Spinnakers and optimism order of the day at Fastnet start

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The Independent Online

Anchors may replace survival suits as early essential equipment as a fleet of 300 yachts, plus 11 Open 60s, set off from Cowes yesterday for what is the 30th anniversary of the frightening Rolex Fastnet Race.

But yesterday a south-easterly breeze, coupled with a west-going, favourable tide, meant that spinnakers and optimism were the order of the day as competitors, both professional and adventurous amateur, streamed down the Solent, through Hurst Narrows, where King Charles I was once imprisoned, and past the Needles Lighthouse at the western end of the Isle of Wight.

In 1979 it was also light at the start but within 36 hours the 300 boats that year were being battered unmercifully by a storm which triggered a major air and sea rescue operation, 15 competitors died, four more on a trimaran shadowing the race also lost their lives, and two more nothing to do with the race perished in the same storm.

As the breeze lightened and switched in direction yesterday, plus the tide turned against them, many boats who could not make it past the tidal trap off Portland Bill were ready, if necessary, to anchor rather than being swept backwards.

The 608-mile course, which has not changed since it was first contested in 1925, takes the fleet down the English Channel, across the Celtic Sea, along the southern coast of Ireland, around the lighthouse which is on the Fastnet Rock off the south-west tip of Ireland and back to Plymouth.

The record, set in 2007 by Mike Slade’s 100-foot Leopard, stands at a few seconds over 44 hours. It will take a change in the forecast to beat that, but Leopard has been modified since last time, is lighter and slightly longer, and navigator Hugh Agnew’s computers are predicting a time of 48 to 50 hours.

Many may not make it until Thursday, even Friday, but weather forecasts, much improved since 1979, were striking no alarm bells in the organising Royal Ocean Racing Club, which has also fitted a tracker device to every yacht, relaying its position every 30 minutes.