Fastnet 2017 Start ( Photo © Barry James Wilson )

Sunday 6 August 2017

The Solent laid on ‘classic’ conditions for the start of the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s 47th Rolex Fastnet Race. In brilliant sunshine and with brisk westerly winds gusting up to 20 knots, the giant fleet tacked up the western Solent before compressing through the usual bottleneck at Hurst Narrows. A record-sized fleet of 368 boats started the race, 12 more than two years ago, confirming the Rolex Fastnet Race’s position as the world’s largest offshore yacht race.

(Photo © Barry James Wilson)

(Photo © Barry James Wilson)

 

The first start got underway at 11:00 BST for the nine multihulls and within minutes, the blue three-hulled streak that is Concise 10 had pulled out a lead, frequently heeling to an alarming degree, just one hull immersed.

 

By the time IRC One was starting at 12:20 Tony Lawson’s MOD 70, skippered by Ned Collier Wakefield, was already off Poole. Crewman Paul Larsen, who five years ago became the world’s fastest sailor setting a world record of 65.45 knots, reported Concise 10 was sailing under reefed mainsail and staysail. “We’re making 20 knots tacking past Poole and just dropping into the watch system. Glamour start conditions in the Solent. I can just see the next boats clearing Hurst Castle.” However Larsen warned that unless the wind freed up, there was little chance for them to break the multihull race record. By 1500 Concise 10 was already level with Portland Bill.

The multihulls were followed away from Cowes by two other ‘non-IRC’ classes – the nine doublehanded IMOCA 60s and twenty seven Class40s. Given the upwind conditions, the older, conventionally foiled IMOCA 60s were prevailing. At 1630 Paul Meilhat and Jules Verne Trophy record holder crewman Gwénolé Gahinet aboard SMA, the 2012-3 Vendee Globe (and the 2013 Rolex Fastnet Race) winner as MACIF, were leading the 60s past Portland Bill. The first ‘foil-assisted’ IMOCA 60 was favourite Alex Thomson and Nicholas O’Leary on Hugo Boss in third place, taking a northerly route, close to the land.

In the Class40s present championship leader Phil Sharp on board Imerys led past St Alban’s Head, but later there was little too choose with the British boat neck and neck for the lead in this incredible fleet with the Maxime Sorel-skippered V And B, Burkhard Keese’s Stella Nova, Benoit Charon’s LMAX Normandie and race veteran Halvard Mabire and Miranda Merron on Campagne de France.

The five IRC handicap classes, chasing the race’s overall prize of the Fastnet Challenge Cup started with the smallest boats first at 1120.

This afternoon at 1600, the IRC One fleet had fanned out across the course to the southeast of St Alban’s Head. James Neville’s HH42 Ino XXX was leading the charge inshore as Staffan Wincrantz’s Arcona 465 SALT 2.0 was ahead on the water to the south, just ahead of the venerable 1960s maxi Kialoa II, owned by Patrick Broughton.

 

Mid-afternoon, competitors in IRC Two were favouring the inshore route with Dutchman Frans Rodenburg’s First 40 Elke, closest to St Alban’s Head at 1620, with class favourite Gilles Fournier and Corinne Migraine’s J/133 Pintia nearby.

Marc Alperovitch’s JPK 1080, Timeline in the largest class – IRC 3 © Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

The IRC Three boats were following a similar tactic with the offshore tack being less popular. Having started 20 minutes earlier, they were still successfully fending off the advances of the larger, faster IRC Two fleet. The Russian JPK 10.80, Igor Rytov’s Boyatyr, was leading the pack inshore while the brilliantly-named Seafarers Ale Anticipation, the First 40.7 of former 470 Olympian Pete Newlands, was ahead on the water offshore.

The inshore-offshore spread was more evenly distributed among the smallest boats in IRC Four. Here Noel Racine’s impeccably sailed JPK 10.10 Foggy Dew was ahead inshore while Dan Rigden’s Elan 37 Tacktic was furthest down the track out to sea.

