Fastnet - The Rock And The Race

Fastnet Rock

On Sunday 14th August yachts and crews will be hoisting their sails to take part in the 44th Fastnet Race. Here is the story behind the Rock and the Race.

The Fastnet Rock and lighthouse

Although just a small rocky islet in the Atlantic Ocean, rising to about 30m above low water mark, the Fastnet Rock has a fearsome reputation, not only because of the frequent storms and large waves in the area but also because of the experiences of the hundreds of sailors who have tried to round the Rock in the famous Fastnet Race.

The name probably comes from the Old Norse meaning “sharp tooth isle” and in Irish it is called “Carraig Aonair” meaning “solitary rock”. The lighthouse is often known as The Teardrop of Ireland, as it is the last sight of Ireland for emigrants sailing for America.

The current lighthouse is the second to be built on the rock and is the highest in Ireland. The first lighthouse was started in 1853 and lit in 1854 but the tower proved too weak to stand up to the waves. When gales hit, it was shaken so much that sometimes crockery flew off tables and on one occasion a water cask, lashed 40m above the high water mark, was washed away. Attempts were made to strengthen the tower but in 1897 the site was levelled and building started on a new lighthouse. This time dovetailed blocks of Cornish Granite were used to give it strength. Bad weather and the difficulty of finding suitable stone delayed the construction. At times there were as many as 22 men living on the rock, not counting the lightkeepers and often the weather was too severe for them to work. The building was finally completed in 1903 and the tower was lit in 1904. There were six keepers of the Fastnet Rock – four working and two on leave. Each man did four weeks on and two weeks off. This was one of the loneliest postings off the Irish coast. The lighthouse was manned until 1989 when it was automated.

The Fastnet Race

The “Rolex Fastnet Race” is the most famous and challenging of the races organised by the Royal Ocean Racing Club or RORC as it is better known. The biennial race attracts yachtsmen from all over the world and stretches both yachts and crews to their limits. It is one of the few classic races open to amateur crews and most serious yachtsmen feel that they have to take part at least once.

The 608 mile course is described as “Cowes to Plymouth via the Fastnet Rock”. The yachts sail westward past the Needles and out into the English Channel passing the headlands along the South Coast of England, Anvil Point, Portland Bill, Start Point, the Lizzard and Lands End. They head out towards the South Coast of Ireland where the yachts have to pass round the Fastnet Rock before sprinting back down the Irish Sea leaving Bishop Rock Lighthouse to port and a final dash to cross the finishing line at Plymouth.

This year the 300-boat limit was reached in record speed and within 10 days of opening in early January, the list was closed. When entries from the “professional” classes are added, the record of 303 is likely to be broken. The first signal will sound at 10.50 BST with the crews wondering what conditions they are about to face. In the nature of handicap races it is not necessarily the fastest boat that wins and it could be a 40-ft cruising boat that ends up the winner.

Some of the contenders

  • The fastest boat on the water may be “Banque Populaire” (FRA), the 100ft trimaran which has just broken the Round British Isles record by almost a day and a half.
  • Two other 100 footers, Mike Slade’s “ICAP Leopard” (GBR) and George David’s “Rambler 100” (USA) are challengers for the monohull honours. They have raced against each other many times and know each other well.
  • Not to be overlooked are two Volvo 70s “Abu Dhabi” (UAE) and “Groupama 1V (FRA).
  • In the Mini Maxi Class are the 72 ft “Ran” (GBR) and the Mills 68 “Alegre” (GBR).
  • Amongst the yachts from the USA are STP65 “Vanquish” and the Reichel-Pugh 66 “Zaraffa”.

This year approximately 1/3rd of the boats are non British crews with yachts from Austria, Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, the UAE and USA.

Competitors have said...

  • “One of the most interesting and competitive offshore races in the world”.
  • “To win was like a childhood dream”.
  • “It is like an “Everest” in my life”.
  • “It is a mythical race”.
  • “A once in a lifetime adventure”.

