After a 25-hour weather delay, 271 boats set off on Monday from the Squadron line in Cowes for the start of 46th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race. It was a picture-perfect day with blue skies and puffy cumulus clouds, and little sign of the severe weather that was to follow.
Little more than 24 hours into the race and the super-maxis were neck and neck reaching up to the Rock at 14 knots in bright sunshine, rounding nearly together and then going on the wind to round the Pantaenius Buoy to port, some fives miles to the southwest of the Rock. The 90-foot Reichel Pugh-designed Rambler went past at 18:00:35 followed by the Farr-designed 100-foot canting keeled ICAP Leopard at 18:00:38. Subsequently, PRB, Delta Dore and Cheminees Poujoulat from the Open 60 Class have rounded. From the buoy, the distance to the race finish in Plymouth is 251 nautical miles.
After midnight the breeze was expected to drop and by the early hours of Wednesday the breeze will shift to the northwest and settle in around Force 6/7 (22-33 knots). As they past the Fastnet Rock, the leading boats are on track to break the race record, which would require a yacht to finish by Wednesday before 17:48 BST - but this has been said before in previous races and there is plenty of racing left before the finish. The existing monohull record of 2 days, 5 hours and 8 minutes (average speed 11.13 knots) was set by RF Yachting in 1999.
Earlier in the day on board the US entry, Rambler, skipper Ken READ (USA) recapped the race so far, 'The predicted first front came with a southerly shift and very squally, rainy and windy conditions for us between Start Point and Land's End….full on and of course it has to be at night! We can report virtually no breakage even after some 40 knot squalls all tight reaching. Sometimes a bad combo as boats this fast tend to be hard to slow down and have a tendency to launch off a wave with bone chilling crashes when you land.'
READ continued, 'Eight headsail changes and about ten reefs/unreefs, late morning came past Land's End and a completely unpredicted lull. Went from a blast reacher with a single reef, to drifting and slatting in a matter of minutes, and as the sun rose we realized we were in a park up with Leopard, and several of the 60's all around us.'
Clearly, enjoying the current conditions, READ described the passage across the Celtic Sea, so far, 'About 07:00 the southerly re-filled and we have had a very pleasant few hours blasting across the Celtic Sea with our code 0 up and averaging speeds in the high teens. But this won't last long…. we will have the #4 or storm jib up again with a reef or three in order to get to the Fastnet Rock in once piece and try to keep close tabs on Leopard. All in all, an awesome race so far.'
Behind the front runners, strong winds and short steep seas have taken their toll on the 271-boat Rolex Fastnet fleet, with 161 yachts having retired from the race as of 18:00 BST. Boats have been streaming into Plymouth - the race finish - and other ports along the Devon and Cornwall coastline after they elected or were forced to retire and head for shelter. For some boats it was not so much the wind, but the accompanying sea state that was proving exhausting for the crews.
One of the race leaders, the super-maxi Alfa Romeo retired on Monday night at 22:50. With the wind at 30 knots, gusting to 40 knots, the sea state wasn't too bad, but owner Neville CRICHTON (NZL) and crew were concerned with the expected conditions at Land's End. He said, 'We had made a decision before the race to assess the conditions at Land's End. It's hard to just throttle back - we were match racing along the coast with Leopard, on port tack with a triple-reef in the main and had just cracked sheets when the mainsail tore. While this damage was minor we were more concerned with the possibility of damaging the rig.'
Last year's overall Rolex Fastnet Race winner Jean-Charles CHATEAU (FRA) on the 33-foot Nicholson, Iromiguy also retired at 13:15 yesterday afternoon. Racing in his fifth Rolex Fastnet, CHATEAU said, 'The seas were very rough and the boat is old. I polled each crew member whether they wanted to carry on and we decided to retire.'