The last to start were the largest in the IRC fleet, IRC Zero, including the line honours contenders George David’s Rambler 88 and Ludde Ingvall’s 100ft CQS. By 1520 Rambler 88 was off and close into St Alban’s Head, leading IRC Zero on the water just ahead of the biggest boat in the fleet, the 115ft Nikata.

Rambler 88 (Photo © Barry James Wilson)

Rambler 88 (Photo © Barry James Wilson)

Rambler 88 (Photo © Barry James Wilson)

Rambler 88 (Photo © Barry James Wilson)

Among the seven one design VO65s competing in ‘Leg 0’ of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race, it was very close, with the Charles Caudrelier-skippered Dongfeng Race Team a nose ahead and making 12.3 knots but facing a threat from Team Brunel, skippered again by Dutch race veteran Bouwe Bekking, making 12.5 as the boats passed St Alban’s Head.

This morning Xabi Fernández, skipper of MAPFRE, looked forward to the race: “Once out of the Solent it will be upwind sailing up to the Fastnet rock, and finally we will sail downwind towards Plymouth. This is the first time I’ve competed in the Rolex Fastnet Race. It is a historic race, much like the Rolex Sydney Hobart.”

Joan Vila, MAPFRE’s legendary navigator confirmed the forecast: “Once we leave the Solent, the wind will blow at around 20 knots. From there, it will drop until tomorrow morning, with the probability of encountering areas of very light wind. As we get closer to Plymouth, the wind will build again.”

Spindrift 2 takes Line Honours at the Rolex Fastnet 2015  (photo © Mark Lloyd / Lloyu Images)

Image licensed to Lloyd Images
Rolex Fastnet 2015. Pictures of the 131ft Maxi Trimaran Spindrift 2 skippered by Yann Guichard (FRA) and Donna Beraterelli (Sui) pictured taking line honours as the cross the finish line this evening

On August 18th at 23:57:41 (CET),The maxi-trimaran Spindrift 2 was the first boat across the finish line in Plymouth in the 46th Rolex Fastnet Race after a thrilling tactical race in an unusually calm Celtic Sea. For 58 hours, Dona Bertarelli’s and Yann Guichard’s crew raced through erratic winds within sight of their closest rivals, who chased them all the way to the finish line. It was a race full of twists and turns, even in the last few miles, before Spindrift 2 sealed her second victory in as many years. The ocean-going black-and-gold trimaran is better suited to the winds of the Southern Ocean than the unusually calm conditions of this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race, but the French and Swiss crew successfully negotiated this test of teamwork and endurance, which came with just a few months to go until their attempt at the Jules Verne Trophy.

Image licensed to Lloyd Images "Spindrift 2" the 100ft Maxi Trimaran skippered by Dona Bertarelli & Yann Guichard shown here at the start of the 2015 Rolex Fastnet Race. Cowes. Isle of Wight (photo by LLoyd Images)

Image licensed to Lloyd Images
“Spindrift 2” the 100ft Maxi Trimaran skippered by Dona Bertarelli & Yann Guichard shown here at the start of the 2015 Rolex Fastnet Race. Cowes. Isle of Wight
(photo by LLoyd Images)

It’s always a pleasure to come back to this legendary course,” explained Dona Bertarelli at the finish. “The light, unpredictable winds made it all the more difficult. We had to use every last gust to make headway. The race required determination, endurance and teamwork. We had to perform a lot of manoeuvres and we had to test the changes made to prepare the boat for the Jules Verne Trophy. The results were positive from a technical point of view, because our power increased by 20% at certain points of sail.” 

Yann Guichard also spoke about the race: “It was my second Fastnet Race and it’s always very exciting to sail around Fastnet Rock. It was a long, slow race, but we learnt a great deal. We saw that the boat is now much quicker in light winds. It was the first race for Spindrift 2 in her new configuration. We’ve got quite a few small tweaks to do here and there. It was a very useful exercise as part of our preparations for the around-the-world record attempt.

Shortly after finishing the race in Plymouth, the trimaran headed back out to sea to return to her home port of La Trinité-sur-Mer, which she is expected to reach on Wednesday during the day.

