Like the animals in Noah's Ark, the biggest monohulls have spent the last days travelling two by two around the Rolex Fastnet Race course.
Between the pair of 100ft long Maxis - Esimit Europa 2 and Mike Slade's ICAP Leopard - it was the more nimble European maxi that led around the course to claim monohull line honours, finishing at 02:17:49 BST, with an elapsed time of 2 days 12 hours 27 minutes and 49 seconds.
Weighing in at a svelte 27 tonnes, compared to ICAP Leopard's 50, Esimit Europa 2 was the pre-race favourite for monohull line honours win and, after being forced to retire from the 2007 Rolex Fastnet Race in her previous incarnation as Neville Crichton's Alfa Romeo, this time she didn't disappoint. According to her skipper, multiple Olympic medallist Jochen Schümann, the Esimit Europa 2 crew was concerned sailing down the Channel, because the moderate to strong upwind conditions favoured ICAP Leopard. In fact the closest ICAP Leopard got to them was around a mile.
Then, Schümann recounted, "At the Scillies we made a big gain and at the restricted area next to the Fastnet, we split - we went to the west, and then reached around the Rock, while they went east and there they lost quite a bit. We were 15 miles ahead at the Fastnet Rock. From then, it was like a bungie - we stopped, they stopped, etc."
The race was relatively simple in terms of crew work - there was only one jib change outbound to the Rock on board Esimit Europa 2, and downwind on the way back the conditions never exceeded 12 knots. But after all the hard work around the course, the outcome was only decided in the last moments when, like so many night time arrivals, Esimit Europa 2, was becalmed on the approach to the finish, as the boats behind approached, bringing the wind in with them.
"It would have been very easy to stop and let some other people come with momentum and pass you, but we passed the headlands in the right place and stayed in some breeze. It was much more difficult than I remember in the past,"
Esimit Europa 2's owner, Slovenian businessman Igor Sim?i?, commented, "The Rolex Fastnet Race is a very important race, a very long race - it is a test of many things, not only a boat and crew. I am very happy to have such a boat and such a crew that know how to manage this potential.
"At the beginning I was expecting to have more wind, because the Fastnet is known for very strong wind, but even in this case it wasn't so easy. I also very much appreciate the effort of all the other boats - the smaller ones who will be spending four or five days at sea to complete the race."
If Esimit Europa 2 suffered a slow down approaching the finish line, it was far worse for ICAP Leopard, as Mike Slade's line honours winner from 2007 and 2009 was becalmed off the finish for the best part of two hours, as boats closed in from behind.
Much to the chagrin of the ICAP Leopard crew, they were once again beaten by the Ian Walker-skippered team on the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing VO70, which pipped them to the post crossing the line at 07:25:03, just four and a half minutes ahead of them.
"There was no wind as is often the case,"
explained Walker, the double Olympic silver medallist. "There was a bit of land breeze in the harbour and Leopard was completely marooned. We came in with the new wind from behind. The same could have happened to us, but fortunately we managed to get ourselves into a position where we went around the outside, away from the cliff."
Of greater consequence for the Abu Dhabi team is that they successfully fought back from being more than five miles behind the women's team on Team SCA at the Fastnet Rock, to regain the lead just coming into Bishop Rock.
Team SCA navigator Sam Davies admitted that returning from the Fastnet Rock they had made a mistake in heading too far east in light winds allowing Abu Dhabi to make a big gain. "Then once we were near each other it was pretty clear that we were missing a spinnaker. They have an inshore free-flying spinnaker, which we did not - so they were sailing lower and faster all the way down there."
Ian Walker agreed that the speed difference came down to this sail, but it also represented the 39 point difference in IRC rating which ensured Team SCA beat Abu Dhabi on handicap and yesterday afternoon Team SCA not only led the IRC Canting Keel class, but the Rolex Fastnet Race in its entirety. However this morning, with the smaller boats returning from the Fastnet Rock, the overall lead has now shifted back to the 40 footers, while in IRC Canting Keel, the leader is the Baltic 78, Lupa of London, although one more boat in this class is still to finish.
The match race between the two Judel Vrolijk 72 Mini Maxis took a dramatic turn further back up the course. American Hap Fauth's newer and more powerful Bella Mente had led and extended over Niklas Zennström's 2009 and 2011 overall Rolex Fastnet Race winner, Rán 2, on the way to the Fastnet Rock.
"We were very happy with our beat, possibly because we are a bit more powerful, but we orientated the boat to beat them to the Rock,"
explained Bella Mente helmsman and former Volvo Ocean Race winning skipper, Mike Sanderson of their race with Rán 2. "We all know that if you can lead to the Rock, you are normally in pretty good shape."
For example, this included taking 18 crew compared to the 12 they sailed with in the Giraglia Rolex Cup or the 16 for the RORC Caribbean 600.
After looking to be in good shape, Bella Mente suffered late yesterday afternoon when they fell into a patch of light wind short of the Bishop Rock. "The others were bringing breeze down - MACIF was doing 16 knots, Rán was doing 14 knots and we were doing 12 knots,"
explained Sanderson. This caused the fleet to compress and from holding a comfortable 8 mile advantage over Rán and leading IRC Zero, Bella Mente's lead reduced to 3.5 miles.
"We had a good race, it's just a bit of a shame we couldn't finish it off - the wind gods just weren't on our side,"
While Rán 2 succeeded in beating Bella Mente under IRC, she has been knocked into second place in IRC Zero by Johnny Vincent's TP52, Pace. Overall she holds third place under IRC and sadly is no longer in with a chance of entering the history books by securing her third consecutive overall win in the Rolex Fastnet Race.
With the smaller boats returning from the Fastnet Rock in better conditions, they are becoming increasingly favoured for the overall win of the Rolex Fastnet Race under IRC. Andrew Pearce's Ker 40, Magnum 3, was ahead first thing this morning, but has since been overtaken by Inis Mor, the Ker 39 of Frenchman Laurent Gouy. It could be at least another 48 hours before a winner of the Rolex Fastnet Race 2013 is finally decided.
How to follow the Rolex Fastnet Race
The Rolex Fastnet Race is organized by the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) and has been sponsored by Rolex since 2001.
For more information about the RORC and the Rolex Fastnet Race, please visit www.rorc.org