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An interview with Adrian Gray on the RWYC's 2023 Plymouth Fastnet 500

by David Schmidt 9 Aug 16:00 BST August 13, 2023
Plymouth Fastnet 500 Race 2021 © RWYC

Many offshore races are old and steeped in tradition. Not the Royal Western Yacht Club (RWYC) of England's Plymouth Fastnet 500 race, which is set to begin its second edition on Sunday, August 6. The event is open to mono- and multihulls that measure between 24 and 70 feet, LOA and that carry a valid IRC or MOCRA certificate. Teams can opt to race in fully crewed mode, doublehanded, or—for the boldest skippers—singlehanded. And, as the event's name implies, there is a rather famous lighthouse rounding involved.

The race begins on the waters of Plymouth Sound, on the UK's south-southwest coast, and teams exit this body of water via its western entrance. They then round Fastnet Rock to port before passing the Isles of Scilly (again to port), before crossing a finishing line that's situated between Breakwater Lighthouse and Plymouth Sound's Queens Ground buoy.

All told, teams will race roughly 500 nautical miles on a course that avoids the three tidal gates (the first at Hurst Caste, the second at Portland, the third at Start Point) that can sometimes flummox teams competing in the Rolex Fastnet Race. Better still for yacht owners, the Plymouth Fastnet 500 starts and finishes at the same place, thus simplifying logistics.

I checked in with Adrian Gray, Rear Commodore Oceanic of the RWYC, via email, to learn more about this exciting offshore event.

Can you please give us an 8,000 meter overview of the Fastnet 500, its forming culture, and the kinds of sailors that it tends to attract?

The '500 is a race that I have been toying with for a very long time, back to when I was running boats and competing in the Fastnet 20 odd years ago. Having done a few by then, I felt it was always a huge commitment for all concerned, particularly for those who didn't live close to the start or the finish come to that.

There is definitely a level to our sport where time and finances dictate what one can and cannot do. This, and the extreme tidal gates encountered in the first 100 miles [of the Rolex Fastnet Race] can be off-putting to the club / Corinthian sailors among us.

So, why not offer a race that is just as big a challenge in terms of getting to the Rock and back but with the added advantages of not having to negotiate the huge Western Solent tide at Hurst, Lyme Bay with its tidal gate at Portland and Start Point, each hazard being somewhere that you can never win the race but can easily lose it.

Add to this the clear advantages of starting and finishing at the same place, and you start to see a really decent opportunity taking shape.

Can you please walk us through the race course's "four challenging segments"?

Four challenging segments is right! Breaking it down there is the first segment, which takes us out to the Eddystone Lighthouse. This is around 12 miles past the Plymouth sound Breakwater and, as our winds are prevailing southwesterly's, tends to be up wind. This is a real feature to the race, as with the Rolex Fastnet Race I cannot recall a single race in the ten that I have completed where we got up and close to the rock. This is actually a mark of the course.

It is also the first point for bragging rights! Get a good first leg in and it opens up the race for you. The opposite can be the case for those who are not so quick to the Eddystone. It can be a long fight back to the front but what this does do is it takes the fleet away from land, opening up the course in such a way that all is not lost. Do you head back in for land effects, do you hit the rhumb line or even head further offshore? Each will have its merits.

The second segment for me would be getting into the Irish Sea. This means getting past the Scilly Isles, which has three Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS) surrounding it. The TSS are a no-go zone and are listed in the SI's as a hazard, which lead to big time penalties if they are entered. There are three distinct routes past this area, one is due north up a three-mile wide corridor at Lands End, the second is Northwest off the lower left corner of the first TSS, which takes you north of the Isles of Scilly, and lastly you take the option to head further west past the Isles of Scilly and clear all TSS before heading on a North westerly course to the Fastnet Rock.

The Irish Sea is the next segment where the crews can begin to get into a solid watch pattern. Up to now there is just too much going on and the odds are crews will not have many undisturbed 'off watch' spells. Once in the Irish Sea the field opens up in front of you, which often lends to working a solid plan. Often it is pretty breezy and challenging. Not only do you have the Atlantic, which rolls in unchallenged, but also you have the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel all meeting in the same spot. This creates a very confusing swell which can challenge even the very best of crews.

Then, once around the Fastnet Rock and all phones are stowed away having taken the obligatory 'Rounding the Rock' shot, you have it all to do again on the way back.

The last segment is the leg from the Isles of Scilly to the finish. Again, as we saw on the way out, there are three very different routes to take, being inshore, rhumb line or offshore. Breeze is always the first factor, but should this be even across the course then it is a decision of when to go inshore to reap the tidal advantages and when to stay out should there be any doubts in getting into favorable tide in time.

There is a real classic zone as you head towards the last headland, Rame Head. Do you go inshore after Looe Island and skip the coast along Witsand Bay for its tide and sea breeze...the issue is getting out of that bay, which can often cost you as much as you may gain if not more. Then Rame Head, which from point to point can act as a magnet.

