The 607 mile Fastnet Race was first held in 1925 along with the Sydney Hobart and Newport Bermuda, itâ€™s a classic ocean race with lots of time on every point of sail. Itsâ€™ founders formed the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) which is responsible for running the biennial event.
The Fastnet is really three races in one. The first is from Cowes on the Isle of Wight, heading southwest towards Lands End. From there itâ€™s 170 miles northwest to Fastnet rock off the southwestern tip of Ireland, 154 miles on a reciprocal course to the Bishop Rock lighthouse on the Scilly Isles and 97 miles to the finish in Plymouth at the mouth of the harbor.
This yearâ€™s race was atypical with more light air than average, lending the event a real start-stop nature to it because of the weather and many tidal gates. Conditions like this can favor smaller, well-sailed boats because when the air shuts down at a tidal gate the smaller boats have an opportunity to catch up to larger ones.
At the front of the pack were the usual suspects, Alpha Romeo, Zephyrus from San Francisco, Leopard of London, the open 60 Kingfisher and others. Our boat was more typical of the bulk of the entries however, a Beneteau 40.7 that is owned by RORC member Chris Brown and Peter Harding. A well prepared racer cruiser crewed by an experienced, high-spirited group of English sailors who exuded confidence and competency. Of the 11 onboard, only three were doing there first Fastnets – two Greeks and an American. The other 8 had a combined total of 25 Fastnets between them – I had done 3 prior to this race including a Two Handed Round Britain and Ireland Race and five of the crew were under 26.
We sailed with a crew of 11, and due to the â€œracer-cruiserâ€ configuration of the boat, we could only have a maximum of 3 people off watch while on the wind. This meant for every 9 or 10 hours on deckÂ youÂ could look forward to 3 down below. The pipe berths on a Farr 40 started to seem pretty attractive to me and the joke onboard was that Chris had incorporated SAS sleep deprivation terrorist interrogation techniques into his watch system. It was effective however, everyone sailed hard and my attitude is that I can sleep back onshore.
Three events helped to shape our race. After a light air spinnaker reach out of Cowes, the first night the wind shut off by St. Albanâ€™s point, a major tidal gate with a 2.5 knot foul tide running. Along with all the other boats in our area we dropped anchors in 35m of water (a â€œkedgeâ€ in English sailing parlanceâ€¦) and had dinner. A major problem developed a couple hours later when the tide subsided, the breeze picked up and we tried to pull up the anchor. It was stuck on something. Cutting it away was ruled out as it was thought that weâ€™d need it later on (we didnâ€™t) and that our other anchor was not as effective. After much winching we got the anchor within a couple feet of the surface, only to see that it was snagged on a fresh piece of nylon line from a fouled fishing net. The skipper jumped in with a knife, cut the line that we had caught away and we were on our way, having lost over an hour in the process.
The second event was a strategic opportunity that occurred early the next morning when another patch of light air off Start Point on the southern English coast created a parking lot. We saw boats inside us on the shore moving with good breeze while ahead of us they were stopped. We headed in for shore and passed about 40 boats, making up for our debacle with the anchor the night before and getting a psychological boost. Late that afternoon I came on deck to a sunny view of Landâ€™s End as we headed into the Irish Sea with a fresh twenty-five knot breeze and a #3 jib up. The Celtic Sea of course was the scene of the tragedy in 1979 when Force 11 winds wreaked havoc and lives were lost.
Our third strategic move came as we approached Ireland. After another parking lot in the Irish Sea, we thought that a high-pressure system would move in a northeasterly direction in front of us and the wind would clock to the right in the process. We stayed well north of rhumbline with the coast of Ireland in clear view. This unorthodox move worked well for us and we rounded Fastnet rock lighthouse just after 2 AM early Wednesday morning, a spectacular sight I shall never forget. Made more beautiful as there was a full moon.
From there we reached 154 miles to the Bishop Rock lighthouse on the Scilly Isles and then the wind shifted to 25 knots on the nose. From there it was 97 mile beat to the finish at Plymouth. Off the famous Plymouth Hoe (where Sir Francis Drake waited for the Spanish Armada while playing bowls) we fell into a windless hole (created by the land and sea breeze fighting for dominance)1 mile from the finish costing us second place they finished 3 minutes ahead on corrected time.
On board Fastwave II we ended up winning Class 1 B for a third in Division 1. While everyone was hopping for a division win, we calculated that even with the episode with the fouled anchor we still would not have beaten Division 1 winner Holmoltro, a very well sailed Grand Solei 44.
The Fastnet was a fantastic experience besides the best big boat competition in the world the scenic sailing was fantastic. We saw lots of dolphins, whales and even a couple of sharks swimming along side us.