A Firsthand Account of the Wild 50th RORC Fastnet Race

The 50th running of the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s legendary Fastnet Race from Cowes to Fastnet Rock and back was held July 22, 2023, with strong representation from Norddeutscher Regatta Verein.

NRV sailors included Lennart Burke and his new Pogo S4 SIGN FOR COM as well as Sebastian Ropohl in his Cantaloop 40 and myself on my Pogo 44 MarieJo. It was a stormy, exciting, challenging and altogether a very nice race that we will not soon forget!

We competed with a six crew of friends and family, including my father Berthold Brinkmann. We were able to recruit Florian Spalteholz (NRV Olympic Team, Olympic participant in the Tornado 2008), Sönke Boy (470 legend, German Melges 24 champion), Tom Bernstein (plenty of Fastnet experience and a Cowes local) and Martin Buck (Boat Captain and extremely experienced offshore sailor).

The start in the Solent was a very special sailing experience: First we watched the spectacular starts of the huge 100ft Ultim trimarans, the thirty or so IMOCA teams and the Class 40. Then we started in one of the largest start groups, IRC 1, with about 100 other yachts and, just like in the Dragon on the Alster Lake in Hamburg, we had to make a lot of effort to avoid collisions in the crowded field. While tacking through the Solentm wind and swell increased steadily and at the exit of the Needles Channel we had 35-45 knots of wind, running current and about three to four meters of swell! Then the question arose: why does one actually expose oneself and the ship to such extreme conditions on the water? Fortunately, we could not think about it too much, because racing required full concentration and two hands firmly connected to the boat, to get through these seas in one piece!
Overall, there were a variety of tasks and also plenty of damage, such as mast breaks and structural hull damage. Of the approximately 440 yachts participating, 179 vessels abandoned the race. Unfortunately, one vessel also sank shortly after passing the Needles; it was the SunFast 3600 of a French double-hand team. Fortunately, the crew was quickly rescued from the life raft by English sea rescuers (RNLI) and all are well. The first night then saw the field struggle westwards in stormy conditions and heavy seas. During the course of that night, some mayday radio traffic was heard on Channel 16 and sea rescuers were activated many times. Also, along the way more teams turned away towards Poole or Weymouth, partly due to equipment damage but partly to wait for better weather. We were spared from breakage, a fate for which we are grateful, but above all our Captain Martin Buck really prepared the boat well. 

The following day we cruised further along the English south coast with wind finally abating as we passed Lyme Bay, Start Point and in the following night Lizard Point and finally Land’s End. Here we had to decide tactically whether to pass the Land’s End traffic separation area to the south or to the east, but due to the right turn expected with the next low-pressure front, the field stayed largely together after all, crossed directly behind Land’s End to the north and passed the VTG to the east. Then followed a really impressive day in the Irish Sea: at dawn the wind increased strongly, veering north as expected and gusting up to 35 knots. As the morning progressed, the skies cleared and with strong winds, sun, and longer waves, we roared towards Fastnet Rock on a deep downwind course. That was really great offshore sailing!

After a total of about 400 miles, we reached Fastnet Rock off the coast of Ireland at noon the next day. There was only light wind, and the water was glassy for a short time. This allowed us to dry oilskins, do a sail repair and my father cooked us a good meal. With smooth seas, we also observed a variety of marine life around us: a school of dolphins was apparently chasing a school of fish nearby, and individual dolphins came up to our boat and accompanied us for a bit. Seals stuck their heads out of the water, looked at us for a while and disappeared again. And in some distance we saw the spouts of several whales.

Due to the calm weather, we passed Fastnet Rock in a distance of only about 50 meters and even got into its slipstream for a moment. Of course, we took a lot of souvenir photos there and used the mobile phone reception available at short notice to send a message home and download new weather data for the routing to the on-board computer.

During the return leg, we experienced slowly increasing wind on a fast reaching course, during which each of our downwind sails found their use at least once. After passing the Scilly Islands on the port side, we turned back into the English Channel and again—as if we hadn’t had enough of it—the wind increased once again to 25-30 knots on the last evening. Under gennaker we drove in up to 20 knots in the continuous surf until we decided after a few heavy seas to approach the last passage from the Channel Island Alderney over the Cap de la Hague to the finish line in Cherbourg somewhat more calmly and under our smallest gennaker. But Rasmus obviously didn’t want to let us off the hook that easily, because suddenly we heard a thud on the hull and our ship braked heavily and was hardly maneuverable with a lot of rudder pressure. With the jib back, we were able to turn the boat and set it on a course in the opposite direction. This got rid of the line that we had probably caught at the helm from a lobster pot or other fishing gear, and fortunately we were able to continue our trip to the finish line. We passed the finish line in 79th place out of 415 registered monohulls after about 800 miles sailed. On corrected time, we were 4th place in IRC 1a and 30th place in IRC 1. As an ambitious family crew we were very satisfied with this result considering the high-class field and the demanding conditions!

Lennart Burke and Melwin Fink in the Class 40 category, however, achieved a real highlight, as they were 4th place in a field dominated by professionals. In this strong field Sebastian Ropohl also did very well with 13th place. Only three boats in that class had older build numbers than his Cantaloop 40.

Arriving in Cherbourg, with our shore legs still a bit wobbly, we staggered to the 24-hour crew bar and drank some breakfast beers to celebrate the successful completion of the Fastnet Race at 6:00 am, and then fell into our bunks.

Despite all odds, we can wholeheartedly recommend participation in the Fastnet Race! It is “Europe’s most iconic yacht race” for good reason.