Message from the board here.

View the pictures of Spindrift 2 on the Fastnet Race here.

Technical specifications:
Name: maxi-trimaran Spindrift 2
Central hull length: 40 m
Length of floats: 37 m
Beam: 23 m
Displacement: 21.50 t
Draft: 5.10 m
Air draft: 45 m
Mast height: 42 m
Mainsail: 405 m²
Gennaker max: 560 m²
Gennaker medium: 450 m²
Gennaker mini: 360 m²
Reacher: 260 m²
Staysail: 170 m²
ORC: 75 m²

Maxi-trimaran Spindrift 2 schedule:
September – October
Training aboard Spindrift 2.

Jules Verne Trophy
Around-the-world record attempt starting from Ouessant Island (Brittany, France) and circumnavigating the world, passing Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin and Cape Horn to port. The current record was set on January 6th, 2012 by the maxi-trimaran Banque Populaire V (Loïck Peyron and thirteen crew members) in a time of 45 days, 13 hours, 42 minutes and 53 seconds, averaging 19.75 knots.

Spindrift 2, Onboard, Fastnet Race (Photo by Yann Riou)

Spindrift 2, Onboard, Fastnet Race (Photo by Yann Riou)

 

 

The Rolex Fastnet Race fleet at Hurst Castle Lighthouse. The spectacular fleet fills the Solent between the Isle of Wight and the mainland shores © Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

The Rolex Fastnet Race fleet at Hurst Castle Lighthouse. The spectacular fleet fills the Solent between the Isle of Wight and the mainland shores © Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

Two months out from the start of the Rolex Fastnet Race, the Royal Ocean Racing Club has made public the latest entry list for its biennial 600 mile race from Cowes to Plymouth, via the Fastnet Rock, starting at noon on Sunday 16th August.

 The entry list makes for impressive reading in terms of scale, diversity and quality of the fleet taking part, confirming the Rolex Fastnet Race’s position as the world’s biggest and most popular offshore race by far.

As of today there are 387 boats entered with a further 74 on the waiting list. If all the boats currently entered were put bow to stern, the line from Cowes would stretch two thirds of the way across the Solent to the mainland (1635.75m).

The bulk of the fleet – 340 entries to be precise – are competing under IRC for the race’s overall prize, the Fastnet Challenge Cup. With the two American maxis: Jim and Kristy Hinze Clark’s 100ft Comanche and George David’s Rambler 88, due to be the pace setters on the water, the IRC fleet will, in due course, be divided into classes and class sub-divisions.

The remaining 47 are not competing under IRC but represent some of the world’s leading professional race boat classes. These include the latest generation foil-born IMOCA 60s, lining up for their first major event in the build-up to next year’s Vendée Globe, plus a large and highly competitive fleet of Class40s. Then there is the 13 strong multihull class featuring Dona Bertarelli and Yann Guichard’s 40m long trimaran, Spindrift 2, the world’s fastest offshore sailing yacht; in 2009 she covered 908.2 nm (ie 50% further than the Rolex Fastnet Race course) in 24 hours at an average speed of 37.84 knots and in 2011, as Banque Populaire V, set the Rolex Fastnet Race multihull record.

The average size of yacht competing in this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race is 44.34ft (13.52m) with Spindrift 2 being the largest multihull, Comanche and Leopard the longest monohulls at 100ft and at the smallest end of the fleet, three 30ft yachts including Myles and Ashley Perrin’s Capo 30, Santana from California.

In IRC rating terms, Comanche and Rambler 88 lead the charge with Time Correction Coefficients (TCC) of 1.973 and 1.869 respectively, while the slowest boat in the fleet is Tony Harwood’s Nicholson 38, Volante,on 0.864 (the minimum permitted TCC this year is 0.850).

An impressive 52 entries are sailing two handed, up from 45 in 2013 when the race was won for the first time in its history by a two handed crew: French father and son, Pascal and Alexis Loison aboard their JPK 10.10,Night and Day.

