Roll of the dice

The new course from Cowes to Cherbourg via the Fastnet Rock will see fresh challenges in next year's Rolex Fastnet Race.

17 September 2020


On Sunday 8 August 2021, the Rolex Fastnet Race will set sail from Cowes bound for the Fastnet Rock.

For the first time in the race’s 96 year history, there will be a major course change, where boats will direct their bows toward Cherbourg after rounding Bishop Rock. The new finish will coincide with the start of the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s premier event, Cowes Week.

The new course is 90 miles longer, making it 695 miles, based on the shortest route. Most of the course remains unchanged.

Sailors will set off from the Royal Yacht Squadron line, head southwest down the English south coast, negotiate Anvil Point, Portland Bill, Start Point and the Lizard en route, before the vital decision over which side to pass the Traffic Separation Scheme exclusion zone off Land’s End.

Then there are the open ocean crossings to the Fastnet Rock and back to Bishop Rock, southwest of the Scilly Isles. From here, the course only changes marginally.


From Bishop Rock it is possible to lay directly Cape de la Hague, the northwesternmost headland of the Cotentin Peninsula, before making the final slight starboard turn for the last 10 miles to the finish line within Cherbourg’s harbour.

The new course from Bishop Rock is 91°M, compared to 83° to the Lizard, however the added distance to Cherbourg may affect the make-up of the race overall.

Leading international navigator Ian Moore, who has carried out a weather study on the new course, explains: “The Rolex Fastnet Race is still predominantly a windward-leeward race with a big chunk of beating. Forty percent of the hours in the race are spent going to windward, and 34 percent downwind,” he says.

More significant will be the final roll of the dice: how best to tackle one of Europe most powerful tidal gates, the Alderney Race, between Alderney and Cape de la Hague.

“This is now the biggest tidal gate of the race,” states Moore. “It is strongest off Cape de la Hague, through the Swinge (between Alderney and Burhou, northwest of Alderney) and off the eastern Alderney shore. The tidal effect also covers a much larger area than it does off Portland Bill.

Moore said, “There will be winners and losers here and it will be hard to get right.”

The Alderney Race’s effect will also be increased after start day’s new moon, with finishers into Cherbourg expected during a period with a very high tidal coefficient (86–89).

The good news is that the Alderney Race runs slightly faster in the fair northerly-northeasterly direction than it does when it is foul. Moore says that navigators will be keenly anticipating their arrival time at the Alderney Race.

If it is when it is unfavourable, they try to gain tidal relief by leaving Alderney to port or, more dramatic still, sidestepping the Alderney Race altogether by approaching Cherbourg from the north. This latter route is made less attractive due to the location of the Casquets TSS exclusion zone that forces boats to stay south, unless they wish to round its north side, requiring them to sail an 11 additional miles.

UK-based Kiwi navigator Campbell Field was part of the overall winning crew on the 2003 Rolex Fastnet Race on Charles Dunstone’s maxi Nokia and last year was on the top British finisher under IRC, David Collins’ modified TP52 Tala.

His assessment of the new course is similar to that of Ian Moore: “If you look at the prevailing conditions, you could expect on an average year with south-westerlies, it will shift the proportions of the race – if it was predominantly upwind and tight-reaching and around one third was broad-reaching and running – it will flip those proportions.

“So there will be more open angle sailing. Also, the majority of the race will now be post-Fastnet Rock rather than before it. With more downwind, it could well favour the broad-reaching/downwind machines that can plane.”

As to the new long final leg between Bishop Rock to the finish, Field observes that while the old course used to be mostly a coastal race, the route to Cherbourg is much more open. “That’s good because there will be weather changes over that period,” he says.

As to the Alderney Race, Field adds: “It is just another obstacle to negotiate, no different to the other tidal gates, but it is something that’ll have to be analysed coming back from the Fastnet.

“It will be time-dependent, and if your timing is stacking up to be an hour before or after the tidal gate, that could have a major impact on your race. Whereas, if you get there in the middle of the flow, your strategy is pretty much dictated to you: Get in it and crack on or avoid it!

Field says, “It just adds another interesting navigational dynamic – a new dimension –to the race. I enjoy doing races like the Fastnet because you have constant stimulation.”

While French boats have dominated recent editions of the Rolex Fastnet Race, good knowledge especially of the Alderney Race (or Raz Blanchard as it is known locally) is certain to benefit local residents.

One is the 2013 winner, Alexis Loisin, who warns: “Raz Blanchard – there is a lot of current there and maybe the gate there will be open or closed, so you will certainly be able to win or lose the race in the last hours.

“Your timing must be good – so it is good to have Rolex as a sponsor!”

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