Competitors prepare for a race with a fearsome reputation

Fastnet Race Preview

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The Independent Online

Danger, what danger? Recession, what recession? The fearsome reputation of the Fastnet Race is forever linked with the storms which hammered the fleet in 1979 and left 15 competitors dead. There was a record 303 entries that year.

After the world’s economy has been battered for the last two or three years and regatta entries have been hit hard in Italy, Spain and the United States, the number of boats racing in Cowes Week is up and the number entered for the Rolex Fastnet is a new record 350, and that has had to be rigged.

Usually a lot of the focus is on the glamorous, professional crews in the Fastnet. This time they have had to be re-classified so that the previous cap of 300 boats could be given entirely to club and weekend sailors.

“The 300 figure was set because we had established our own stock of 300 trackers, which monitor the positions of all the boats around the clock,” says Eddie Warden Owen, chief executive of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, which has organised the race every two years since 1925. It took just 10 days at the beginning of February to fill all 300 slots.

It was in 1925 when a pilot cutter called Jolie Brise took six days, 14 and three quarter hours to cover the 608-mile course down the English Channel, across the Celtic Sea and along the bottom of Ireland to round a ragged piece of rock, topped by a lighthouse, on its south-west tip.

This year an American 100-footer called Rambler, owned by George David, hopes to break the record held by a rival British 100-footer, Mike Slade’s Leopard, which holds the record of 44 hours and 18 minutes over the finish line in Plymouth.

There will also be three Volvo round the world race boats, including the Abu Dhabi entry, Azzam, skippered by British double Olumpic medallist Ian Walker. Two of the new breed of 70-foot trimarans are over from France, though they will be dwarfed by the 140-foot Banque Populaire, and a clutch of the Open 60s of the type used in transatlantic and round the world races.

None of which will be troubling the thoughts of the likes of Jonathan Blanshard, a 50-year old ear, nose and throat surgeon from Basingstoke. This will be his first Fastnet, his 40.7 Beneteau, Space Race, bought last winter also has to wash its face financially by being chartered out. He has one long-time buddy James Tew plus a further eight, including sons Hugo, 21, and Alastair, 20, and their university friends, in the crew.

“The reason for doing this is that we are a family that has sailed all our lives, none of us has ever done it before, but we have been thinking about it for years,” he says. “There is a sense of adventure and excitement. We know there is a potential for it to be windy, but we had windy conditions on our qualification miles and all the lads are keen.”

They will have pre-cooked meals, frozen and stowed in the boat’s fridge, and will be quietly driving the boat hard in order to achieve a top three place in their class. By the time they arrive in Sutton Harbour and raise a glass in the special, 24-hour crew bar, the big boys will have gone. They are not expecting wives and girl friends to be leading the cheers on the dock side. This is about personal achievement and quiet satisfaction.

What they will have is an array of modern satellite communications, not available even 32 years ago, On Jolie Brise they were probably still using a sextant. But Blanshard is aware of the fortunate position he is in; the NHS offers a lot of security to him “but I am aware of what is going on elsewhere,” he says, “and my concern is more for the young people and those leaving university.

Setting out along that road are Jamie Holmes, now a maritime civil engineer and a former fellow student at Southampton, Tom Whicher. Jamie has borrowed his father Mike’s boat, a 31-foot J97 called Jika-Jika, to do the race double-handed. Mike Holmes survived the ’79 Fastnet on a yacht called Xaviera.

The weather, says Jamie “is what it is when you go. The challenge now is having the info – there has been quite a big leap since 1979 – and making the best decisions.

“We have been in touch with a nutrition consultant and will be going for boil in the bag stuff. I am pretty fit and Tom tells me has been in the gym on his travels. I guess were are about to find out. For us it’s a mixture of adventure and a race, but it’s always been on our bucket list of things to do.”

So, what is the state of club yachting post Lehman? Mark Inkster, commodore of the Royal Southern Yacht Club at Hamble was in confident mood when introducing an ambitious programme to celebrate the club’s 175th anniversary next year. It includes a three-legged Biscay 2012 race, which he hopes will become a biennial fixture.

But, behind the scenes he is very much the realist. “If you ask me, all those yacht brokers and agents out there must be pleased with every sale they can make at the moment. We have put seven or eight years of hard work into realigning the club and there is more to do.

“Perhaps yachting in the UK is looking healthier than in some other countries is because our programmes and events are the best. We have had to knuckle down and work, and work, and work at it. That is why people are dropping two ski-ing holidays or a winter break in the Caribbean but sticking with maintained use of their yachts.”

Eddie Warden Owen would agree. His tight team at the RORC will head out of Cowes on Sunday night to a race control centre in Plymouth that will already be running.

The weather prospects for the 2011 Fastnet look benign, but the electronic surveillance will not stop until the last boat is home safe.