Simon Jollands took part in the 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race. This is the first of several articles on the race and focuses on the start.
The 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race proved to be a classic offshore sailing event that lived up to its reputation as being one of the toughest races both professional and amateur crews can enter. The giant fleet of 430 boats set off from the Solent into a southwesterly gale on Saturday 22 July. Over the 695 miles to the Fastnet Rock and back, for a second time, to the finish in Cherbourg-en-Cotentin, the slower boats had to deal over five or more days with weather they might normally expect in twice that time, including strong winds associated with three cold fronts.
I was invited by my friend and neighbour Barnaby Wiener to join skipper John Gillard and six other crew members on Lancelot II, a Beneteau First 40 charter boat. Prior to the Fastnet, we took part in two RORC qualifier races, the Morgan Cup from Cowes to Dartmouth and the Cowes to St Malo race, which we successfully completed and enabled us to familiarise ourselves with the boat and prepare for the main event.
The Fastnet fleet was hugely diverse, from the 32x23m Ultim trimarans, the world’s fastest offshore yachts, to the 60ft flying IMOCAs of the Vendée Globe, Class40s and multihulls to the bulk of the fleet in the IRC classes – ranging from maxis, to purpose-built 50-footers, to substantial turn-outs of manufacturer classes, a record double-handed entry down to yacht club, association, family, sailing school and charter boat entries.
Come start day on Saturday 22 July crowds congregated by the Royal Squadron Yacht and along Cowes Green while others braved the wind and rain elsewhere on the Solent shore to see off this historic gathering. As we waited for our start we watched the massive racing machines line up for their starts, a truly awesome spectacle. Given the severe weather forecast we decided to play safe at our start in IRC 1 and hoisted a storm jib and reefed the main, despite the fact that the winds at the start were only gusting 25 knots. This proved to be a very wise decision on our skipper’s part, because as we tacked our way down the western Solent the conditions rapidly deteriorated and we moved into a classic wind against tide scenario with steep waves and strengthening winds.
As the bulk of the fleet negotiated Hurst Narrows, the Solent was in full ebb, the wind 30+ knots ahead of the front – combining to kick up a vicious wind-against-tide sea state. Over the course of the first night, conditions deteriorated with winds gusting to 40+ knots (F9/severe gale) and a sharp 5-6m sea.
This year more competitors erred on caution, including ourselves, choosing to exit the Solent via the calmer waters of the North Channel. Just south of the Needles at 17:00 the Sun Fast 3600 Vari, sailed by Yann Jestin and Romain Baggio, began sinking due to a severe leak in her engine compartment. The experienced double-handers issued a Mayday and took to their liferaft. Within 15 minutes of their discovery, Vari had sunk. As Ju Kyu stood by, after 10 minutes in their liferaft, they were recovered by the Yarmouth lifeboat and taken ashore.
In addition were four dismastings – Royal Naval Sailing Association’s Yoyo; Nick Martin’s Diablo, Bertrand Daniels’ Mirabelle and Tapio Lehtinen’s yawl Galiana, while others suffered steering and rigging issues and Richard Matthews’ Oystercatcher XXXV retired with structural deck issues.
There were also injuries. The Swanage all-weather lifeboat assisted a yacht where one crew had been knocked on the head and fallen overboard. Held on by their tether the crew had been recovered but was semi-unconscious. As the Coastguard helicopter was unable to lower a paramedic, instead the yacht headed for calmer waters where the casualty was transferred to the lifeboat and then to an ambulance in Poole Harbour.
Over the first night HM Coastguard answered 28 ‘incidents’ (albeit some involving the same boat) while in many other incidents HM Coastguard was not involved, including the mast foot breaking on race veteran Géry Trentesaux’s Long Courrier, which retired to Cowes.
Many crews showed excellent seamanship, choosing to seek shelter until conditions abated. Some continued, others did not. 24 hours into the race more than 100 yachts had retired. In the final tally 166 retired from this year’s race, roughly 39% of the fleet (compared to 45% in 2021 and 76% in 2007).
The first 24 hours were brutal and witnessing these conditions and hearing the Maydays and PanPans over the VHF through the night was truly harrowing. It was thanks to our excellent skipper we held it together and we then prepared ourselves for the challenge ahead – the Fastnet Rock was still a very long way off and two more storms had been forecast. To be continued in our next post!