‘Gnarly’ but potentially record-breaking forecast for 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race

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Strong 25-knot headwinds are forecast for the start of the 50th Rolex Fastnet Race, which sets off tomorrow, with a wet and windy first day of racing, and potentially record-breaking conditions for the largest monohulls

Strong headwinds are forecast for the start of the 50th Rolex Fastnet Race, which sets off tomorrow from Cowes, Isle of Wight to Cherbourg, France, via the iconic course around the Fastnet Rock. 

Wind speeds of 20-25 knots from the south-west are expected at the start. This will build to 30-35 knots, potentially gusting 40, as the fleet exits the Solent, although conditions are forecast to moderate rapidly on Sunday.

“At the moment all the information says it will be a gnarly night, but safe to go,” explained Steve Cole, RORC Race Director, at today’s Skippers’ Briefing when asked if organisers RORC had considered postponing.

This year’s race has a record entry, expected to be the largest ever offshore race with over 440 boats taking part and more than 3,000 crew competing.

Record-breaking forecast for Fastnet 2023?

However, the strong winds could potentially also see the course record broken. The current monohull record, set on the race’s first running over its longer 695-mile course in 2021, stands at 2d 8h 33m 55s, set by the ClubSwan 125 Skorpios.

The canting-keeled 88-footer Rambler 88 here competing in the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race, and will be returning for a tilt at the race record in 2023 under its new ownership as Lucky. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi/Rolex

However, the team onboard Bryon Ehrhart’s Lucky, the 88ft canting keel design that was formerly Rambler 88, believe they are in with a good chance of smashing that. 

Andrew Cape, navigator on Lucky, explained: ‘It’s a big possibility, like a 75% chance. The routings have us [finishing] at 2 days and 2 hours, so we’re looking pretty good.

“Like anything with weather, no plan lasts past first contact but we’ll see. Five out of six weather models have us breaking the record.”

America’s Cup legendary sailor Brad Butterworth, tactician on Lucky, cautioned that with the forecast tough start, the big challenge in this year’s Fastnet race would be in avoiding damage. 

“I don’t believe Capey by the way!” he quipped. “You have to finish, and the first day is going to be pretty sporty and I think there’s going to be a lot of boats that will be thinking twice about continuing on. We’re setting up for quite a bit of wind the first day – but you have to get through that and to break any record first you have to finish.

“But we’ll pushing hard, there’s no question about that.’

Tough start expected for IMOCAs in Fastnet

For the 29 IMOCA teams taking part there will be the additional challenge of racing double-handed among the enormous fleet. Pip Hare, who’ll be sailing her newly refitted Medallia complete with monster foils, explained they would be sailing ‘Very cautiously!’ after the start.

“That is the bit I am most worried about, and I know all the other IMOCA skippers are worried about it as well. Obviously we’ve got a lot of bits sticking out the side! And really limited visibility – my boat is actually quite good from that perspective because my coach roof pushes forward so I can actually have my head out the boat, but most of the new build boats are [crew] inside. 

“And as we head out to the west we go through a funnel, and it gets windier and narrower! So I think everyone is nervous about it and I think we’re probably going to see a cautious exit from the Solent from most people.”

The 29-boat IMOCA fleet is one of the most fascinating in the race, with several brand new designs making their race debut. However, there are also several older, straight daggerboard designs in the fleet and with the initially upwind forecast it might not be the newest foilers that dominate.

“I think it’s going to be interesting, with the non-foiling IMOCAs in the mix all the way up to Lands End,” explained Pip Hare. 

“I think they’re going to be quite happy with the forecast, then we’re hoping that once we get past the Scillies we can stick a bit of foil down and pull away from them. It will definitely be a mixed fleet until Lands End.”

Strong winds are again forecast for the initial stages of the Rolex Fastnet Race. Photo: Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

A wet and windy first night

Due to the strong wind forecast organisers RORC have reversed the start sequence, with the largest IRC yachts starting first instead of last so they can have a clear exit from the Solent. This means the starting sequence is slightly shorter, with the first warning signal for the multihull fleet at 1250 to start at 1300, the IMOCA 60s starting 15 minutes later, and so on in decreasing yacht size until the IRC 4 class start at 1445.

Race meteorologist Christian Dumard forecast 20-25 knots of south-westerly wind at the start, potentially gusting 30.  

By the time the fleet reaches the Needles Channel the wind will increase, and with the current against the west-going fleet it will likely feel stronger again for the competitors as they punch their way out of the Solent. Wind speeds are expected to be 30-35 knots, maybe gusting 40, the sea state will also deteriorate with 1.5-2.5m waves over the first evening.

A front from the west is forecast to cross over the fleet around midnight tomorrow, and will likely bring rain. Dumard anticipates that will be followed by a right-hand shift, with the best of the conditions in the west of Lyme Bay. As the front moves east, the sea state is expected to improve and the wind speed reduce fairly rapidly on Sunday morning.

A second front will bring winds from a more north-north-westerly direction, which could make for a tactically interesting right-hand shift for the leading IRC boats around Lands End. While the weather models aren’t yet in agreement on how far the northerly wind will shift, it’s possible boats may even experience some downwind sailing towards Fastnet Rock if it clocks all the way round to the east.

Here’s how to follow the race start, plus don’t miss our coverage of all the action on yachtingworld.com, social media and YouTube.

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