Maverick conditions big test for Fastnet hopefuls
The North Atlantic is in a restless mood with this wayward weather.
And aboard the 350 boats starting tomorrow in the Rolex Fastnet Race from Cowes, the maverick conditions along the 608-mile course are a major concern.
With the most experienced crews, tactical choices will be dominant as they try to select the winning moves. But for relative beginners, even though they've had to complete qualifying races, in addition to the tactical decisions, there's the simple thought of how they are going to cope with every-thing the ocean can throw at them.
Most of the past 43 Fastnet races have been sailed in manageable conditions. But in 1979, with a record 303 boats on the course, the weather went mad and 15 sailors lost their lives.
In subsequent stagings of this biennial classic, numbers were well down. But now, more than three decades along the line, the charisma of the race is greater than ever. An initial entry limit of 300 boats was so quickly reached that the organising Royal Ocean Racing Club hived off the special boats, such as the Volvo 70s, into their own separate section and, thus, 350 craft will be battling their way westward tomorrow.
Irish boats have a good record in this Grand National of offshore racing. Ger O'Rourke's Chieftain won handsomely in 2007, Eric Lisson's Cavatina was second in 2005, Ireland's top Admiral's Cupper, the 40-foot Irish Independent, helmed by Tim Goodbody, won overall in 1987, and Ken Rohan's Regardless won Class 1 in 1981.
Back in the first Fastnet Race in 1925, one of the seven entries was Harry Donegan's Gull from Cork, which placed third. One seventh of the fleet this year would mean an entry of 50 Irish boats. Dream on!
In fact, there have been many Fastnets with no Irish boats at all, but in recent times we've usually managed to get into double digits. In present economic circumstances, it's good going that there are seven this year, plus another three with strong Irish connections.
Newest is Niall Dowling's fresh-out-of-the-box J111 Arabella, whose line-up includes ace helm Nicky Smyth; the same design team supplied the Douglas brothers of Carrickfergus (in their first Fastnet) with their J133 Spirit of Jacana. The two-handed division is being taken on by Barry Hurley and Andy Boyle in the Jeanneau 35 Dinah.
The 2007 winner Chieftain is back as Adrian Lee's Lee Overlay, but a newer Cookson 50, Chris Bull's Jazz, has been setting the pace this year.
Up at the sharpest end of the fleet, there's Irish interest in the boats around the 70-foot mark. Nik Zenstrom's Ran -- overall winner in 2009 -- is going well after a successful Cowes Week, but the Fastnet provides Andy Soriano's Mark Mills-designed 68-foot Alegre a chance to show if she can cut the mustard outside the Mediterranean.
With such a huge fleet, dozens are in with a shout of victory in a race which is very special indeed and symbolised by an iconic rock which is the essence of the ocean, despite being only a few miles off the West Cork coast.