The 45th Rolex Fastnet Race is underway following the largest and most impressive start in the event's 87-year history. 335 yachts set off today on the legendary 611-nautical mile race from Cowes, Isle of Wight to Plymouth via the Fastnet Rock on the southern tip of Ireland.
An overcast, virtually windless morning gave way to increasing sunshine and a gently building breeze in time for the first yachts to start from the Royal Yacht Squadron. The fleet's fastest boats, the multihulls, featuring Spindrift 2, the largest yacht in attendance at 131-ft, and Banque Populaire were first away and were soon making rapid progress through The Solent teeming with spectator boats.
Seven more starts followed over a two-hour period with the largest monohulls including 100-foot Maxis Esimit Europa 2 (SLO) and ICAP Leopard (GBR) in the final group. In little over an hour they had overhauled many of the smaller yachts in the fleet and were passing The Needles, at the western end of the Isle of Wight.
Final preparations this morning had seen the international crews intently focused on deciding early strategy. "The start is critical," explained Mike Sanderson, 2006 ISAF Rolex World Sailor and winner of the Volvo Ocean Race. The tactician on the 72-ft American Mini Maxi Bella Mente, which started in the final group, continued: "It's a wonderful feeling moving through the fleet, however you've got to be careful. We are likely to still be coming through boats as it gets dark on the first night." His thoughts were echoed by Sam Davies, navigator on the 70-ft Team SCA from Sweden. "We have 300 boats to sail through, most of which we will probably overtake somewhere in the Solent," she revealed. "We have to be really alert and sometimes accept we can't go where we want to go. It requires a lot of concentration. For the spectators it will be magnificent."
Mark Richmond, helmsman on Dutchman Piet Vroon's strongly-fancied Ker 46 Tonnerre de Breskens 3, was also concentrating on the race's first few hours. "It's key for us to get away and not get stuck with the smaller boats. The weather can do anything and there are always complications out of your control. Two years ago we were leading the event at Land's End and the wind then shut down coming back from the rock!"
With the course currently experiencing light winds from the west, the first half of the race to the Fastnet Rock will be upwind and tactically challenging. Crews will be fully engaged in correctly positioning their yachts on the racetrack and getting the most from the breeze on offer. The forecast suggests the wind will pick up between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning pointing to the smaller boats being favoured in the race for the overall title.
At 17:00 BST, the leading multihull boat was Spindrift, which had just passed Weymouth travelling at 22 knots. Meanwhile, IMOCA 60 Macif (FRA) was approaching Weymouth and leading the monohull fleet.