Fastnet – Brisk conditions for todays start may favour the big boats

COWES, UK, 21 JULY 2023: Momentum is building towards tomorrow afternoon’s start of the 50th Rolex Fastnet Race. More and more boats are arriving in Cowes and to moorings and berths across the Solent. Meanwhile an armada has left from Cherbourg and numerous ports around the Breton coast. All are aiming to get to the vicinity of the Cowes start line in good order prior to the first starts of the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s special anniversary race at 1300 BST.

Of great concern to all is the start and opening part of the race being a brutal re-run of the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race. At today’s skippers briefing French meteorologist and offshore yacht race routing expert Christian Dumard said the forecasts for start time were showing 20-25 knots upwind from the southwest out in the central Solent. The wind would build as the ebb tide gained momentum in the western Solent. By the time boats reached the Needles Channel (frankly not long in the case of the large trimarans and the IMOCAs setting sail first) the wind would have accelerated to 35 knots, possibly gusting to 40.

Given the conditions, the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s race management team, led by Race Director Steve Cole, last night issued an Amendment to the Sailing Instructions, which included a revision of the start order. In particular the sequence of the IRC fleet setting off is being reversed (as it was also in 2021) and the gap between individual class start sequences reduced from 20 minutes (doubled this time from the usual 10) to 15 minutes.

New start order: Multihull – 1300 BST; IMOCA – 1315; Class 40 – 1330; IRC SZ/Z – 1345; IRC 1 – 1400; IRC 2 – 1415; IRC 3 – 1430; IRC 4 – 1445.

The all-important tide in the Solent will be flooding for the first start, then going slack before the ebb begins, increasing the chance of boats being pushed over the line early for the later starts. This year new test rules are being tried whereby any boat that is over the line (OCS) less than 30 seconds before the start gun will receive an automatic two hour penalty. “This addresses a safety issue – we don’t want boats struggling to get back uptide to restart if they are OCS,” explains Cole.

In addition to the gale force winds at the Needles and Hurst, Dumard also warned of the sea state there: “It will be quite bad because we expect for the first boats a 1.5-2.5m wave height and the last boats at around 1700 [at the height of the ebb] it will be 2.5m. So be careful in these rough conditions. There is always the escape route up the North Channel into Christchurch Bay if you wish to avoid the very strong wind.”

Generally, there is a depression centre moving east across Northern Ireland and northern England over Sunday night and into Monday. Ahead of this is a dying occluded front which will cross the fleet on Saturday afternoon, followed in swift succession by a warm front and cold front, which Dumard reckons the fleet will encounter in the early hours of Sunday morning. This will also bring rain (which he hopes will not be present for tomorrow’s start). “The sea state will deteriorate as the front approaches. The [cold] front should be over the fleet at 2300-0200 and after that conditions will improve very quickly the further west you are.” Post front the wind should decrease to 20 knots.

Following on the eastbound meteorological conveyer belt is a trough with westerlies to its south and northerly or northeasterlies behind it, but Dumard warns: “The models still diverge at this point. In the ridge there will be very light wind conditions, 5-10 knots, but the first boats will be in Cherbourg already so won’t be concerned by it.

“As the ridge moves away, we have another low pressure arriving with a warm front ahead of it and a cold front behind it. The wind tends to increase quite a lot, up to 25 knots from the west, ahead of the warm front.”

As ever the significant final hurdle approaching the finish of this course is the Alderney Race where the current can run at up to 5-6 knots – a monumental problem for those arriving when it is foul and the wind light, although this is unlikely to be the case this year. Dumard warns: “If you see 25 knots on the GRIB file, it could be 32 knots and 35 knots in the gusts and the sea state will be very rough. Be careful with this.”

So does this forecast mean it will be a Rolex Fastnet Race likely to favour boats of a certain size range as it so often does? “It is very difficult to know if it will be a big, medium or small boat race as the models are still unstable for the end of the race. It could be both – a big boat race and then a small boat one. The problem for the small boats will be that the beginning of the race will be slow for them.” Other unknowns remain the exact timings of the arrivals of the fronts and the exact shape of the trough (which for example will dictate if boats are upwind, fetching to reaching towards the Fastnet Rock) and how much wind might still remain in it.

At today’s press conference held at the RORC Cowes Clubhouse just prior to the skippers’ briefing, Andrew Cape, navigator on Bryon Ehrhart’s Lucky, the 88ft canting keeler (ex-Rambler 88) that is the scratch monohull in the IRC fleet reckons it was likely that they will break the ClubSwan 125 Skorpios’ race record on the new Rolex Fastnet Race route to Cherbourg-en-Cotentin. “It is 75% chance – around 2 days 2 hours, so it is looking pretty good. But like anything with weather we will just have to wait and see. 5/6 of the models have us breaking the record. You just have to avoid the light patches – they will be the decider. At the moment there are not many for us.”

Adrian Keller and his 84ft Irens catamaran Allegra are back to defend their title in the MOCRA multihull class. Allegra’s crew led by fastest yachtsman on the planet, Paul Larsen are comfortable racing her in strong conditions and they have just returned from the Round Gotland Race where Allegra achieved a new personal best top speed of 35.5 knots. “We are looking forward to it although the weather forecast is a little iffy!” said Keller. “This time [compared to 2021] it will be a little less choppy but less wind too. We just did Round Gotland and we had similar conditions.

“The Fastnet Race is the ultimate. I have followed it since I started sailing and it is its grand tradition. The other one we would like to do is Newport to Bermuda.”

From Finland and competing in IRC Zero is the DSS-equipped Infiniti 52 Tulikettu of Roschier Baltic Sea Race backer Arto Linnervuo, for whom this will be his second Rolex Fastnet Race: “It is an interesting race course because the weather fronts move quickly so it is quite difficult to plan tactics beforehand. But I like the race course because here, like the RORC Caribbean 600, there are more chances to use all of the set-up, including our ‘secret weapon’, our DSS foil.”

Currently in Gosport is one of IMOCA’s latest recruits in Britain’s Sam Goodchild and his For the Planet, part of the class’ first two boat campaign with Thomas Ruyant’s For People. This will only be Goodchild’s second race in his new steed and his first major one. “What we are all most concerned about is the start and doing that carefully. With almost 450 boats jostling for position, there is the potential for some errors. Then obviously our boats are made for sailing fast in a straight line for long distances, and there isn’t much of that in a southwesterly in the Solent! So we have to be careful tacking up the Solent doublehanded as even off the start line there are 28 other boats in our class. The first 12-18 hours will be full-on with wind against tide. So we need to make sure we do that safely without taking any unnecessary risks.” Among this huge line-up IMOCA favourites seem likely to be For People and Jérémie Beyou’s Charal.

Among the smaller boats one of the favourites will certainly be Richard Palmer’s well-travelled JPK 1010 Jangada, the 2022 RORC Season’s Points Championship winner and overall winner of the Sevenstar Round Britain Race. In IRC Three, Palmer on this occasion will be sailing with his daughter Sophie. “There is a feeling of déjà vu here – it is a bit like two years ago,” said Richard Palmer. “Hopefully it will be not quite as mental on the actual start line itself, but getting out through the Needles Channel in 25-30 knots with wind against tide, getting over that bar will be quite a challenge. We will look at the escape route option of going out through the North Channel.”

As to whether it will be a big boat or small boat race, Palmer reckons it will all depend on the passage of the weather systems, with for example the faster boats having to sail more miles to reach the Rock compared to the smaller, slower boats that might be able to lay it from further out.

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

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