It will be fascinating to watch how the revamped Skandia performs against Maximus, Charles St Clair BROWN and Bill BUCKLEY's new canting keeled yacht that proved her offshore potential with a strong performance in the recent Rolex Transatlantic Challenge from New York to Cowes.
Technology has come on a long way since 1999, when Ross FIELD and the 80 foot Maxi RF Yachting set the current monohull record for the Fastnet course at 2 days, 5 hours and 8 minutes. If wind conditions are favourable, then both Maximus and Skandia are easily capable of beating that time. Then again, more often than not the Rolex Fastnet is a light wind race. The first priority for these teams will certainly be to win the race rather than the record, and even then they may have their work cut against some Volvo Open 70 teams, who are using the race to hone their competitive instincts before setting off around the world this November on the Volvo Ocean Race.
Despite being 30 feet shorter than the two big Maxis, the VO70 design has already proven itself as a potent beast for offshore racing. The Spanish team Telefonica MoviStar raised the 24 hour monohull distance record to 535 miles earlier this year, and sailors and designers are all talking about these yachts as being capable of covering 600 miles in a day. The Spanish are believed to be entering their boat in the race, along with Swedish entry Ericsson.
So, could completing the 608 miles of the Rolex Fastnet Race in 24 hours be likely? Far from it. This is not a drag race. The challenge of the Fastnet is the complexity of the course, beginning with the first few miles out of the Solent. Picking your way along the coast of southwest Britain is all about finding the best combination of favourable wind and tidal influences, and avoiding the adverse ones. This game of snakes and ladders continues until you get past Land's End and break out into the Irish Sea.
The long stretch out to the Fastnet Rock, off the southwestern tip of Ireland, is tactically more straightforward but the unfettered winds and rolling swell from the Atlantic can make this stage physically challenging. Many crews have been sitting on the rail without pause - talking, eating and even sleeping - as they battle their way to the legendary Fastnet Lighthouse. When they see her powerful beam shining out, they might at last get a chance to climb off the rail and enjoy some downwind sailing.
Not that the outcome of the race is decided at this point, not by a long stretch. The fleet must still pass Bishops Rock off the Isles of Scilly and then negotiate the windless zone that frequently occurs at Rame Head just before the finish in Plymouth. The race is often decided in the final few miles, frustrating for the leaders but always offering hope to those playing catch-up.
For the majority of the crews taking part, finishing the Rolex Fastnet represents the pinnacle of their offshore racing careers, the completion of the longest race that they may ever enter. For Open 60 competitors such as Marc Thiercelin, who hopes to compete on Proform, 608 miles represents a short sprint by comparison with their round-the-world exploits. Nevertheless, these ocean racers will be taking the Rolex Fastnet Race as seriously as anyone. With the exception of the war years, this event has taken place every other year since 1925, when the 56 foot Jolie Brise beat six other yachts to Plymouth in the inaugural Fastnet Race. It has long been established as one of the major ocean classics, and to win it is a feather in the cap for anyone, no matter how distinguished their racing CV.
While the big boats will be racing primarily for line honours victory, they will also be hoping the wind works to their advantage in the race for handicap honours. However, there are some smaller yachts with a great potential for winning under the IRC handicap system. One of the favourites will be Aera, Nick LYKIARDOPULO's 55 footer skippered by former Volvo Ocean Race skipper Jez FANSTONE. Aera proved her pedigree with a stunning victory in the windy Rolex Sydney Hobart six months ago, and the team would dearly love to win another 'major' in the Royal Ocean Racing Club's calendar.
At the lower end of the size spectrum are the small cruiser/racers such as Moonshadow II, Ian COGLIN's Contessa 32, and the four Sigma 33s currently entered. Although these yachts are largely amateur crewed, even they have the potential to win the Rolex Fastnet Race if the wind blows in their favour. Historically this race has proven to be one for the big boats, but the Fastnet course is also known for throwing up a few surprises along the way. With over 160 yachts already entered from ten nations, and many more expected to join the list before entry deadline on 22 July, predicting a winner is nigh on impossible.
The first signal for the start of the Rolex Fastnet Race sounds at 1050 hours local time on Sunday 7 August. In addition to the two main prizes - the Fastnet Challenge Cup and the Fastnet Rock Trophy, there are more than 30 trophies to be awarded at the conclusion of this year's Rolex Fastnet Race. The prizegiving will take place at the Royal Citadel, home of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, in Plymouth on Friday 12 August.