Hoping to emulate the Loisins’ performance this year is another father and son crew, Derek and Conor Dillon from Listowel in southwest Ireland, who are competing on their Dehler 34, Big Deal. Despite owning the boat for 10 years and campaigning her in many regattas in Ireland, the Dillons have only recently ventured into offshore racing, but nonetheless won the Two Handed class in last year’s Round Ireland Race. With the Fastnet Rock on their doorstep in Kerry, the RORC’s flagship event was an obvious ambition.

Conor Dillon will race Two Handed with his Father Derek on their Dehler 34, Big Deal.
© Dillon Family

As Conor puts it: “We have rounded the Fastnet many times and always dreamed of doing it in the Rolex Fastnet Race. This will be a memorable moment for us for sure. I just hope it happens in day time…

“Every year we are trying to go bigger and bolder. This is an opportunity to compete in a legendary race against the best the world has to offer as well as, of course, making lifetime memories together. There are some seriously talented sailors in this race. You can give it your absolute all, and still not touch the leaders.”

Among the present line-up 180 boats will be competing in the race for the first time, while 163 took part in 2013. Some of the most regular participants are Dutch old hands such as Piet Vroon, winner of the race in 2001 and, at the tender age of 85, back this year with his latest yacht, Tonnerre 4. Then there’s Harry Heijst who has raced his classic Royal Huisman-built S&S 41, Winsome, in seven Fastnets, the first back in 1999.

“The most memorable Rolex Fastnet Race for us was in 2005 when we won Class 2 and came fourth overall,” recalls Heijst. “We were looking good for a first overall until three Class 4 boats suddenly got a lot wind at the Lizard and beat us in.”

Harry Heijst's Winsome
Harry Heijst’s Royal Huisman-built S&S 41, Winsome competing in the RORC Easter Challenge earlier this year
© Paul Wyeth/pwpictures.com

Celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2015, the RORC, for the first time, gave their members priority entry to the race. RORC Commodore Michael Boyd expressed the delight of the club at the overwhelming interest in its flagship event: “Naturally, we are delighted with the enormous interest in the 2015 Rolex Fastnet Race. We now expect almost 400 starters and may have to disappoint many currently on the waiting list.  Of course, there is a way to avoid a let-down in 2017…join RORC! I will be aboard Peter Rutter’s Grand Soleil 43, Quokka 8, in IRC 2 as we continue our ‘joint adventure’ and we hope to have our cruising boat, Southerly, to welcome finishers in Plymouth.”

Michael Board on board Olivia,Contessa 32 at the RYS Fleet Review © Olivia Chenevix-Trench.jpeg
RORC Commodore, Michael Boyd on board Contessa 32, Olivia at the recent RYS Fleet Review bicentenary celebrations
© Olivia Chenevix-Trench

Nordeutsche Vermoe at 2007 Fastnet Finish (Photo by Rolex / Carlo Borlenghi)

The waiting is nearly over: the 44th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race, one of the great ocean challenges is just 2 weeks away. With a staggering 350 entrants at the ready, 1979’s record-breaking tally of 303 participating yachts will almost certainly be surpassed. The sheer size of the fleet is impressive. Its quality and diversity quite breathtaking. Inspiring and exhilarating in equal measure, there is every reason to believe that the 2011 Rolex Fastnet Race will maintain the event’s pioneering and prestigious tradition.

The numbers game
Due to the Rolex Fastnet’s unique allure, event organisers the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) never have any difficulty ensuring that there is a large and impressive fleet in attendance. This year is no exception. Entries came in thick and fast and were closed within ten days of opening in January. However, the requests kept arriving. After being inundated with additional enquiries from the Volvo Open 70s, the IMOCA 60s, Class 40s and Multihulls to join the 608-nautical mile marathon, the RORC adjusted the entry limit to allow these ‘professional’ classes to be counted above the initial cut-off mark.

