The Royal Ocean Racing Club's flagship offshore event, the 608-mile Rolex Fastnet Race, got underway this morning from Cowes on the Isle of Wight.
The 245 boat fleet, split into seven classes, initially experienced 12 knot Easterly winds and a building West going tide in the Solent.
These conditions resulted in a downwind start, the entire fleet setting spinnakers for the run West down the Solent. Approaching the Hurst Narrows at the Western end of the Solent the Easterly wind dropped away leaving the tidally induced wind to take the fleet out past the Needles.
Out in the Channel a weak South Westerly seabreeze had set up early but, due to the hazy conditions it was difficult to see too far up the course to make the calls about where the best wind was and where the buffer zone between the two conflicting breezes started and finished.
With the start for the Open 60 Class at 10:00 the tide hadn¹t fully turned which meant that the island and mainland shore had favourable tide whereas the middle of the Solent had foul tide.
Mike GOLDING (GBR) on Ecover elected to start at the mainland end of the long line and with spinnaker set at the gun soon proved to his French rivals who had started at the island end that he knows his way around the Solent. As the Open 60s reached the halfway point towards Lymington Ecover led from Sebastien JOSSE'S VMI, both boats sailing at speeds well into the teens.
But as the fleet approached the Western end of the Solent the strong tide killed the Easterly wind and a tidally induced headwind caused a scramble to set headsails and drop kites. Ecover had some problems at this point and VMI slipped through to lead the class past the Needles and out into the Channel.
An almost carbon copy of the Open 60 start ten minutes later saw the biggest and fastest boats entered in this year's Rolex Fastnet Race start along the full length of the line. Charles DUNSTONE'S Nokia steered by David BEDFORD made the best start at the Northern end, crossing ahead of the much larger pre-race favourite, Neville CRICHTON'S Alfa Romeo, more than 15 minutes into the race. At the island end of the line Robert MCNEIL'S Australian built Zephyrus V made the best start and religiously stayed on the island shore all the way down the Solent. This tactic paid handsomely near Yarmouth where all other boats had chosen the mainland shore leaving the 86 foot Zephyrus V to benefit from the arrival of the new breeze first and move out into an impressive lead.
Alfa Romeo, having burst a spinnaker on the run down the Solent, lost more time with a re-hoist problem and passed through Hurst Narrows as the Class leader Zephyrus V passed the Needles, a lead of almost three miles.
As the start sequences progressed the tidal differential between the middle of the Solent and the edges weakened giving less of an advantage to the boats that started at the Northern end. The Dutch boat Tonnerre of Breskens, Pete VROON'S 2001 Rolex Fastnet Race IRC overall winner, along with Alex THOMSON'S brand new Farr 65 Hugo Boss made the best starts at the island end, pulling away to strong positions on the way down the Solent.
The three biggest classes in terms of entry numbers, each used the full length of the line to try and find the space required for a clear air start in their division. The resulting wall of sails made it hard to know where was the best place to be, and only a few got away cleanly, the rest spending their time fighting more for clear air on their way down the Solent than fighting for the right side of the course.
Pierre BLAYOU'S Cajou 2, a French IMX-40, made the best start at the island end in the 56-strong Class One. In 76 strong Class Two it was surprisingly a double-handed J-105 that made the best start, Simon CURWEN'S Voador turning his start into a nice lead ten minutes into the race. There are five double-handed crews in Class Two. The 40 boat Class Three division, the home of a significant number of sailing school entries and the penultimate start, had the benefit of a uniform tide and the paths of the larger boats to show the way.
The 6 strong Multihull Class has boats ranging in size from 40-foot trimarans to Tony Bullimore's 100-foot catamaran Team Plimsic. But it was Robert HERBERT'S lime-green hulled Gleam that made the best start and sailed away at high speed, whilst Bullimore's giant made a more sedately crossing of the line some five minutes late.
With the prevailing conditions in the Channel many but not all of the Rolex Fastnet Race fleet can expect to pass Portland Bill on the first tide which turns foul at 1600 this afternoon. Those that know they will not make it will already be anticipating which route to take, either inshore along the coast or further South offshore as they contemplate the prospect of six hours of spring foul tide later this afternoon.
There is a risk of violent thunderstorms further West today and the extended forecast calls for light anticyclonic conditions past a weak cold front that is stationary over Cornwall. By the time the majority of the fleet head out into the Celtic Sea late on Monday, the conditions will be light as a strong high pressure zone sets in behind.
The first boats are not expected to round the Fastnet Rock before early on Tuesday, and to finish in Plymouth at least 24 hours later.