French dominate the non-IRC classes
France is probably the world's top nation when it comes to offshore racing with events such as the singlehanded round the world race, the Vendée Globe, and classes like the IMOCA 60, Class40 and Figaro. In addition to their domination of many of the IRC classes, French boats also represent the majority in the non-IRC classes competing in this year's Rolex Fastnet Race, which sets sail from Cowes tomorrow from 12 noon BST.
This year's biennial race to Plymouth via the Fastnet Rock off southern Ireland, features some of the very best sailors from across the Channel, including Michel Desjoyeaux, PRB skipper Vincent Riou and François Gabart. Between them, they have won the last four Vendée Globe races. The podium finishers from the 2012-3 Vendée Globe are all taking part, with Gabart back on his winning IMOCA 60, MACIF, Alex Thomson on his third-placed Hugo Boss, while second placed Armel le Cleac'h, has graduated up to skipper of the 31.5m long trimaran, Banque Populaire.
Michel Desjoyeaux is the world's most successful shorthanded offshore sailor having twice won the Vendée Globe, and the prestigious La Solitaire du Figaro three times. This year's race, which he is sailing on MACIF with his protégé François Gabart, is only his second Rolex Fastnet Race but represents the 20th anniversary of his first - aboard the Whitbread maxi, La Poste.
Desjoyeaux says he first heard of the race when he was 14. "Two of my brothers were here with Half Tonners and they phoned home on the morning of the start and they said we're coming back to France because there was a big storm coming. That was in 1979..."
For François Gabart, this will be his first Rolex Fastnet Race, but he knows the course well and says he is pleased to be here because the hull of his IMOCA 60 was built at Green Marine in Hythe.
"The Rolex Fastnet Race is one of the most famous offshore races. I wasn't born in 1979, but I heard a lot about it. I remember when I first sailed to the Fastnet Rock - it was something big," says Gabart. Since the Vendée Globe, MACIF has had her mast replaced and has her pre- Vendée sail wardrobe on board.
Eight IMOCA 60s are competing in this year's race, all of them being sailed doublehanded in preparation for this autumn's Transat Jacques Vabre.
For German Jörg Riechers this will not only be his first Rolex Fastnet Race, but also his first major race in his new IMOCA 60, mare, previously Michel Desjoyeaux's 2008 Vendée Globe winner. "When I was young I dreamed of doing the Admiral's Cup, which was strongly connected to the Rolex Fastnet Race. This is a classic race. You get the trimarans, the Open 60s and the Class40s and all the IRC boats. It is the gathering of the best boats in the world."
Seventeen boats are competing in the Class40. Unlike the IMOCA 60s, these are being sailed fully crewed. Among them the favourite is probably Sebastien Rogues on his Mach 40 EDF Suez, recent winner of the Les Sables-Azores-Les Sables race.
Again it is Rogues' first participation. "The Rolex Fastnet Race is a mythical race, like the Rolex Sydney Hobart. You have to do it at least once in your life. It has a long history, and there have been some very tough races. I am very honoured to be participating. It's a good race to see the level of competition before the Transat Jacques Vabre."
New Class40 models debut
This year's race marks the debut for two new models of Class40, with Spanish former World Champion Gonzalo Botin competing on Tales II, a new design from his Emirates Team New Zealand naval architect brother, Marcellino, while the Austrian-flagged Vaquita, is the latest Class40 from Tom Humphreys (son of Rob). Damien Seguin is also taking part on his new Akilaria RC3, Des Pieds Et Des Mains, which is so new that is has yet to measure and so is competing under IRC.
Interestingly aside from being Class40 skippers, both Seguin and Bruno Jourdren, skipper of Lord Jiminy, are also leading paralympic sailors - both silver medallists in Beijing, while Seguin won 2.4mR gold in Athens.
The turn-out in the smaller 32ft Figaro class is growing with a strong turn out from the Artemis Offshore Academy. The race is particularly special for Rockfish skipper Henry Bomby.
"The first time I sailed a Figaro was the Fastnet two years ago. That summer I got selected for the Academy. If I'd know then that in the next two years I would have done two Solitaire du Figaros and started to get my own sponsors, I would have been pretty happy."
His sponsor Rockfish, run by celebrity chef Mitch Tonks, has recently opened a new restaurant in Plymouth very close to where the Rolex Fastnet Race will moor at Plymouth Yacht Haven.
Most of the new recruits to the Artemis Offshore Academy are also competing in the Figaro class, while Sam Goodchild, the leading British finisher in this year's La Solitaire du Figaro, is competing in the Class40 aboard Peter Harding's 40 Degrees.
Weather is currently at the forefront of competitors' minds as this will dictate their fortunes over the next few days.
Typically the forecast benefits either the big boats or the small boats, but this year, race meteorologist Chris Tibbs says it is far from clear whether either will come out on top.
According to Tibbs, the start and first stage to St Alban's Head will be in south-westerlies before the wind starts veering into the northwest, making for a starboard tack-biased beat down the coast of the UK. Significant for the bigger half of the fleet, is that the wind is currently forecast to stay in the north-west making for a full beat across the Celtic Sea to the Fastnet Rock and then a dead run back, with a broad reach on to the finish in Plymouth in relatively light breeze.
The wind only frees up for boats heading outbound to the Rock, when it backs into the west on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. The slower boats, which won't be crossing the Celtic Sea outbound to the Rock until then, will be in for a fast reach across and back, but they may then get held up depending on the movement of a ridge of high pressure due to encroach into the mid-southern Channel area on Thursday.
With the forecast as it is at present, Chris Tibbs believes that favourite for this year's race could be among the 35-40 footers.