The Rolex Fastnet Race commences from Cowes on Sunday 14 August (the first signal sounds at 10:50 BST). Whilst crews with the ambition of being the fastest to the finish will hope to spend only one or two nights at sea, spare a thought for those at the back of the pack, for whom a near week in often punishing conditions may be the order of the day.

Rambler 100 enjoying Leopard hunt
Short of a catastrophic breakdown, the fastest boat on the water at the 2011 Rolex Fastnet Race will be the 100-foot trimaran, Banque Populaire (FRA), which just broke the round the Britain Isles record by almost a day and a half. However, the battle for monohull line honours is the most anticipated clash and is expected to be the privilege of two other 100-ft challengers: Mike Slade’s ICAP Leopard (GBR), first elapsed-time finisher in the past two editions, and arch-rivals George David’s Rambler 100 (USA). The two crews know each other extremely well, given their series of tussles in recent months. A head-to-head battle in the Transatlantic Race, which saw Rambler 100 ease to line honours after ICAP Leopard lost her bowsprit, the freshest encounter.

“Having won the Rolex Fastnet Race twice, the big play is to win three in a row, which would be quite exceptional,” explains Slade, whose yacht also holds the course record of 1 day, 20 hours and 18 minutes [set in 2007]. “During the RORC Caribbean 600, Rambler 100 proved to be the faster boat in her ideal conditions. However, Rambler 100 may also need to protect herself in bad weather, more than ICAP Leopard. We feel we have a good chance in light and heavy airs, it is the bit in between that we might have a problem! I am really looking forward to the Fastnet, it should be a very exciting race but above all else, I don’t want to lose our record to Rambler 100, that would be heartbreaking and we will vigorously defend it.”

Rambler 100 is as keen to renew hostilities. “We’re anticipating sailing in Cowes Week from 9-11 August and hope ICAP Leopard and others will be competing as well,” explains David, “we’ve had three races together already, the Caribbean 600, the Annapolis to Newport and now the Transatlantic Race. Rambler 100 took line honours and corrected ahead of ICAP Leopard in all three.”

David is fervent about the upcoming Fastnet Race and describes his own personal highlights of the parcours: “Beating out through The Needles in a huge fleet, the beauty of the south coast of England, the approach to the [Fastnet] Rock, and the wind and weather conditions all over the place.”

Whilst these two ocean greyhounds are clear monohull line honours favourites, they may not have it all their own way. There is the significant presence of six Volvo 70s, including two of the latest breed: Abu Dhabi (UAE) and Groupama IV (FRA). Then there is the Mini Maxi class including defending Rolex Fastnet handicap winner, the 72-ft Rán (GBR), owned by Niklas Zennström, in addition to Andres Soriano’s Mills 68 Alegre (GBR), a fantastic campaigner in the Mediterranean in recent seasons. Throwing in the American challengers, the STP65 Vanquish, and the Reichel-Pugh 66 Zaraffa, who like ICAP Leopard and Rambler 100 competed in the Transatlantic Race, it promises to be a tight contest at the top of the fleet.

Tales from the foreign third
Of the record breaking 350 yachts competing at this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race, approximately a third are non-British crews. A scan of the 2011 entry list highlights the global pull of the event, with yachts competing from the following countries: Austria, Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, the UAE and the USA.

Karl Kwok, owner of the 80-ft Beau Geste (HKG), will be taking part in the event for the third time. “I am definitely here for the challenge as this is one of the most interesting and competitive offshore races in the world,” he explains. “My first time here was in 1995, followed by my second appearance in the last edition [in 2009]. We did well on that occasion, but it could be better still!” Kwok adores offshore racing: “For me the top three blue water offshore classics are the Fastnet, Sydney to Hobart and Newport to Bermuda – in that order. And Rolex has the top two!” Beau Geste will be another yacht snapping at the heels of the 100-footers and also arrive in Cowes fresh from competing in the Transatlantic Race.

