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High profile arrivals in the Rolex Fastnet Race

by James Boyd 9 Aug 2017 17:20 BST 9 August 2017

Some of the world's most high profile ocean racing yachts arrived in Plymouth in the early hours of this morning at the end of the Rolex Fastnet Race.

Following Rambler, Ludde Ingvall's 100ft maxi CQS and Nikata, (at 115ft LOA, the longest yacht in the race), came the fleet of seven identical VO65s competing on Leg Zero of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race. However, in an exceptional performance, arriving before all of these fully crewed heavyweights was a nimble French two handed IMOCA 60.

Paul Meilhat and Gwénolé Gahinet on the SMA crossed the Plymouth finish line at 03:24:02 UTC this morning, after an exceptional Rolex Fastnet Race. Their boat, formerly the 2012-3 Vendée Globe winner MACIF, was the last of the 'conventional' IMOCA 60s fitted with daggerboard before the new semi-foiling breed was introduced for the 2016-7 solo non-stop round the world race. As a result SMA was in a different league sailing upwind compared to the opposition. Thanks to a combination of this and smart tactics, they were three miles ahead of both the IMOCA 60 and VO65 fleets at Portland Bill, extending this to seven at Start Point and to ten by the Lizard. At the shut-down at Land's End they managed to extract themselves first and despite the onslaught across the Celtic Sea by the VO65s (in theory better upwind machines), they were still almost half an hour ahead of the first VO65 at the Fastnet Rock.

Ultimately this advance proved enough, enabling them to extend over the Volvo Ocean Race fleet and fend off the very real threat of the new generation IMOCA 60s, which now off the wind were capable of sailing at vastly superior speeds. For example Jean-Pierre Dick and Yann Elies on StMichel-Virbac were just over three hours astern of them in four place at the Fastnet Rock, but reduced this to 1 hours 15 minutes and coming home second into Plymouth.

Meilhat felt they had sailed a good race. In 2014 he and Gahinet had won the Transat AG2R doublehanded Figaro race and are clearly a potent union. "We had a good race and made good choices about our sails and our general tactics. It was interesting but very hard - the way back from the Fastnet Rock because there were a lot of big thunder storms and it was hard. And Gwenole did a fantastic job."

Meilhat was also pleased to beat his fellow countrymen and former Figaro sailors on Dongfeng Race Team.

As expected, the Volvo Ocean Race fleet sailed as close a race as any leg of the event proper. During the race at least four of the seven boats led at various times and there were numerous lead changes as the boats weaved their way in along the shore or out to sea, playing shifts as sailors would on an inshore race. As expected, the two boats hogging the limelight were the Charles Caudrelier-skippered Dongfeng Race Team and MAPFRE, led by two time Olympic 49er gold medallist and multiple round the world sailor Xabi Fernandes. The new Team Akzonobel came close to leading the VO65s around the Fastnet Rock, but were overtaken by Dongfeng Race Team.

"The one design aspect makes the racing very, very close," observed Caudrelier. "Also the teams are very strong and on each you have a very good navigator, so even if the race was very complicated everyone did a nice job. We were ahead at the beginning, but we lost the lead many times and we came back. It also was very difficult, especially over the last day with the clouds - I have never seen such big shifts as that. We dropped back to last, came back to first, etc. It was a very difficult day."

"It shows us that we have to keep working, because all the teams are strong and the new teams will be strong. This Volvo Ocean Race will be like an inshore race around the world."

Clever tactics returning from the Rock saw MAPFRE regain the lead and the Spanish VO65 and Dongfeng Race Team were engaged in full-on sprinters' dash for the line with the Chinese VO65 winning by just 54 seconds.

As Caudrelier explained: "They had a J1 and one reef and we had J0 with mainsail because we couldn't take a reef!" Shortly before the line a gust hit and MAPFRE became overpowered, as skipper Fernandez recalled: "We were stretching away at the very end but then a big squall came with 20+ knots and it was way too much for the sail and we had to peel and they [Dongfeng Race Team] overtook."

Fernandez is setting off on his fifth Volvo Ocean Race this autumn, but this year's Rolex Fastnet Race was his first. "It has everything," he said of the Royal Ocean Racing Club's flagship offshore race. "It is very tricky at the beginning and you need someone who is very well prepared, with a lot of knowledge. Fortunately Joan [Vila -navigator] knows it well.