It is very common to see boats becalmed close inshore whilst others just three-quarters mile off shore will sail past with ease. Finally getting to the breakwater light house. It always pays to continue past the tacking / gybing angle for the western entrance and come in hot. Flood tide has little effect but eb tide can be a place changer. The trick is to use the breakwater as a barrier and gain on the slack tide outside of the main channel.

For this race we use the RWYC club line for the finish. It is a great spectacle for all and quite a special amphitheater for those who get to the finish. Added to this, we also have the British National Fireworks Championships on the Wednesday and Thursday, quite a sight when approaching Plymouth Sound National Marine Park.

Are there specific parts of the course where you think victory can be won or lost? If so, what are those? If not, is this a game of fastest VMG sailing, start to finish?

As I mentioned earlier, there are many decisions to be made. To win you need to make every decision the right one. As with all yacht racing it is incredibly easy to lose the race. I would say that the main area for 'snakes and ladders' would be around the Isles of Scilly. So many decisions to be made in a very short space in time, the three TSS will divide the fleet and, once committed, there is no turning back.

Is there a lot of overlap between the fleets that are competing in the Rolex Fastnet Race and the Fastnet 500? Or, is it a little bit like in the USA, where the Newport-Bermuda Race is there competitive outing, even though the Marion Bermuda Race sails the a largely similar course?

Absolutely. Indeed, we try to avoid the Fastnet dates as best as possible so that sailors have the option of doing both if they wish.

As a follow-up to #4, given that the Fastnet and the Fastnet 500 are both biennial affairs, was there any consideration to staggering the two races, where one takes place on odd-numbered years, while the other takes the odd-numbered years?

We have the Lonely Rock Race (original Fastnet course) which we run on non-RORC Fastnet years.

For the 500, we avoid the dates [but] this is much more of a Corinthian race in its very nature. We have had no issues with overlap so far.

I see that the NOR caps the maximum waterline of entrants to 70 feet, LOA. What's the reason for this limit? Or, in other words, why not let the 100-footers come and play?

The race is geared towards the non-commercial yachts - this is what I call the fully sponsored, fully paid boats. We are all about the Corinthian approach, that said we do accept Cat 3 sailors but we do not have the room for the bigger 'Super Zero' machines.

We found that the biggest issue with the RORC Fastnet was the marina. Whilst they are very helpful and it is a great marina, it is a long way out of town and with very few options for food or accommodation. QAB marina was and is the best venue for finishing yachts and as such the marina has limits for the LOA. Moorings are available but to be honest the bigger, professionally run boats tend to dip the line and carry on to the next venue. Besides the race is probably not long enough for them to stretch their legs, they could in fact finish within 24 hours!

'Le Fastnet' suits them much better, hence the move to Cherbourg.

What are the best-case and worst-case weather scenarios? Also, are there certain chapters ("segments") of the race where the fleet will be more exposed to Mother Nature's meteorological whims than others? If so, can you please explain?

For me the best case would be 20-25 knots, solid West -North westerly. This would give a solid beat and a reach/ run all the way back. Crews always look for Southerly so there is no beat, but that's not much fun or much of a test!

There is always the chance of big or dangerous winds. We had a similar case of dangerous conditions a few years ago on the Lonely Rock Race, which had the '79 Fastnet disaster written all over it. Two huge Lows collided mid Irish Sea. We were able to shorten the course at Wolf Rock Light House. All boats finished and no one complained!!!

The other worst case, for me the bigger of the two, is no wind. As race director, it's always very sad to see boats pull out due to time constraints. All that work and effort resulting in a retirement due to lack of wind is just the worst.

I realize that crystal balls are in short supply these days, but are you seeing any entries that could threaten the racecourse record? If so, who are these record contenders?

As the race is still in its infancy there is always the chance that the record will go. Conditions will dictate who will be up there to a degree. Within IRC, boats are set up very differently for a range of conditions. For some, a few of the race sails will have to be left behind. Make a wrong choice and this could of course count you out.

For me, the boats that are setting the pace right now are the JPK1080s. Also, the Sunfast 3300s. Currently I would fancy the chances of the local Sunfast, Sunfire, owned by Steve Andrew. He has a wealth of knowledge, a strong team, they know their boat and what it takes to get the best out of it.

Can you tell us about any efforts that you and the other regatta organizers have made to try to lower the regatta's environmental footprint or otherwise green-up the regatta?

We have a huge jump in that we are not starting the race in the Solent! Not sure if that counts?? From Plymouth, we have everything online in terms of data, registration and even briefing. We do not use sponsor stickers for any of our races anymore, and we also use one start boat for the bigger races. This is a river trip/passenger vessel so we have all friends and family on one boat as well as the race officers who do the start on the top deck. It has become quite a feature for our races.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

We will be running the '500 back-to-back with the third edition being next year. Then, in 2025, we intend to offer the Original Lonely Rock Race (OLR) with its original Fastnet format, the route being a start at Ryde Bank, exit East bound and then leaving the Isle of Wight to starboard to head down the English Channel. After this we will revert back to the '500. We intend to alternate the OLR and the '500, but this will depend on the entries.

It may be that we just stick with this race, who knows, but that will be someone else's call. Time will tell...

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