One overseas crew in particular has reason to treasure its association with the Rolex Fastnet. Six years ago, Frenchman Jean Yves Chateau’s 33-ft Nicholson Iromiguy won the competition on corrected time, the first time in three decades that the overall prize had been won by a yacht under 40 feet. For the Saint Malo-based skipper, the victory was both a surprise and a fulfilment of an ambition: “To win the Rolex Fastnet Race was like a childhood dream, it is like an ‘Everest’ in my life and in the life of each member of my crew: absolutely fantastic, unbelievable, gorgeous, not to mention the incredible fact of having beaten all the big guys. It was also very important for me to be the third French sailor to win this race and to have my name engraved on this Cup close to Eric Tabarly [the legendary French skipper who won the race in 1967]!”

Regarding the ‘draw’ of the Rolex Fastnet, Chateau continues: “It is a mythical race. This year will be our seventh time and we are always very pleased and enthusiastic to participate with the crazy dream of winning it one more time.” Amongst the sizeable French contingent is the intriguing story of the IMOCA 60 DCNS 100 (FRA), sailed by skipper Marc Thiercelin and his famous apprentice, former downhill skier and endurance motorsport driver, Luc Alphand. DCNS 100 is one of seven IMOCA 60s, including Cheminées Poujoulat (SUI) launched in May this year.

John Towers is helming the J/122 Oojah (GBR) with a US-based crew joining British boat owner Peter Tanner, their navigator for the race. The English Channel is some distance from their usual racing haven of the east coast of the United States. “As a group of Americans, we consider the Rolex Fastnet Race to be a once in a lifetime adventure that is a natural compliment to our passion for distance racing,” explains Towers, “the Fastnet is a big deal for us and an adventure that we have been planning for the last two years.”

Tanner continues: “Our goal will be the same as any other race we enter. Priority one is a safe passage. Priority two is that the experience is very positive for all members of the crew. Our third priority is to be competitive.”           

Triple TP52 challenge
The three TP52s competing at the Rolex Fastnet Race will resume their engagement having been near inseparable at the recent Giraglia Rolex Cup. On that occasion, Franck Noël’s Near Miss (SUI) finished the 243-nautical mile race less than two minutes ahead of Johnny Vincent’s Pace (GBR). Bryon Ehrhart’s Lucky (USA) was only a further hour behind. On corrected time, only seven places separated the three crews, with Pace coming out on top. Over a considerably longer distance, this ‘race within a race’ will be one to follow come August.               

Back of the pack
The crew of the Contessa-32 Drumbeat (GBR) will likely have one opportunity to admire ICAP Leopard and Rambler 100 – during the passage out of the Solent. For co-skippers and brothers-in-law, Mark Himsworth and Pierre Walrafen, the race ahead will be one of endurance and, at times, solitude: “It feels amazing to be one of the smallest and slowest boats competing, tacking or gybing down the Solent against much larger and faster machines after the start. All the while competing on handicap directly against them,” explains Himsworth, who will be taking part in the Rolex Fastnet for a third time.

The reality soon becomes quite different, as Himsworth reveals: “After 24 hours, most of the competition is long gone. Thereafter it’s occasionally difficult to keep your mind away from the thought of the faster boats turning towards (or arriving at) Plymouth while ours plugs steadily westwards round Land’s End. It’s a pretty solitary undertaking when you’re on watch and your co-skipper’s sleeping and none of your competitors are visible, but that’s all part of the attraction, and there’s still plenty going on in Plymouth when we arrive!”            

Trophy hunt
The main trophy for overall victory in the Rolex Fastnet is the Fastnet Challenge Cup. In addition, there are more than 30 additional trophies that will be awarded at the prize giving on Friday, 19 August at the historic Royal Citadel, home of the 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, overlooking Plymouth Sound and Sutton Harbour, where the majority of the fleet will berth.

