The Rolex Fastnet is one of the most popular offshore races in the world and was the reason the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) was formed. 2015 is RORC’s 90th birthday and the 370 boats entered into the Fastnet Race demonstrated that the event continues to remain popular.
The Rolex Fastnet is not just a single race- it is a campaign of training weekends and qualifying races leading up to the Rolex Fastnet race. All the crew onboard our race prepared Sigma 38 ‘Rho’ were amateur sailors who had varying degrees of previous sailing and racing experience. Led by a professional skipper/instructor, the campaign allows people to learn how to race offshore.
Simon – Skipper, Yachtmaster Instructor, experienced race skipper
Bobbie – Watch Leader, RYA Day Skipper, experienced inshore racer and second Fastnet
Anton – Watch Leader, RYA Day Skipper, experienced inshore and offshore racer
Katie – RYA Day Skipper, some inshore racing experience, never raced offshore
Jon – Inexperienced sailor and never raced before
Claire – RYA Day Skipper, experienced inshore racer, never raced offshore
Dapo – Experienced inshore and offshore racer
Ros – RYA Day Skipper, some inshore racing, never raced offshore
Adrian – RYA Day Skipper, never raced before
We ran a two watch system of 4 people throughout our campaign comprising of 4 hours during the day and 3 hours at night. This made for three, 4-hour watches and four, 3-hour watches which means the crew didn’t stand the same watch two days in a row. The skipper floats between watches and helps out if needed.
We sailed a total of 4 qualifying races, had 2 training weekends on the water and a third weekend of safety training which includes a pool session. We steadily improved in our qualifying races and the crew gained more and more confidence in their own abilities, while the training weekends allowed us to practice key manoeuvres, such as sail changes, reefing, spinnaker hoists, gybes and drops.
The forecast for the Rolex Fastnet was for light winds for the first few days with plenty of sunshine. Following the light airs a couple of low pressure systems were to move in giving us plenty of wind and some rain to keep us on our toes.
With the forecast in mind, the race could be looked at as two separate races- the first two days would be very tactical and require the crew to keep the boat sailing in very light winds. Thankfully we had sailed a few qualifying races with very light wind so the crew had some experience of light airs.
The second half would be a drag race and all about boat speed as the winds increased across the Celtic Sea around the Fastnet and back to Plymouth. Our sail plan would very much depend on the sea state, but It was important to sail the boat within the capabilities of the crew.
We met on the Saturday afternoon to ensure the boat was provisioned and ready for the race. We checked the rigging, ensured that the winches were well greased and all our lines were in good order. We reviewed the weather forecast and the race course to ensure that everyone was aware of what to expect over the first few days, then went for a beer before heading out for a crew meal. We didn’t stay out late and a few crew members booked hotels to get a good nights sleep.
The morning of the race a few family members came down to look at the boat and meet the crew. With a warm send off we got ready and just after 1000 we set off.
We had to sail through an identity gate with our storm sails hoisted as part of the sailing instructions. It’s fair to say there was no wind- we needed to find the best place to cross the line to make the most of what wind and tide there was. We looked at the North and South end of the line and we chose to start at the Southern end as there was more tide. It was a bit cloudy so the sea breeze would take a while to develop so at least the tide would take us in the right direction.
We motored to the last possible second and just before our 5 minute warning it was switched off. We had momentum, but had we judged the time and distance to the line correctly. We appeared to have estimated better than other boats and we were soon drifting across the line with little to no steerage. We were off- not the most exciting start and at only 0.5 knots speed over the ground it was going to take a long time to get out of the Solent, let alone to the Fastnet.
The sea breeze soon built and getting a relatively good start put us in the stronger breeze first. This put us in position as one of the lead boats out of the Solent in IRC 4. We knew we wouldn’t make the tidal gate at Portland Bill, so the general plan was to head offshore once past Anvil Point. We, like the majority of the fleet, lost the wind as the sun began to set and struggled to make head way, but more importantly we didn’t go backward, this meant we didn’t have to anchor in 60+ metres of water again as we did in the Myth of Malham Race.
