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Fastnet Race Analysis From The Volvo Ocean Race HQ

Three Volvo Ocean 60 racers competed in this summer's 605-mile Fastnet Race, the ocean classic that follows the end of odd-year Cowes Weeks. AmericaOne's John Kostecki, who is also preparing for the Volvo Around The World Race 2001-2, skippered the VO60 illbruck. The other entries were Yess, skippered by Grant Dalton and Spirit, sailed by Eric Lindgren.

Fastnet '99 - Mark Chisnell looks at what happened when and where...

The 1999 Fastnet Race was probably the biggest competitive gathering of Volvo Ocean Race sailors since the end of the last race. No surprise that the bulk of the veterans were in the biggest boats - the ILC Maxi's - and, of course, the two Volvo Ocean 60's. The third V.O. 60, Eric Lindgren's Spirit (the former Winston from 1993-94) was an owner/driver entry.

John Kostecki came with an all-star cast of experienced Volvo Ocean Race crew aboard the V.O.60 illbruck, including Tim Kroger (Swedish Match), Juan Vila (Chessie Racing), Ross Halcrow (Innovation Kvaerner) Stu Bettany (Innovation Kvaerner), Mark Christensen (EF Language), Stu Bannatyne (Silk Cut) and Jared Henderson (Merit Cup).

Illbruck has already spent five weeks testing sails in the two boats they bought from Team EF. And it showed, according to Adrian Stead (Silk Cut), who was sailing with the competition. The competition was Yess, the new Belgian syndicate, racing the second Merit Cup - the one that Grant Dalton left behind. Dalton finally had a chance to see what the boat could do under race conditions, though without the level of preparation he would have normally required. Dalton joined Stead (fresh from his triumphant stint as skipper of the top Mumm 36 at the Admiral's Cup), Ivan Bunner and Arend Van Bergeijk (BrunelSunergy) and Roger Nilson (navigator on Swedish Match), as guest stars aboard the Belgian boat.

The race opened with a first night that would score a high number for degrees of tactical and strategic difficulty. A late high water time meant an early evening start time was set by the race committee. The tradition is that the Fastnet always starts on the very first of the ebb, the favourable, west going tide. Unfortunately, this was so late on the Saturday in question, that the south-westerly sea breeze died before everyone had got away. The ILC Maxi and Volvo Ocean 60 start was put back by fifty minutes. The new start time was after local sunset, and so the normal night-time transition to the collision regulations had to be postponed.

The fleet struggled out of the crowded Solent in light air, on a black night. But it was still a tight race at the Needles, as the fleet set a course to the south-west and Land's End. The south-easterly gradient wind had returned, and the majority of boats set off on port gybe. The weather was dominated by two features, a low pressure system in the Bay of Biscay that was forecast to move north-east up the English Channel during the period of the race. And the occluded front that was spinning around it, travelling north across the English Channel.

The first wind shift was expected to go to the north-east - which would allow everyone to gybe and make starboard the advantaged tack. The ILC Maxi Boomerang - touting the talents of Volvo Ocean Race veterans Ricky Deppe (Chessie Racing), Alby Pratt (Innovation Kvaerner) and navigator Steve Hayles (Silk Cut) - gybed first in her fleet, just south of Anvil Point. Two of her competitors, Sagamore and Alexia, followed - Alexia was packing Dee Smith, Grant Spanhake and Dave Scott, (all from Chessie Racing), Jan Dekker (Silk Cut) and Andrew Cape (Toshiba) navigating. But when the wind shift came through Boomerang had her nose in front. Aboard the final ILC Maxi, Sayonara, Mark Rudiger (EF Language's navigator), Guy Barron (NCB in 1989-90), TA McCann (Tokio in 1993-94) and Chris Dickson (skipper of Tokio in 1993-94) watched the rest of their fleet head off inshore. Sayonara let them go, holding offshore for better tide - it was to be a disastrous mistake. In the Volvo Ocean 60s, the illbruck crew's time in the boat was beginning to show, as the breeze built, the boats all hard running in up to thirty five knots, down the English coast. Kostecki's team took the first of several little jumps out of Yess, as the Belgian boat broke a Code Five spinnaker.

The following morning, the approaching occluded front was becoming of more urgent importance. The wind was dropping again, and by now the boats were all running downwind towards the penultimate headland before the Irish Sea, the Lizard. The cloud line of the front was clearly visible to the south, and aboard Boomerang, Steve Hayles wasn't sure whether to dodge it as long as possible, or bite the bullet and head for it. Hayles decided to go for it. They gybed out from the shore, and crossed Sagamore and Alexia by about half a mile. Amongst the V.O. 60s illbruck also gained on the same move. These two boats led their fleets into the cloud, crossing the occluded front. The wind behind it was much lighter, but it was southerly - everyone was headed down onto course and it was a net gain in speed. Position reports now put Sayonara up to eighteen miles behind, they had been running in less breeze all night. Staying north and inshore had paid. It was effectively the end of Sayonara's race.

Both Maxi and V.O.60 fleets struggled to free themselves from the light south-east breeze behind the occluded front. As they turned the corner at Land's End and headed north-west towards the Fastnet Rock, they had to strike a balance. They fought to get north into the breeze, without giving up too much straight line distance to the Rock. Slowly the wind shifted and increased, and the fleet made the transition from delicate light running, to frantic jib top reaching. Sagamore had done a good job, up beside Boomerang now, Alexia only minutes behind. The low pressure centre was moving east and south of them, heading for Holland. Setting up a steady and quite strong north-easterly flow over the bulk of the race course. The big passing lanes had shut down. Illbruck was an hour ahead of Yess at the Rock and it was a done deal.

The front three Maxi's were close enough to have plenty of action left. Sagamore was first to the Fastnet Rock, with Boomerang right behind her. Once round, on the next leg, south-east to the Bishop Rock, Boomerang sailed low and fast on the reach. The breeze lifted - and Boomerang's southerly position allowed her to sail a slightly tighter, faster angle than Sagamore, and she slipped through. Then the malign fate of gear failure struck Sagamore, the spinnaker pole broke off the mast, spearing through the mainsail. By the Bishop, Boomerang was over five miles ahead, and with Sagamore having to take a reef for the reach home, Alexia got through her too. The 1999 Fastnet, was all done bar the arriving and the celebrating - Boomerang breaking the record for a non-water ballasted boat.

Two years out from the start of the Volvo Ocean Race, illbruck are setting the pace in the 60 fleet. illbruck's Operations Manager, Thomas Michaelson who was making a guest appearance on the boat said, "All the way back to Plymouth we had two guys on the grinder and one man trimming the mainsheet. We were changing headsails up to four times a watch."

For more in this series of reports, look at AmericaOne's Grand Prix Sailing News page.

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