"The very end was disappointing for us, but the race was very good and very intense. We know these short legs are very hard, because you can't sleep and you can't let go."

The seven VO65s all arrived within half an hour with Dee Caffari's Turn The Tide On Plastic bringing up the rear. "It was good," said Caffari. "Even if it was not the result we wanted, we were in touch with the VOR fleet the whole time and positions changed. It was interesting for the young new sailors in our team that we can be on the pace." Among Caffari's crew, four had never done the Rolex Fastnet Race before. "We had some virgins on board, who are no longer virgins," said Caffari. "There is a lot to learn. It takes us that bit longer to get to the set-ups with each sail change and there were a lot of sail changes out there."

Personally Caffari has sailed numerous Rolex Fastnet Races and she says each one is special: "This had a massive fleet and full-on start and as ours was the last start, we were short tacking out through the Needles with 400 boats all ahead of you. Then it was a long upwind slog. We have had numerous squalls, unstable, with big shifts and it was SO cold."

The most dramatic changes though occurred in the IMOCA 60 fleet. In the passage up to the Fastnet Rock, the conventionally foiled boats prevailed, generally performing better upwind, in the second half of the race, the latest generation foil-assisted boat came to the fore.

German Boris Herrmann and Pierre Casiraghi, younger son of Princess Caroline of Monaco, were competing in their first IMOCA race onboard Malizia - Yacht Club de Monaco, and managed to bring their silver IMOCA 60 home in third.

"Some of the other boats were much faster than us upwind," noted Casiraghi. "But it was great. I am very happy - the boat just flew downwind." En route back from the Rock, Malizia - Yacht Club de Monaco was hitting 25 knots in 22 knots of wind.

They, along with Jean-Pierre Dick and Yann Elies on StMichel-Virbac, were alone among the IMOCA 60s to sail up the west side of the Traffic Separation Scheme off Land's End, a decision that paid dividends.

"We were not sure how it was going to go but we had to take that option otherwise we were going to just trail the fleet," admitted Casiraghi, who said that he had only managed to grab sleep in hour-long or half hour long chunks during the race.

Over the course of today most boats in IRC Zero are expected to arrive in Plymouth along the first Class40s.

Track the fleet in the Rolex Fastnet Race at

Pierre Casiraghi and Boris Herrmann on 3rd step of the podium (from Isabelle Andrieux, YC Monaco)

For their first outing in the Rolex Fastnet Race, Pierre Casiraghi and Boris Herrmann clinched 3rd in the IMOCA 60' category on Malizia II, just ahead of another Riviera team led by Jean-Pierre Dick (StMichel-Virbac). The 60-footer (18.28m) arrived on Wednesday 9th August at 05.05, having covered 608nm (1,120km) from Cowes to Plymouth via the Fastnet Rock in just 2 days 17 hours 55 minutes and 11 seconds.

It is also the first time a boat flying the Yacht Club de Monaco colours has achieved such a result. It was an excellent performance given that three of the nine IMOCA 60s competing were on the podium of the last Vendée Globe. For most of the IMOCA 60s, this race served as a full-on rehearsal for the Transat Jacques Vabre which starts from Le Havre in France on 5th November 2017.

A memorable debut

In the early hours of the race, the Monegasque duo opted to go up the west side of the TSS (Traffic Separation Scheme) between the Scilly Isles and south-west England's Land's End, north to the Celtic Sea. It was a bold but wise tactical choice that saw them catch up with the group led by Paul Meilhat and Gwénolé Gahinet (SMA) caught out by a lull in the wind. The decision was made to take advantage of a breeze filling in from the west caused by pressure between England and the Fastnet lighthouse, that most famous of offshore race marks, off Ireland's south coast.

"We are delighted. The race was so intense, particularly on the final descent to Plymouth, with a very unstable wind and strong squalls. Our tactical choices paid off. The boat is fantastic, she's so fast reaching and downwind. We never dreamed of such a result, especially as we only had two days training together beforehand. But we sailed intuitively and never stopped attacking – we didn't sleep for the last 24 hours. It was an amazing experience." said Pierre Casiraghi.

Neck and neck with the top three on a long downwind leg to Plymouth, Malizia II played their cards right as they approached the English coast. They took full advantage of a 15-knot north-westerly breeze to slip to leeward of Generali and Initiatives Cœur and grab a well-deserved 3rd place.

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