We managed to pick up some breeze over night and with the tide in our favour we were soon past Portland. The crew working hard to keep the boat moving in such light winds with constant trimming of the sails. As the tide began to turn against us again we headed into Lyme Bay to get out of the worst of the tide. The latest forecast had the winds veering North late evening and they did just as forecast, this allowed us to make good progress towards Lizard and Lands End. The Northerly winds were light but we hoisted the spinnaker and sailed an impossibly high angle making almost 7 knots of boat speed in as much wind. Our Northerly wind soon died and we were back to main and jib, the off watch were happy to lend a hand to get the spinnaker down and the jib up and we were soon sailing between puffs of wind. Spotting them and trying to sail towards them before they faded.
As daylight broke we were South of Lands End. We elected to sail North of the Scilly Isles and we spent most of the morning and early afternoon sailing between patches of wind. It was frustrating and slow but by 1500 we were North of the Scillies in a light South Westerly breeze and on our way to the Fastnet. The winds built slowly as we ate dinner and we were able to sail directly to our waypoint just off the North West corner of the Fastnet TSS. As we changed watch at 2300 the winds had built enough for us to change to our No 2 jib. The winds continued to build and we soon had to put a reef in as a front passed over. The sea state had built and soon helming became quite challenging. The crew struggled to see the instruments in the rain, but it soon passed.
As daylight broke the winds veered West as forecast then continued to veer North West. During the night out 1st reef had torn, we were unsure when this had taken place but we had to go to full main and we were thankful the winds had eased a bit.
Rather than a direct course to the Fastnet we would now have a 5-6 mile beat into the wind. The good news was that the weather had improved, visibility was good and we could see the lighthouse. We rounded the Fastnet Rock around 1200 and started the return leg to Plymouth.
The latest forecast was Westerly winds backing South and increasing to Force 4 – 5 possibly 6 at times. We decided to sail slightly South so when the winds did back we would have the winds more on the beam making the leg faster for us. A number of boats set their spinnakers and sailed a more Northerly route so when the pack converged at the Scillies we would see if our decision had worked.
We had been having a few charging issues on the boat which resulted in us using our engine more than intended. This meant that we used more fuel than intended, when a Sigma is on starboard the fuel runs away from the fuel pick up and you risk getting an air lock when you are low on fuel. This happened around 1500 when we were charging the batteries resulting in the engine stopping. It’s an easy fix especially since we had a primmer ball installed. All that was needed was to open the bleed valve, prime the fuel and close it back off. With our engine running again we charged the batteries.
We noticed an increasing smell of diesel down below and I noticed diesel in the bilges. I checked the engine to ensure that I had closed the bleed valve off properly and I decided to tighten it a bit just to be on the safe side but disaster- the screw head snapped as I tried to tighten it. This meant we couldn’t run the engine and our batteries were quite low.
The crew were briefed and knew what to expect, we turned off all electrical equipment, and relied on charts, handheld GPS and the compasses. We carry emergency navigation lights so we could still be seen. The crew coped very well; we sailed with 2 reefs as we had lost reef 1 and used our no. 1 jib with the aim of balancing the sail plan.
The boat was well balanced and the crew soon got used to sailing without instruments. We were approaching the Scillies late morning and had passed the Scillies by early afternoon. The rest of the day was thankfully uneventful, the winds backed South West but never South so our hope that the boats further North may struggle to get round the Scillies never happened. We didn’t lose ground on the boats that were around us at the Fastnet but we didn’t make any gains either. The tide was to be with us as we rounded the Lizard so we headed inshore to take advantage as best we could. We took a very inshore passage and managed to round the Lizard around 2300.
Once past the Lizard it was a straight race to the finish. We had some company and about an hour from the finish we were still getting strong gusts of wind. As we approached the line the wind started to drop and we crossed the line at 0523. We arranged for a tow and were tied up by 0600, our fresh clothing but more importantly beer and champagne arrived just as we finished tying up. We had a drink on the boat then headed to the crew bar where we found some fellow competitors celebrating. After a few beers and a huge breakfast we all retired to the boat to get some rest before the prize giving.
A huge well done to all the crew we finished in a corrected time of 4 days, 17 hours, 3 minutes and 20 seconds
Result – 5th/13 Sigma 38’s
17th/35 IRC 4A
28th/71 IRC 4
Looking back at our 2015 Rolex Fastnet campaign it is amazing the transformation that has taken place. 8 sailors who for a variety of reasons decided to take on one of sailing’s greatest challenges are now offshore racers, with experience in a variety of conditions and sea states. We had plenty of high points and a few low points, but the crew were fantastic and rose to every challenge along the way.
I look forward to the 2017 Rolex Fastnet race and hope to see you there.