The Rolex Fastnet Race might not be anything like the length of even the shortest of the Volvo Ocean Race legs, but it’s a renowned ocean classic race nevertheless, with a complex course that combines coastal and open water challenges.

Few people know the Fastnet better than team AkzoNobel navigator Jules Salter. Born on the Isle of Wight where the race originates, Jules has taken part in 12 editions so far of the 92-year old race and his enthusiasm for it remains undiminished.  

In 2011 he was the navigator on the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing VO70 Azzam when Ian Walker’s crew set the current monohull record time of 42 hours, 39 minutes (one day, 18 hours, 39 minutes).

There’s no one better than Jules to break the 603-nautical mile (1,117-kilometer) race down into understandable sections. 

He begins with the start in Cowes from the Royal Yacht Squadron starting line… 

“There will be hundreds of boats setting off through the confines of the Solent [the sandbank-strewn, current-ridden strait separating the Isle of Wight from the English mainland]. 

“We will be one of the last fleets to start, but also one of the fastest – so we will have to pick our way through a lot of boats. It’s a case of getting out of the Solent in good shape and not ending your race too early.”

The Needles

Passing the iconic Isle of Wight chalk stacks that mark the western end of The Solent is always special to Salter.

“It always reminds you how beautiful the island is. But this time, with so many boats squeezing through the narrow gap with the mainland, I doubt we will have much time for sightseeing. We will be more focused on not beaching ourselves on the Shingles Bank nearby. 

“The trick is to position yourself for the best rush of current out of there and get set up for a good leg across Christchurch Bay.”

Portland Bill 

The first passing point along the English south coast is Portland Bill – a high promontory jutting out into the English Channel from the Isle of Portland near Weymouth. It’s an area synonymous with strong tides and shipwrecks and deserves plenty of respect.

“Depending on the weather, the really big thing is getting around Portland Bill on the first tide. It should be pretty straightforward for a boat of our speed, but if the weather is light coming out of the Solent we might want to err in favour of heading offshore, to avoid getting stuck in the tidal races under Portland. 

“The weather might dictate that we forgo the tidal push and head offshore anyway. We will have a rough idea on all this before the start, but as the race goes on we will have to keep adjusting our plan, hour by hour.” 

Land’s End

Getting past Land’s End – the south-western tip of England – is a key section of the race. It’s an area with some big tides and plenty of commercial shipping to avoid. 

“Conditions could change here as you go from coastal sailing to a more oceanic environment. You have to make a subtle shift in strategy as you try to set up a good lane for yourself across the Irish Sea. 

“It’s not an easy transition as you have a few sets of traffic separation schemes (TSS) [like a dual carriageway road for the commercial shipping] that you have to avoid or get a time penalty in the race. There are four different ways through there and you have to select the right one. 

“If you are leading, you hope everyone picks the same one as you. If they don’t then you hold your breath for a few hours and see where you are when everyone comes back together again.” 

The Irish Sea

“Things should be more simple in the Irish Sea, but sometimes dynamic weather systems come through that disrupt everything. These might cause wind shifts that you want to head towards or away from – depending on what you are trying to do strategically.

“It’s probably the time when we will get the chance to download some weather and look ahead to the next 12 hours. It may even be the weather that gets us back to Plymouth so it’s a time when we might re-evaluate our whole plan for the race.”

The Fastnet Rock

“Rounding the Rock is always pretty special. Sometimes, if it is thick mist you don’t see it except for the loom of the light; other times you get a spectacular view of West Ireland’s dramatic coastline.

“It’s an important part of the race as it’s a turning point and you have to report in to race control at that stage. So it’s a good time to see where you are in the order as boats that have taken different routes across the Irish Sea all come back together.”

Fastnet to the Isles of Scilly

In theory, the return from the Rock should be faster than on the way out, as the prevailing winds are from behind. However, that is not always the case and Salter has had to sail upwind after the Rock more than once.

The Bishop Rock lighthouse on the Isles of Scilly – an archipelago of 145 islands located 28 miles (45 km) south of the English mainland – is the final turn on the course before the fleet heads for the finish in Plymouth. 

“As we round the Rock people will be starting to get tired on the boat by this point, so we will have to manage that aspect. Strategically, we will be thinking about our timing at the Scilly Isles. There is potentially a big tidal gate there and we will also need to set up to avoid the nearby TSS zones.

“There are some benefits to cutting really close in to the islands, but if the weather dictates, it can be too dangerous to go in there and I wouldn’t take that risk. From a sailing point of view, the important thing is to make sure you choose the right sail for the big corner change at Bishop Rock itself.”

Approaching Plymouth

As the fleet approaches the English coastline on the way to the finish there will still be plenty of racing to be done with strong tides and tricky winds to be negotiated around The Lizard peninsula – the most southerly point on the British mainland. Many a yacht race lead has been squandered in the final miles in wind holes and sluicing current close to shore.

“The land heats up at a different rate to the sea and that can affect how much wind you have as you get close to the shore. There is a big tidal gate at The Lizard that you have to get around and then you need to set yourself up for the best approach into the bay at Plymouth.

“You are hoping that there is good breeze all the way in, but even when you get into Plymouth Harbor and around the breakwater, you could find six boats in there that have been becalmed for six hours in the early hours of the morning. 

“If the wind is steady throughout the race I imagine all the boats will be in sight of each other – probably within three or four miles of each other at the finish. It’s going to be a great race between the Volvo Ocean Race boats and I’m really looking forward to it.”

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