Gathering in Queen Anne’s Battery, Plymouth, home of the Royal Western Yacht Club of England, is a group of sailors far removed from the professional and grand prix circuit.
The oldest is Nicholas Budel in a Class 40, but not far behind is former Royal Marine Mervyn Wheatley, now 69, doing it for the fourth time and saying: “I take lots goodies; cakes, flapjack, banana bread, fruit, cheese, eggs and bacon. I have a glass of sherry with peanuts every evening, and, quite often, a glass of Merlot with the freeze-dried meal.”
A 50-foot trimaran should be fastest among the 21 who leave on Bank Holiday Monday, but, says race director David Southwood; “We want to support the old-style flavour of adventure. This is aimed at club sailors who are serious yachtsmen but who want to do something extraordinary.
“There is one sponsored boat, but the rest finance themselves, and we don’t want to make money out of this, just break even.” All t5he competitors are automatically members of the Half-Crown Club.
Over 42 years ago half a crown, two bob, and a tanner went out of circulation as decimal currency came in. But half a crown was two bob and a tanner, two shillings and sixpence, twelve and a half pence in today’s currency, and in 1960 it was the inaugural wager between two typically British characters for a singlehanded sailboat race across the Atlantic.
Francis Chichester was knighted for his solo voyage round the world. Royal Marine Major Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler, whose idea the race was, had led the Cockleshell Heroes raid, in kayaks, against German ships in Bordeaux in 1942.
Chichester raced to New York in the 40-foot Gipsy Moth III, Hasler in a 26-foot junk-rigged Folkboat called Jester. Chichester won in 40 days, Hasler proved his point just over a week later, but the five which took part captured no just the imagination of the nation but ignited the centuries old, and continuing, rivalry between British and French seafarers.
Four years later, in 1964, along came a man called Eric Tabarly, determined to promote the supremacy of the tricolour. Of the 13 editions in its 43 year history, eight of the winners have been French.
The professional years also saw a split with The Transat running the event just for Open 60s, the Royal Western running the more Corinthian version and changing its four year cycle. It hopes to return to its traditional slot by 2020, which is also the 300 anniversary of the Mayflower leaving for what is now the United States the (now politically incorrect) Pilgrim Fathers landing at what they called New Plymouth.
The OSTAR, Original Singlehanded Transatlantic Race, finishes in Newport, Rhode Island, home for so many years of the America’s Cup and still keen to support major yachting events.
Old Plymouth will host, next month, the Route des Princes round Europe multihull circuit and the Royal Western has just hosted the mini-Fastnet race in boats just 21 feet long and won for the first time by a British pair, Pippa Hare and Phil Stubbs.
The Rolex Fastnet with an entry list which has already broken the limit and been expanded, is due to arrive from Cowes in August.