On paper it looked like the 90th edition of the Fastnet Race was going to be a spectacular affair (published November 2015)
A record 356 boats were entered including some of the world’s most striking sailboats like the two 100-foot super-maxis Comanche and Leopard, as well as some classics like Dorade and the S&S yawl Stormy Weather Of Cowes. They would all be vying for the coveted Fastnet Challenge Trophy. On the water, however, it was a different matter. If there was a single word to describe the race it would be breathless, as in no wind and not because of any breathtaking excitement. The 2015 Fastnet Race goes into the history books as one of the slowest and most tedious on record.
The race started on Sunday, August 16 off the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes. The Squadron, as it’s referred to by the locals, is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year and is the same club that a century and a half ago organized the now famous race around the Isle of Wight. That race, which took place in 1851, was won by the schooner America and the trophy that was presented became the America’s Cup. It’s an institution steeped in history and tradition; in other words a perfect place to start the 605 mile race and the gleaming cannons that adorn the Squadron waterfront fired for the multihull start precisely at noon.
A SLOW START
Unfortunately, there was not much excitement as the boats wallowed listlessly on a flat calm Solent. The forecast for the race had been for light winds but for their start there was no wind. It took the MOD 70 trimaran Phaedo3 two and a half hours to sail to the Needles, the point that marks the entrance to the Solent, which is just 10 miles from the start. Their blistering pace was only matched by the largest multi in the fleet, Spindrift 2 as well as the impressive Multi 80 Prince de Bretagne. It was barely more interesting than watching grass grow.
The successive starts were no more interesting. The massive Comanche wallowed alongside the equally massive Leopard while the crew on the smaller Rambler 88 considered anchoring. The newly launched IMOCA 60 Safran might have done better to anchor; instead they sailed on but remained in the exact same spot, their forward movement countered by the current going the other way. Later in the day when some of the IRC boats started it was even worse. The current had changed direction and boats were swept across the start line early, some of them taking over 40 minutes to get back to the line to restart. It was clearly an inauspicious start to the race and things wouldn’t get much better, at least for the next couple of days.
The course for the Fastnet Race is simple. From the start off Cowes the boats would sail out of the Solent into the English Channel toward the Scilly Isles, a small group of islands located off the west coast of England. Along the way there were numerous Traffic Separation Zones that had to be adhered to to keep the yachts safe from shipping. Once past the Scilly Isles, it’s a 200 mile dash across the Celtic Sea to the Fastnet Rock located eight miles off the south coast of Ireland. The Fastnet Rock, with its imposing lighthouse, is one of the most iconic landmarks for sailors many of whom would be seeing it for the first time. Rules call for the fleet to leave Fastnet Rock to port and then head back to the British mainland adhering to the Traffic Separation Zones around the Scilly Isles with the finish in Plymouth on England’s south coast.
A complete lack of wind and strong currents in the Solent made for some very tricky sailing as the crew on Lucky found out barely an hour into the race. The Shingles Bank is a naturally-occurring, constantly shifting bank of pebbles which stretches for three miles at the entrance to the Solent and sadly where Lucky, fresh from winning the Transatlantic Race, ended up aground. They joined a long line of famous boats that have met the same fate and had to receive outside assistance to get pulled off disqualifying them from the race.
The fleet for the 2015 race was grouped into a number of different classes with the double-handed division being the largest with 52 boats. There was also a highly competitive Class 40 fleet with 23 boats starting and a very good showing for the IMOCA 60’s with 10 boats showing up on the start line. They were, however, overshadowed by the massive multi and monohulls whose sheer presence always steal the show. On board Spindrift 2 co-skippers Dona Bertarelli and Yann Guichard were doing all they could to coax some speed out of the boat but they remained in single digits, hardly an impressive showing for the same boat that as Banque Populaire V set a new Jules Verne record for a non-stop circumnavigation. Lionel Lemonchois skippering Prince De Bretagne was doing no better and neither was Phaedo 3 as they led the fleet into the first night of the race.