 Dock Preparations At Cowes at 2007 Fastnet (Photo by Rolex / Carlo Borlenghi )

Fourty Degrees Rounding Fastnet Rock (Photo by Rolex / Carlo Borlenghi)

Fourty Degrees Rounding Fastnet Rock (Photo by Rolex / Carlo Borlenghi)

The Royal Ocean Racing Club held a press conference today at the Sir Max Aitken Museum in Cowes with the start of the 2009 Rolex Fastnet race just a few days away.
Chris Sherlock, Boat Captain of ICAP Leopard commented; “The forecast at the moment looks like it could be a light airs race but this is a British summer and anything could happen. Our current models are predicting an elapsed time of anything between 45-55 hours for ICAP Leopard, so who knows? She has undergone some modifications since last time, we have taken some weight out and she is half a metre longer.”
Tanguy de Lamotte, skipper of Class 40, Initiatives Saveurs – Novedia was excited to be competing in his first Rolex Fastnet race; “I wanted to race two years ago but the boat was untested. Now I am really keen and it is a competitive class. There are 20 Class 40s racing but I have been told that the virtual game is also in 40ft boats, so the class is really thousands!”
At the press conference, RORC Racing manager, Ian Loffhagen, confirmed that the expected light airs start is not expected to alter the start and currently will go ahead as scheduled in the Notice of Race
Berrimilla 2 sailed by Alex Whitworth and Peter Crozier, to the Chilean Class 40, Desafio Cabo de Hornos, recently second round the world in the Portimao Global Ocean Race, to Karl Kwok’s Beau Geste from Hong Kong. A number of boats are also making the journey all the way to the start in Cowes from the US, such as Roger Sturgeon’s Rolex Sydney Hobart-winning STP65 Rosebud/Team DYT, or up from the Mediterranean, such as the Italian America’s Cup team Luna Rossa with their STP65 led by four-time Olympic medallist, Robert Scheidt.

The line-up this year is as spectacular, as it is diverse, with a huge spread of boats, from the 100 footers – Mike Slade’s line honours hunting ICAP Leopard, and the more comfortable Performance Yachts 100, Liara of Tony Todd – down to the smallest class 3 yachts, the shortest being the Polish 30-footer, Four Winds, belonging to Wieslaw Krupski.

The RORC’s IRC handicap system is used to level out the widely differing performances found across this range of boats as best indicated by their IRC time correction factors: Leopard’s stands at 1.868, while Tony Harwood’s comfortable Nicholson 38 Volante is the lowest rated boat entered with a TCF of 0.863. This means that to beat Volante, Leopard has to sail 2.16 times faster than her or when Leopard crosses the finish line, Volante could still be ahead of her if she were only half way across the Celtic Sea outbound to the Fastnet Rock with more than 325 miles of the 608-mile long race still left to sail.

With such a large fleet, the boats are divided up into classes: SZ, Z, 1, 2 and 3 with a special class SZCK, for the canting keel yachts such as ICAP Leopard and the Open 60s such as Alex Thomson’s Hugo Boss. In addition, one of the most competitive classes this year will be the Class 40 of which 20 examples are racing, including Giovanni Soldini’s Telecom Italia, winner of last year’s Artemis Transat.

One of the favourites for the overall handicap prize is certain to be Dutch skipper Piet Vroon and his new Ker 46, Tonnerre de Breskens. Launched this season, Tonnerre has already won two of the three of the RORC races she has entered.

“It has been going very well. I am rather pleased!” says her Dutch owner enthusiastically. Vroon cannot remember exactly how many Rolex Fastnet Races he has done, but thinks the number is around 21. This includes winning overall in 2001, although he admits he followed this up two years later with a 237th place. “It is the only offshore race left. All the other ones are just overnight,” he says as to the attraction of the race. “The course is interesting and difficult. It is not all that easy to predict where you have got to be. In spite of all the electronics and weather information, it always works out slightly different from what you expect. Like in 2001, if you happen to get it all right – if you pass Portland at the right moment, Land’s End, if you catch the tides right, if the wind changes your way – by the same token, if you miss it by half an hour you can be out.”

Typically small boats do well when the race starts light and conditions build mid-week. In recent history the best example of this was when Jean Yves Chateau’s well-sailed Nicholson 33, Iromiguy won overall in 2005. “For me it is the greatest race in Europe,” says Chateau of the Rolex Fastnet Race. “There are many, many beautiful racing boats and we very much like this race. I have known this race for a very, very long time. When I was a child it was a dream to do this race, and for me when we won this race four years ago, it was extraordinaire!”

