The biennial Rolex Fastnet Race is considered one of the world's classic ocean races; the 608-mile course a test for skippers and crews with its' tricky tidal currents and changeable weather conditions. The race, organised by the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC), with the Royal Yacht Squadron and the Royal Western Yacht Club, Plymouth, starts on the Sunday at the end of Cowes Week (early August), off Cowes, Isle of Wight.
The Royal Ocean Racing Club's classic event attracts in the region of 250-300 yachts. The course takes the large fleet South West down the Solent, past The Needles and out into the English Channel. The headlands along the South Coast of England - Anvil Point, Portland Bill, Start Point, The Lizard, Lands End - must each be weathered on the way to open ocean and the leg North West to the Fastnet Rock with its mythical lighthouse. The return leg to Plymouth, via Bishop Rock Lighthouse on the South side of the Scilly Isles, is just as demanding, as fatigue and competition take their toll.
Like no other race, the Rolex Fastnet Race attracts every type of sailor and boat from just about every sailing country in the world. Sailing schools, corporate institutions, family owned and crewed cruiser-racers, dedicated amateurs and club sailors, along with the hardened champions from the Grand Prix circuits, are all attracted to compete in the best-known offshore race in the world. All come to enjoy the challenge of one of the trickiest and most demanding sporting events that an individual or a team can aspire to today.
Brief History of the Fastnet Race
The First Race
Some critics refused to acknowledge the first Fastnet race in 1925 as a true ocean race, because the racing did not cover long distances across an ocean or sea. However, the race quickly evolved, due to the huge popularity of the new sport of ocean racing in England. The first race catered for a new breed of yachtsman: the amateur cruising man looking for a challenge, which cruising alone could not satisfy. Typically, he would sail the yacht himself and perhaps only employ a deck hand or two, unlike the pre-war yachtsman who needed up to 30 men to sail his huge racing yacht.
After racing in the 1924 Bermuda race aboard one of the entries, Northern Light, a young Englishman named Weston Martyr was so impressed with the sport that he wrote a letter about it to an English yachting magazine. 'It is,' Martyr wrote, 'without question the very finest sport 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.'
On his return to England and following his enthusiasm, a committee was set up to promote an English ocean race. The committee consisted of Martyr, E. G. Martin, who had purchased a converted Le Havre pilot cutter called Jolie Brise and Malden Heckstall-Smith, the editor of the yachting magazine. The committee proposed a course of 615 miles from the Isle of Wight to the Fastnet rock off the southwest coast of Ireland and then back to Plymouth. They were to race for the Fastnet Challenge Cup.
The yachts rounded the Isle of Wight either eastwards or westwards, according to the state of the tide in the early Fastnet races and the Scillies and the Fastnet Rock could be rounded in either direction for many years.
The first Fastnet race attracted seven boats to the start line. The fleet consisted mainly of a collection of old cruising boats starting the race from the Royal Victorian Yacht Club at Ryde on 15 August 1925. It turned out to be a typical race for the course with the faster yachts making good time and arriving safely in port before the high winds and uncomfortable seas hit the slower entries. Two boats retired and one made such slow progress that she was unable to reach the finishing line before the timekeepers had gone home. Two boats in the race stood out among the fleet - Jolie Brise, the 56-foot pilot cutter and Gull, a 30-year-old yacht. Battling it out on the racecourse, Jolie Brise ended up with a resounding victory, finishing 20 hours ahead of her rival in 6days, 14hrs, and 45mins at sea. In future years, she went on to win the race again in 1929 and 1930. She is still sailing today and won the 2000 Tall Ships Race Overall. It was during this first race, though, that the owner of Jolie Brise, George Martin, announced the formation of the Ocean Racing Club. The race had been fun and it was proposed that it should be held again the following year.
Establishing the Fastnet Race
By the 1930s, the Fastnet race was now firmly established, after running races for several years with fluctuating numbers. The 1930 race saw six American and two French yachts competing alongside the nine British entries. The early Fastnets saw a high proportion of yachts failing to complete the course. This was mainly due to the toughness of the course, inexperienced crews, old, slow and ill-equipped yachts and the traditional designs of the British yachts lagged behind their competitors from across the pond. Bad weather was also a dominant factor and the 1931 Fastnet saw gale force conditions and many problems for participating yachts, with one person being lost overboard. The tragedy marred what would otherwise have been a classic Fastnet race, as the four leading yachts raced the last miles in close company and finished within minutes of one another.
This race was also the end of an era for Jolie Brise who was outclassed by the new yachts now taking part in the race. It was at this time that the British were persuaded to build several new yachts in order to keep the Fastnet race alive and several new competitive yachts were produced to meet the American challenge and to race in the 1935 Transatlantic race.
