Local Knowledge

Leaden skies, rain squalls and commercial shipping – welcome to the start of the Rolex Fastnet Race 2021. The summer in England served up its very finest traditional weather for the 300 boats but the wind was warm and the sea temperature high as all along the waterfront, thousands of spectators lined the banks from the Royal Yacht Squadron to Gurnard and beyond. What a spectacle. What a sight to behold. And it was local knowledge that proved the winner as the glamour boats hit the start line.

©ROLEX Fastnet Race / RORC

Alex Thomson, a member of the Royal London YC in Cowes, has done more Cowes Weeks, and Fastnet Races than you can shake a stick at and he stuck Hugo Boss on the line, on starboard and thundered into the fast running tide up the Green on the Island side. He’s done that before.

Cameras were ablaze as Hugo Boss tacked onto the making port tack and thumped the rest of the Vendee fleet in an instant. Those that chose to start out towards the Southampton end of the line were dead and buried as Hugo Boss wound up to the Beaulieu shoreline, minimising the tacks and letting the boat do the work. Charal followed and on paper it was looking like a straight fist fight between these two for the next couple of days but Charlie Dalin’s ‘Apivia’ was determined to ruin the party and by the Needles had pulled out a commanding lead.

©ROLEX Fastnet Race / RORC

But whilst all British eyes were on Thomson, the boats that we had all come to see were shadow-boxing like heavyweights. Dmitry Rybolovlev’s ClubSwan 125 was the reference point on the horizon with its outlandish proportions and full Volvo crew led by Fernando Echavarri but the smart money was on George David’s Rambler 88 – the classy choice against the brash Oligarch’s flash-cash machine.

And with Brad Butterworth calling the shots it was all Rambler on the startline, starting to windward and thundering into the Green on starboard. At the first tack, the sheets screamed and the all-black North sails made noises akin to the Olympic shooting parade as these two diced in the fast flowing ebb tidal stream, hugging the shoreline and delighting the spectators.

©ROLEX Fastnet Race / RORC

Up at Gurnard, Rambler was on fire holding back the relentless speed that is inherent in Skorpios and these two will be duking it out to the rock and powering up as the wind abates on Sunday evening and into Monday. Fascinating tussle from two of the fastest mega-maxis on the planet but by the Needles it was all Rambler as they extended out and started challenging the trimarans up ahead. Rambler looked very comfortable in the conditions – Skorpios just looked a bit out of it almost as if the crew were being cautious. They certainly weren’t driving it like they stole it. We’ll see what happens but Rambler’s odds are shortening by the minute.

For the rest of the fleets it was safety first. The initial six to eight hours look tough and orange storm jibs were aplenty. Keeping the crew safe and punching out of the Solent in the building chop will be key. It was rough out there.

Standing on the Green amidst the knowledgeable spectators, it was a sight to behold. Pimms was being served by some. Sausage rolls were everywhere. Cameras sat on tripods set up on the beach. Chatter was bright and faces were illuminated in the sporting excellence before them.

Cowes is the home of world yachting and on days like today it shows just how much the sport means to so many. An incredible spectacle, who needs television when you have entertainment like that on your doorstep? And you have to think that an America’s Cup here would, could and should work tremendously. I’ve seen first hand how stunning San Francisco is as a venue – Cowes matches it, believe me, and what a sight it would be to have a fleet of AC70’s buzzing the Green on short courses with the natural amphitheatre to watch from. Standing room only.

©ROLEX Fastnet Race / RORC

But one thing we did learn today is that mega-trimarans can’t tack. It was fascinating to watch the likes of Yves Le Blevec’s ‘Actual’ and Cyril Dardashti’s ‘Edmond de Rothschild’ wallowing through the tacks despite the conditions. Tough old beasts to sail upwind in a breeze but boy, once those things got going they were electric to watch. More spray than a power shower but a grunt to get round the track in these conditions. Brian Thompson on the nimble looking Argo was having a ball up the Island shore whilst Giovanni Soldini’s ‘Maserati’ was well up in the hunt. It’s Edmund de Rothschild’s to lose now but a beat to the rock is boat breaking conditions for these Goliaths that are a sight to behold up close. I can see why every young French sailor dreams of sailing these machines – why sail when you can fly?

The Royal Ocean Racing Club’s Blue Riband event is underway. The world’s biggest offshore race is a true institution and a treat for not only the competitors but the watching public. RORC gets it so so right every time with this race and this year’s finish in Cherbourg looks like being a masterstroke of evolution for this classic.

A grand party awaits the finishers, there’s just the small matter of one of the trickiest courses in world sailing to get through first. Good luck to everyone taking part. I’ll be glued to the tracker for the next couple of days…

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