The first Fastnet Race took place in 1925 and attracted seven entries, all of them old cruising boats, and as in successive events it was the larger yachts that were safely back in port while the smaller boats got pummeled by strong winds. Two boats retired from the race and one made such slow progress that by the time they finished the timekeepers had long since packed up and gone home. The race was won by Jolie Brise, a 56-foot pilot cutter. Her time at sea was six days, 14 hours and 45 minutes. Jolie Brise, by the way, is still sailing and was the overall winner of the 2000 Tall Ships Race. The Fastnet Race has taken place every year since, even during the Second World War.
By dawn on the second day of the race the big multihulls were well out into the Celtic Sea while the smaller boats anchored and clawed their way along the south coast of England making very slow progress. Comanche, Rambler 88 and Leopard were also crossing the Celtic Sea but it was slow going for them as well. With a crew of 29 on Comanche one can only hope that they had provisioned enough for a longer than expected race. Same too on Mike Slade’s Farr 100 Leopard who were also sailing with a crew of 29. On Monday afternoon, 28 hours into the race Spindrift 2 was the first boat to reach Fastnet Rock. They were followed less than an hour later by the much smaller Phaedo 3 with Prince De Bretagne close behind. It was much later in the day when Comanche, the first monohull rounded the rock and online photos posted the following morning showed Rambler 88 becalmed under the lighthouse with sails aback.
One of the most interesting stories of the race was the IMOCA 60’s fleet in which two brand new boats would be competing side by side with some of the older boats. Safran and Banque Populaire are the latest generation just launched and both sported interesting new foils, a combination DSS foil and a daggerboard. DSS is a leeward lifting foil and the combination of DSS and daggerboard skirts an IMOCA rule that limits the number of appendages they are allowed. There was much interest in how the new boats would fare against the older boats but by morning on the second day of racing it was an older generation Queguiner-Leucémie Espoir skippered by the French duo of Yann Eliès and Charlie Dalin that was in the lead. However it was a slight lead in a tight bunch that excluded the new boats Safran and Banque Populaire.
While the bulk of the fleet were still drifting along in light winds dealing with the traffic separation zone around the Scilly Isles, the breeze was filling in for the big boys who were romping back toward England threading their way on an ocean littered with boats. The wind was light but steady, enough to push Spindrift 2 across the finish to take line honors in the dark of the night. Just over two hours later Phaedo 3 finished with Prince De Bretagne right behind. Dawn was breaking when Comanche took monohull line honors finishing a scant four and a half minutes ahead of the much smaller Rambler 88. Later that day Vincent Riou on the IMOCA 60 PRB closed the debate about old versus new by handily beating the latest designs. Among the Class 40’s, Concise 8, one of a number of boats competing in the Fastnet as part of Team Concise, had held the lead for much of the race but in the end it was the Spanish boat Tales 2 skippered by Gonzalo Botin that took the Class 40 win with Concise 8 finishing just under 20 minutes later in second place.
The 2015 Fastnet Race will be remembered for its glassy seas, brilliant star-lit nights, a bunch of giant boats going at appallingly slow speeds and not one single exciting story to relate to grandchildren sometime in the future. Comanche skipper Ken Read summed things up perfectly when he said “It was honestly one of the most bizarre races I’ve ever been in in my life.”
In the end it was the smaller boats that did the best with most of them finishing in a building breeze. When the results were in it was Géry Trentesaux and his JPK 10.80 Courrier Du Leon that got to hoist the Fastnet Challenge Trophy at the prize-giving with Kelvin & Sarah Rawlings winning the highly competitive double-handed division on their J-105 Jester.
Brian Hancock is a sailmaker, author, lecturer and veteran offshore sailor and racer. He lives in Marblehead, Mass.
My 1979 Fastnet (Brian Hancock)
It has been 36 years since I raced the disastrous 1979 Fastnet. For those that don’t recall what happened, an intense low pressure system passed over the fleet decimating a large portion of it. The event was part of the Admiral’s Cup and attracted not only the best sailors in the world, but also many, many amateurs whose only offshore experience was the biennial race. It was a combination of a number of inexperienced sailors, shallow water in the Irish Sea, and an un-forecasted low that led to the death of 18 sailors. In fact the official post mortem states that 15 of them were yachtsmen and three were rescuers and that in addition to the fatalities five boats sank and at least 75 boats flipped completely upside down. A tragedy by any measure.