It was not until 1957, however, that the Admiral's Cup was introduced. As a private challenge by five well-known British yachtsmen to their American counterparts, the Challenge consisted of a series of races, which included the Fastnet as the final race. The Admiral's Cup soon became known as the most hotly competed ocean-racing event in the world and the Fastnet as one of the toughest ocean racing challenges. The 1927, 1930, 1949 and 1957 races went down on record as being the toughest Fastnets ever. In 1957 there were 29 retirements from the fleet of 41 yachts. Two years later, the Admiral's Cup was thrown open to teams from all nations and the Swedish S & S-designed yawl Anita won the Fastnet in this year.
Evolution of the Fastnet Race
Over the next couple of decades, yacht design for ocean racers moved swiftly and the introduction of multihulled catamarans and trimarans into ocean racing was making an impact. By the 1950s, synthetic fibres were introduced and more sophisticated equipment began to bring about change. By the 1960s, a more ruthless attitude to racing was emerging and the competitive spirit was sharpened by the introduction of such races as the Admiral's Cup and other major events. The Fastnet of 1965 saw the design of a radical new boat - Rabbit - a 34-foot sloop, which incorporated new ideas ensuring its victory in Class III. The 1965 Admiral's Cup had also attracted teams from Sweden, Holland, France and the US. Irish and Australian teams also took part as relative newcomers. In 1967, the Australians took the Admiral's Cup trophy back to Sydney, putting their sailors in the same league as the Americans and Europeans.
By the 1970s, British ocean racing saw a great upsurge in popularity with heroes such as Francis Chichester, Robin Knox-Johnston and the then leader of the Conservative party, Edward Heath, achieving 7th in class with Morning Cloud in the 1969 Fastnet and going on to lead the British Admiral's Cup team to victory in 1971.
In 1973, the International Offshore Rule (IOR) was introduced as the sport began to grow and inter-ocean racing expanded. Sponsorships were also introduced and ocean racing was now a professional sport.
1979 will stick in everyone's memory as the year of the Fastnet tragedy, when the biggest-ever fleet (so far) of 303 was caught in a vicious storm, which resulted in 17 deaths. Following the disaster, New Special Regulations were introduced to improve watertight integrity. Trisails and VHF radios became mandatory, qualifications for competitors were introduced and the number of starters limited to 300. In 1983, restrictions on electronic navigation aids were also lifted.
Since this time, the legendary Fastnet race has gone from strength to strength with improved communications and safety regulations in force; the race is now considered a supreme challenge to ocean racing yachtsmen in British waters. Since 1957, the Fastnet race was the final race of the Admiral's Cup competition but in 1999, major innovations to the Admiral's Cup led the Management Committee to introduce a number of changes in the race programme. These included re-designing the event as a stand-alone series outside of Cowes Week, limiting the number of professionals on board each boat and incorporating the Wolf Rock Race as the principal offshore race. The Fastnet race now retains its place in the racing calendar immediately after Cowes Week and is open to all, but does not form part of the programme for the Admiral's Cup.
With a record number of entries (300) in 2007, this was the first year that some entrants were turned away (following the 1979 tragedy the fleet was limited to 300 yachts). The race office decided on Saturday morning to postpone the start by twenty-five hours due to severe weather warnings issued by the met office. This was the first time in the 83 year history of the race that the race office had ever postponed the start. Among the competitors, there was a fear that the race may be abandoned all together before it even started. On Monday morning, however, the fleet set off into a South Westerly force 4. As winds increased over the next three days, hundreds of boats retired, seeking shelter in various ports on the South Coast. Only 50 of the original 300-strong fleet made it past Lands End to tackle the Celtic Sea, round the rock and return to Plymouth. Among them was the then Stormforce Coaching Chief Instructor Josh Richardson and his crew of 9 sailing school students, who persevered and won their division.
Despite the worldwide recession, the 2011 Fastnet saw a record number of entries: so many in fact that RORC decided to lift the 300 yacht limit and set a 300 IRC yachts limit. This allowed a larger fleet number as so many yachts were sailing in other fleets (open 60, multihull etc.). Stormforce Coaching entered two yachts and both were well placed.
In 2013 registration was full within 24 hours of opening. Friends and family watched back home as our Chief Instructor Ifan James, along with mate Andy Bridge and crew marched up to the rock to round it as the first UK yacht across all IRC fleets. It was big celebration in Plymouth when both our teams finished, scoring front of the fleet places in both of their fleets.
2007 was the first Fastnet race in which the entire fleet carried GPS trackers. This new system meant that media, families and friends could track their competitors' positions online in nearly real-time. From 2007, the Fastnet race became more accessible as a spectator sport and the interest ashore was not just confined to the start and finish lines.
Apart from the prestigious Fastnet Challenge Cup and trophies in all the main categories including Fastnet Rounding Trophies, special trophies are also awarded for navigator of best yacht overall, best sailing school yacht, best Irish yacht, oldest yacht to compete and first British yacht home to name a few. RORC Medallions are also awarded in each class.
To read about the Stormforce Coaching Fastnet Campaign click here.
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