Lizard. However the French crew on their Dehler 33CR will know not to count their chickens: they were in this position two years ago only for a subsequent park-up later in the race to turn the IRC Four results on their head. Sun Hill III holds a lead of more than three hours under IRC corrected time over Marc Willame’s JPK 960 Elma with, in third, Chris Choules and Vanessa Twohey on the Sigma 38 With Alacrity. Sun Hill III’s lead is the biggest across the IRC classes, with the exception of IRC Super Zero.

Despite the conditions abating over the course of today there have been further retirements, which now stand at 112 from 430 starters.

Meanwhile spectators in Cherbourg were preparing for the first arrivals of the two Ultim trimarans, due at around 2300 (French time) this evening.

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

James Boyd

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