Chateau returns this year with just one crew change. Already this year he has been warming up by competing in the RORC’s races and at present lies ninth overall in the RORC 2009 championship.

At the bigger end of the spectrum, the race favourite is probably Niklas Zennström’s new Judel Vrolijk 72 Ran 2 that has already had a successful season in the Mediterranean. She also benefits from local knowledge having a largely British crew, led by Volvo Ocean Race veteran Tim Powell.

While winning the Rolex Fastnet Race comes down to how well each of the entries sails relative to their rating, many additional wildcards are thrown at the competitors from, in particular, the weather, but also tides and the numerous tidal ‘gates’ off every headland along the south coast of England. This is what makes this race one of the most tactical games of snakes and ladders in the yachting calendar.

One advantage of having a bigger boat is that they are less affected by these tidal gates than the smaller boats, as Tim Powell explains: “With all these kind of races you need an element of good fortune to make it through the tide gates smoothly. The one thing about our boat is that it doesn’t take a lot of wind to get going and get a decent speed up – whereas the smaller boats might struggle to get through a tide gate if there’s only 5 knots of wind. In that we’d keep on punching through. I am a firm believer that you need a bit of good fortune with the tides stacking up right for you. But that’s something you can’t control too much. You end up where you end up.”

Ran 2 will sail with her normal all-star cast including numerous America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race veterans but they will face the very highest competition with crews of equally accomplished sailors on board the STP65s Rosebud and Luna Rossa and on Karl Kwok’s Farr 80 Beau Geste. Powell says he will be particularly looking out for Rosebud and Beau Geste as they are the more offshore-orientated.

A record entry of 300 boats will each carry an OC Tracker for the 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race, which starts from Cowes this Sunday, 9th August. The Fastnet Race is a 608 nautical mile offshore classic which sees boats ranging from 30ft cruisers to 100ft Maxis racing from Cowes on the Isle of Wight, to the Fastnet Rock, off the south coast of Ireland, before returning to the finish in Plymouth. Every yacht will carry an OC Tracker device, supplied jointly by OC Technology, part of the OC Group, and race organisers RORC. The OC Tracker is an Iridium-based GPS unit that automatically supplies position updates for the entire fleet, which can then be viewed online on a special race viewer.

This year’s edition marks the 30th anniversary of the tragic 1979 Fastnet Race, when gale-force winds battered the fleet. Fifteen yachtsmen lost their lives, and a total of 23 yachts were sunk or abandoned. A massive search and rescue operation resulted in over 130 sailors being rescued at sea, however, the limited communications technology carried by yachts at the time meant that one of the greatest difficulties facing the rescue services was locating each boat.

“This year we have record entry numbers of 310 – 300 yachts racing in the Fastnet and 10 IMOCA 60 yachts in their own class. We also have a new, improved race player and all the OC Trackers will be on the same race viewer,” explained Clémentine d’Oiron, Manager, OC Technology. The OC Trackers are a self–contained unit that operate automatically. “The crews have to just put them on the boat and switch them on by simply removing a small magnet, and then just leave it be. It will be automatically reporting every half hour throughout the race.

“It’s all self-contained, with no wires, and is really straightforward. The OC Tracker stays in sleep mode all the time, and only wakes up to send its message, which means it has a lot of battery life because it’s only on for 3 minutes every hour. It’s the most reliable system in the world and we’ve got the biggest fleet of trackers in the world.”

However, d’Oiron warned that occasionally a boat may not show on the race viewer. “Sometimes if the boat is too heeled over the OC Tracker might not be able to send a signal, so it will keep trying again. But if a Tracker isn’t working on the map, that doesn’t mean the boat necessarily has a problem.”

The first Trackers have already been fitted to Fastnet entries this week, with the remainder added and activated well before the start of the Rolex Fastnet Race at 12.00pm on Sunday, 9th August.