How did it start?

1925 – It was the brainchild of an Englishman Weston Martyr and created a new breed of yachtsman, the amateur cruiser who was looking for a challenge. These first competitors sailed their yachts themselves with maybe one or two deckhands. There were just 7 yachts in the first race, mostly old cruising boats, setting off from the Royal Victorian Yacht Club at Ryde on 15th August 1925. Two of the boats retired and one made such slow progress that by the time they reached the finishing line the time keepers had gone home. The race was won by “Jolie Brise”, a 56ft pilot cutter, who finished 20 hours ahead of her rival “Gull”, a 30yr old yacht. “Jolie Brise” went on to win on two other occasions and is still sailing. As a result of this first successful race the Ocean Racing Club was formed.

By 1930s the race was firmly established and in 1930 the 9 British entries were joined by 6 from America and 2 from France. Many crews failed to finish in these early days of the race, due to its toughness, their inexperience and slow, ill-equipped boats. Bad weather was a factor too and in 1931 a crew member was lost over the side in gale force winds.

There was a break between 1939 and 1947 due to the 2nd World War.

By 1950 multi-hulled catamarans and trimarans had been introduced and the use of synthetic fibres and more sophisticated equipment helped to make tremendous improvements in yacht design and speed.

By the 1960s there was a much more ruthless attitude to ocean racing with the introduction of races like the Admirals Cup.

The infamous 1979 race started on 11th August with a record 303 yachts anticipating the “SW winds 4-5 increasing 6-7 for a time”. By 13th the wind was force 6 gusting 7 with 8 predicted. Over 13th – 14th 25 of the yachts were sunk or disabled by the high winds and huge seas. Some of the boats were caught in force 11 violent storm strength gusts between Lands End and Fastnet. The winner was the yacht “Tenacious” owned and skippered by Ted Turner, but 69 yachts did not finish of which 23 were lost or abandoned. The rest retired.

The race of 1999 attracted 213 yachts from over 9 countries including celebrities Ellen MacArthur in “Kingfisher” and Ted Turner in “Sayonara”.

The 2001 race had an exciting start with 28 knots of wind. Piet Vroon from Holland was the winner racing a Lutra 52. This was his first win in 20 attempts. He took 3days 2hours 23min 31sec.

2003 saw 245 yachts split into 7 classes. A downwind start with 12 knot easterlies resulted in the entire fleet setting spinnakers for the run down the Solent. The winner was Neville Crichton’s “Alfa Romeo”. The 18 man crew missed the record for monohulls by 4 hours, spending just 57 hours and 2 minutes at sea.

In 2005 the race started with blazing sunshine and little wind, but a strong current worked in the yachts favour. One yacht which attracted some attention was the old 1885 Maxi “Arnold Clark Drum” skippered by lead singer of Duran Duran, Simon Le Bon. 20 years before, “Drum” had had its keel wrenched away when storm force winds hit the boat and it capsized. This time the skipper was determined to get to the rock, but his busy schedule meant he had to fly back to America for a concert. As a result, “Drum” retired from the race, but motored up to the famous rock, celebrating with champagne, before Le Bon was picked up by light aircraft for his flight across the Atlantic.

In 2007 entries were limited for the first time to 300 boats and the start was delayed for a day due to bad weather. Less than ¼ finished the race, many retiring before leaving the English Channel. Some who did finish broke records. Mike Slade’s “ICAP Leopard” set a new monohull record of 1 day 20 hours 18 min at an average speed of 13.52 knots.

The 2009 race was tactically challenging due to light winds combined with powerful spring tides. It was also one of the longest in recent years.

2011 – On Friday 19th August the Fastnet Challenge Cup will be awarded, together with more than 30 additional trophies, at the Royal Citadel, home of the 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, overlooking Plymouth Sound. Who will be the winner? We wish all the crews well. Sail fast but sail safely!

Author: Dee White

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