As Cowes Week comes to a conclusion, sadly without the traditional bang of its annual firework display, slowly, almost by stealth the town changes with the Rolex Fastnet crews arriving. Suddenly it’s all very different. The red trousers disappear. The dated victoriana of the royal clubs with their traditions, dress and standards melts away and clipped tones of a bygone era are replaced by American, French, Spanish, Mexican, Italian, Swiss, Irish, Dutch and Japanese twangs. It’s a great scene.
Everyone looks very organised and they all have somewhere to go, busy like bees in their own microcosms. Dinner is a serious topic. Crew gear is cooler. Sailors look weather-beaten. As a stop on the pro-circuit, it’s just another day, another dollar and keeping the one with the cheque book happy but the Rolex Fastnet Race is mythical, magical, the K2 of the offshore racing calendar. They all want to win here.
I went out Laser blasting for fun yesterday, inspired by the Olympics, just to get out on the water, hit a broad reach, make the boat hum, scare myself and go and see the Cowes action close-up whilst I was at it. Brilliant fun. Getting buzzed by the trimaran Argo as it thundered down the Solent at 30 knots was something else.
Cruising up to Dmitry Rybolovlev’s ClubSwan 125 ‘Skorpios’ at anchor off Cowes Roads gave me some perspective on life and when George David’s Rambler 88 came through the mist, setting about three foresails on a shy reach and the biggest mainsail I’ve ever seen, I felt very very small. It was like the Death Star hoving in to view. Alex Thomson was show-boating around with guests in the stunning, re-built Hugo Boss briefly foiling for fun to scare everyone silly but much as I surfed the mid-Solent waves at what seemed like a terrific lick amidst wild spray, I couldn’t catch them for a close-up. That boat is quick even when it’s cruising.
It was fun too to get up close and personal, surfing the stern waves of the Cowes fleets as they filtered up to the East Bay buoy off Gurnard before a shy reach over to the mainland and there was some decent, tough sailing going down. I’ve said it elsewhere but winning at Cowes in any fleet is a big ask and by the time I got back for lunch at my yacht club after a thoroughly entertaining morning’s blast, tales of the Daring fleet being turned upside down on massive shifts were aplenty. Rain squalls upended the fleets, you couldn’t see England and it was a tough day on the water for many. Brilliant – it’s always like that in Cowes.
But the Fastnet is gearing up and it’s looking like a windy classic. What really strikes me is that half the fleet, and some of the real flying machines, are sat in Cherbourg waiting to blast across the English Channel on Saturday in 25 knot southerlies ahead of the start. It will be like an invading armada. At pace. And the good, no great, news is that bang on cue the British and French governments have seen sense and relaxed quarantine rules for the double-jabbed.
Cowes will be rocking on Saturday night with international arrivals and Cherbourg is set to throw the mother of all parties as the boats start finishing in a few days’ time. The French are loving having the finish line in Cherbourg and are throwing their doors open with huge food stations replete with the finest cuisine, as is their bag, and sailors’ bars aplenty. It will be a party to savour. Good on the French…let’s not mention the Olympics again shall we?
The Royal Ocean Racing Club makes organising the world’s biggest offshore race look like a stroll in the park. The detail they have gone to is off the scale – even down to dry bags of competitor clothes being delivered to Cherbourg by Sevenstar for those wishing to land and enjoy themselves. And their investment in technology is peerless in sailing: trackers, Virtual Games, Fastnet Radio and Live TV – they’ve got it all going on. Fabulous.
And the list of sailing legends taking part is something else: Loick Peyron, Sam Davies, Dee Caffari, Shirley Robertson, Mike Golding, Franck Cammas, Charlie Dalin, Fernando Echavarri, Jan Dekker, Paul Larsen, Brad Jackson – the names go on and on. It’s a who’s who of offshore sailing.
Reading the dedicated Fastnet website, it’s all utterly logical, precise and full of info. It’s the model of how it’s done. All credit to the outstanding media teams both in London and Cowes too – that’s how you do it. And in Cowes, the RORC clubhouse is welcoming and full of life with a wonderful staff that have seen it all before – you have to do a lot to get banned, trust me.
As club’s go, RORC is to my mind, the top of the tree. Especially if you’re an offshore racer or sailor – I’m not, but I can smell excellence a mile off. It’s everywhere. Experience, knowledge and depth of talent is in abundance and how they’ve navigated the Covid restrictions to put on a full year’s programme that culminates in the Fastnet Race is exemplary and reflective of the can-do membership. Incredible really.
Forecasters are eyeing records as south westerly breezes touching 40 knots are due. The speed machines will be flying down the southern coast of Britain and bearing away to the Rock. Ocean smocks and Oakley goggles have already sold out in Cowes – some of the crews will be in a fire hydrant of spray next week whilst the Vendee sailors crouch in enclosed cockpits in technical, wicking T-shirts battling humidity.
Boats will get broken, stories will be written and line honours is all that matters for the big boys. My money, for what it’s worth, is on Giovanni Soldini’s Maserati in the 70ft multis and Skorpios in the monohulls with the overall winner coming from IRC 1 where any number of top boats could win. Fascinating. It’s like trying to pick a Grand National winner in the IRC fleets – a total mug’s game.
Good luck to all the Fastnet crews – get that wet weather gear on!