There were four other people who died that fateful night. There is no mention of them in the official recounting of the event because they were racing unofficially. I was just a nipper at the time, the foredeck hand on a brand new Swan 55. I remember feeling so excited as we left the coast of England for a long fetch across the Irish Sea. The boat was heavy and powerful… and painfully slow.
We were lumbering along when I noticed a tiny spec on the horizon behind. The spec seemed to be catching up to us at a rather quick pace. As the spec grew closer I saw that it was a trimaran, about 30 or maybe 35 feet in length. The boat was flying and the crew were “buzzing” the fleet. They were literally sailing up to the huge, expensive monohulls and flying past them. Then it was our turn. The trimaran altered course and came our way. I can still see it so clearly. There were four crew on board, two men and two women. They were young and the girls especially, were very beautiful. One had long blond hair and the other long brown hair and they were laughing and waving as they blew by us at about 15 knots (we were managing 7 or 8 in our multi-million dollar yacht). In an instant they were gone.
The sun set and the breeze started to build. I went off watch at 2000 for what I presumed would be four hours in my cabin (yes, there were cabins back then). I was just 21 years old so when I felt the boat start to pound and waves crash over the deck I loved it. Life was an adventure and I was squarely in the middle of it, just where I wanted to be. There was a call that came down to us shortly before midnight telling us that there was a change of watch and to bring our life harnesses. I scrambled into my foulies, grabbed the harness from under my bunk, and made my way on deck.
What greeted me was an unreal sight. The seas were huge and the ocean whipped white from the spindrift that blew off cresting waves. I looked down at the anemometer and saw that it was reading 60 knots. Sixty was as high as it went and my crewmate told me it had been solidly pegged on 60 for the past hour. We were in a full-on gale and I loved it. Around us we would occasionally see the navigation lights from some of the other competitors. Visibility was down to almost zero.
Then we started to sink. Water in the bilge was sloshing above the floorboards and all the bilge pumps were operating at full capacity. By this time, we had rounded the Fastnet Rock and were making our way back to England pounding into a short and very steep seaway. The loads on the boat and rigging were unbelievable and after removing the floorboards and bailing and pumping by hand we were able to see what had happened. The hull had spilt longitudinally and each time a wave hit the hull it opened up and water poured in. The only solution was to turn around and head for Ireland where the point of sail would reduce the strain on the hull and the leak would lessen.
As we approached the Irish coast we noticed numerous helicopters flying about and shortly after encountered an armada of rescue vessels heading out into the Irish Sea. It dawned on us that something serious had happened during the night. Indeed something serious had happened. Many sailors, including the crew of the trimaran died during the course of that night and the following day. Bits of the trimaran were later found washed ashore; it appeared as if the boat had just disintegrated. I don’t know for sure if they found the bodies but I presume that they did. I still recall how young and how full of life they were; oblivious to what lay ahead.
We tied up in Ireland at the Royal Cork Yacht Club and I discovered how sweet Guinness tastes after a harrowing experience. Unbeknownst to me the local newspaper back in my hometown in South Africa reported “Local Sailor Lost and Presumed Dead in Sailboat Disaster.” My dad read the paper and knew that they were talking about me. I, meanwhile, continued to enjoy numerous Guinness and then decided that since it was going to be a while before the boat was fixed that I would take a little holiday and enjoy the sights and hospitality of Ireland. It was more than two weeks later when we finally got back to England that I thought to call home.
My dad had been frantically trying to get news from the race organizers by calling and sending telegrams—yes telegrams. This was in the days long before computers and the race officials had no clear records of who was on what boat. There was such mayhem and so many deaths that I am not sure they had any clue where half the fleet was. Needless to say my dad (and rest of my family) were happy that I was still alive, but perhaps a little concerned when I signed up the next day for a race from England to Australia. It was a race to celebrate the discovery of Western Australia by the ship Parmelia. Yes, for that 21 year old “kid” life was sure a big adventure and I was only getting started.