Simon Jollands took part in the 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race. This is the second of his articles on the race aboard Lancelot II, a Beneteau First 40.
The first night of the 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race proved to be a major challenge for the fleet, including us. Many yachts sought shelter after encountering 40+ knot winds and confused seas at the Hurst Narrows that intensified down the Needles channel. A trio of French offshore racing legends were among a group that returned to Cowes: Marc Guillemot’s WellnessTraining/MG5, Roland Jourdain’s Outremer 59 We Explore and the Fife classic Moonbeam on which round the world record breaker and former Vendée Globe race director Jacques Caraes was skipper. Michael Orgzey’s Swan 48’s Dantes anchored in Osborne Bay east of Cowes, others chose Newtown Creek, with an additional 13 yachts in Yarmouth. Having braved Poole Bay, four were in Poole Harbour; five in Studland Bay, one in Swanage, three in Weymouth and 15 in Portland Harbour. The majority resumed sailing the next day as the conditions improved.
Our skipper John Gillard made the wise decision of avoiding a brutal beat down the Needles Channel and instead opted to head further north into Christchurch Bay. The sea state was rough but hopefully not as severe as at the Needles, where there tends to be a funnelling effect in wind against tide conditions. Lancelot II was going along like a bucking bronco and everyone was hanging on with safety harnesses attached when on deck. By going the northern channel route we would also have the option to shelter in Poole Harbour should the conditions continue to worsen through the night. We received news that several of the other Beneteau First 40s taking part had retired so we knew that keeping safe was the top priority.
With nine crew on board, John divided us into two watches of four, leaving him to spend time with both watches while allowing himself short naps and occasional longer longer rests over the coming days. Each watch did three hours on and three hours off during the nights, followed by a four hour watch during daylight to stagger the 24 hour pattern. In theory this was fine, but sleeping down below during the rough weather was not at all easy. It takes a couple of days to adjust being at sea during the best of times. Most of us chose to sleep in our foul weather gear during the stormy weather as wet gear takes ages to get on and off, especially in the bouncy conditions.
We all took turns at the various tasks involved in keeping Lancelot II moving as efficiently as possible from sail trimming, helming, keeping a lookout, making tea, cooking (when the weather improved), as well as group tasks such as sail changing. Crew morale was excellent, despite half of us being seasick during the first couple of days. Yes, this did interfere with but never entirely dampened our high spirits – after all we were racing in the Fastnet and knew this was never intended to be a pleasure cruise.
Navigating the English Channel
The Fastnet Race is tactically demanding for navigators. There are multiple tidal gates to contend with as well as the unpredictable weather patterns found both in the English Channel and Celtic Sea, all of which keep the navigators on their toes.
Once into the Channel, the first tidal gate to be aware of is Portland Bill off the Dorset coast. The Bill is notorious for its strong tidal race and is about 50 NM west southwest of Cowes, as the crow flies. With a favourable tide you can remain inshore and be swept along in the right direction but if the tide is against you it is a different story. We encountered problems at Portland as the wind dropped off quite dramatically as we approached it – the tides were against us too. We headed further out to sea to avoid the tidal race and had to contend with wind shifts which all resulted in us heading backwards for a while.
The second tidal gate is off Start Point, a further 50 NM west of Portland Bill. Start Point is the most southerly point of the Devon coast which we passed just over 24 hours after the start. We felt reassured that we were still very much in the race, keeping a watchful eye on the fleet tracker. The boat was going well and the crew were in excellent spirits.
At 07:00 on 24 July we rounded the Lizard, the rocky, southernmost point of the British mainland and site of many maritime disasters. It was a fabulous morning and we were sailing at 7 to 8 knots in the right direction. Later that morning we had Land’s End in sight, less than 48 hours after leaving Cowes, a straight line distance of 180 NM; our tracks showed significantly more than that (see the official record of our track in the graphic).
At this stage of our race, it felt like we had been making excellent progress. Then we discovered that François Gabart and his team, racing the giant 32m long flying trimaran SVR Lazartigue, had already crossed the finish line of the 50th anniversary Rolex Fastnet Race, winning the Ultim class. SVR Lazartigue set a new record of 1 day 8 hours 38 minutes 27 seconds, breaking the time set by Franck Cammas and Charles Caudrelier on Maxi Groupe Edmond de Rothschild two years ago by 36 minutes 27 seconds.
The 32m long by 23m wide, foil-borne, flying Ultim trimarans are by far the biggest, fastest offshore race boats on the planet. Many believe that their covering 1000 miles in a day is a case of ‘not if, but when.’ Inevitably they are sailed by the best of the best offshore sailors: Gabart and Le Cléac’h, for example, are both Vendée Globe winners (2012 and 2016) respectively. To help put this remarkable achievement in perspective we were still in the English Channel somewhere between Plymouth and Falmouth when Gabart crossed the line.
We still had a very long way to go.