This is our third and final article about the 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race. It is a first hand account by Simon Jollands who was one of the crew of Lancelot II, a Beneteau First 40 skippered by John Gillard.
The Fastnet Race is named after the Fastnet Rock, which the course rounds after 356nm (nautical miles) from the start of the race in Cowes, UK. The rock is the most southerly point of Ireland, 4nm southwest of Cape Clear Island, 8nm from the Irish mainland and 170nm from Land’s End, the most westerly point of mainland England.
Passing Land’s End
Lancelot II sailed past Land’s End on the morning of 24 July, 45 hours after the start of the race. We were making good progress into a steady southwesterly breeze, averaging speeds of 7kts. After all the hiatus at the start and the brutal conditions we faced in the first 24 hours of the race, the whole experience as we approached Land’s End was completely different. There were few yachts in sight, the sea state was moderate and it felt like we had the ocean to ourselves.
While near the coast, when our phones had signal, we could keep an eye on how other competitors were doing by using the YB Tracker mobile app. All boats have to carry a YB Tracker unit for the race. We could also monitor progress on the boat’s chartplotter which had a built-in AIS, the automatic identification system that uses transceivers to track vessels at sea. One of the many offshore racing regulations dictated by the organisers of the race, the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) and World Sailing is that all vessels taking part have to be equipped with AIS transponders.
By now all nine crew members had become accustomed to the watch system, though some found this harder to get used to than others. The team spirit was excellent, there was a non-stop flow of tea, soup, pot noodles and snacks, with everyone taking turns boiling the kettle and helping out. Meal times were also very well organised. We had brought frozen lasagnes, curries and stews which we heated up in the galley and then served in stainless steel dog bowls. These proved far more user friendly than land based crockery and prevented hot food from going everywhere in the lumpy seas.
The Celtic Sea
After we rounded Land’s End there was a growing sense of anticipation that we would soon be heading out across the Celtic Sea to the iconic rock and its famous lighthouse. This would surely prove to be a photo opportunity like no other.
We knew from the forecasts and pre-race weather briefing that there was another weather front due to approach us from the northwest. Would it hit us before we rounded the rock? When would the wind shifts come? Our skipper John’s considerable skill and experience really counted here, he was continually thinking ahead and plotting the best course that would take account of the predicted conditions – his navigation skills and tactical awareness proved invaluable.
Another race rule is that all competitors must not enter areas designated as Obstructions, including all Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS). One of these is a 200 square mile area west of Land’s End which lies right in the way of a direct route to the Rock. We chose to avoid this by heading northeast up the Cornish coast before we could alter course northwest towards the Rock, rather than going west of the TSS. The swells increased significantly after Land’s End and it was quite some time before we changed course and headed out into the Celtic Sea.
Fully expecting conditions to deteriorate, it was something of a surprise to all of us that the next day the wind dropped completely, the clouds almost disappeared and we found ourselves in a flat calm. The afternoon of 25th July was warm and there we were halfway across the Celtic Sea 80nm from land in teeshirts and shorts. On went the music and there was not much left to do except enjoy the sunshine.
We encounter a problem
While everyone began to relax Chris (aka Obelisk) happened to look up the mast and noticed that something didn’t look quite right near the top of the track. One of the sliders had come adrift and a batten was poking out of the mainsail. Without hesitation we decided to lower the main and take a closer look. We set about this but soon discovered that the main would not budge and was not going to come down. Suddenly this was serious. We needed to rectify this before the wind picked up again. The first thing to do was to send someone up the mast to inspect the problem at close quarters. It was decided that 19 year old Adam would go aloft in the bosun’s chair and within a few minutes everyone was focussed on helping. Over the next hour he went up, then back down to collect some tools and then back up again. He was now able to take the slider off completely and push the batten back into the sail to allow the sail to be lowered. Thanks to Adam’s efforts we managed to get the mainsail down and carry out an effective repair on the deck.
To say this was a piece of luck would be an understatement as not only did Obelisk spot the problem in the first place, but he did so in flat calm conditions which meant sending someone aloft was not too hazardous – it would have been quite a different story in a blow.
Rounding the Fastnet Rock
A little while later we were on the move again, making slow progress across the Celtic Sea. We sailed into the night, changing watches every three hours with everyone doing their best to keep the boat going as fast as possible. The closer we got to the Rock the slower we seemed to go. Added to this it was a very dark night and the visibility became worse. On a clear night the Fastnet light can be seen from 18nm away. As we slowly approached it there was no sign of the light and so we needed to rely on instruments to ensure we were on the right course. This included using the Navionics app which I had on my iPhone and proved to be a great help. Eventually, at 05:40hrs on 26 July, out of the gloom we noticed a dark triangular shadow two or three hundred metres away. Even at this close distance we could only just make out the light through the fog. It was not exactly the moment of extreme elation we had eagerly anticipated, but there was no question we had found it. Now all we had to do was navigate our way around the rock and head back the way we had come from.
Surfing across the Celtic Sea
My wife Clara had made us a rum soaked fruit cake which we saved to celebrate the rounding of the rock. This cake was swiftly devoured and tasted exceptionally good even at 06:00hrs.
As soon as we rounded the rock the wind miraculously seemed to pick up and within an hour or so we were bombing along at 9kts with the wind behind us and all feeling great. The sea state also changed quite rapidly and our speed picked up even more, reaching 13kts as we surfed down the waves. Now we were heading towards the Scilly Isles and the skipper was hoping for a 200 mile day, the best yet.
We had a minor calamity during the charge down the Celtic Sea when the mast and cockpit instruments, including the digital compass, began malfunctioning. To make things worse Hereward, who was helming at the time, had a nasty fall onto the cockpit’s instruments, including the digital compass, breaking them in the process. It was a spectacular crash but luckily he was alright.
During daylight this didn’t present too much of a problem as we still had the bulkhead compass for the helm to steer by. However at night it was a different story as the bulkhead compass light had failed. Luckily I had a powerful head torch with a long life battery that could hold its charge through the night. We rigged this up so it would illuminate the compass and this arrangement worked fine.
The final leg
By the next morning we were back in the English Channel, having left the Scilly Isles to port during the night of the 27th. At 07:00 on 28 July we were passing Alderney to starboard, continuing to make very good progress towards Cherbourg. We were now well and truly on the final leg, we had the spinnaker up and were enjoying some exceptional sailing. This was such a contrast to the start of the race. At 12:09 on 28 July we crossed the finish line outside the entrance to Cherbourg-en-Cotentin, France. We were all absolutely elated to have successfully finished the Fastnet Race, coming 42nd in IRC 1B and 188th in IRC Overall. Needless to say we had a fabulous celebration when we finally made it ashore.