The History of the Fastnet Race
Some critics refused to acknowledge the first Fastnet race in 1925 as a true ocean race as racing did not cover long distances across an ocean or sea. However, the race quickly evolved due to the popularity of the new sport of ocean racing in England.
The first race catered for a new breed of yachtsman, the amateur cruising man looking for a challenge, which cruising alone could not satisfy. Typically, he would sail the yacht himself and perhaps only employ a deck hand or two, unlike the pre-war yachtsman who needed up to 30 men to sail his huge racing yacht.
After racing in the 1924 Bermuda race aboard one of the entries, Northern Light, a young Englishman named Weston Martyr was so impressed with the sport that he wrote a letter about it to an English yachting magazine. ‘It is,’ Martyr wrote, ‘without question the very finest sport a man can possibly engage in for to play this game at all it is necessary to possess, in the very highest degree, those hallmarks of a true sportsman: skill, courage and endurance.’
On his return to England and following his enthusiasm, a committee was set up to promote an English ocean race. The committee consisted of Martyr, E. G.Martin, who had purchased a converted Le Havre pilot cutter called Jolie Brise and Malden Heckstall-Smith, the editor of the yachting magazine. The committee proposed a course of 615 miles from the Isle of Wight to the Fastnet rock off the south-west coast of Ireland and then back to Plymouth. They were to race for the Fastnet Challenge Cup.
The yachts rounded the Isle of Wight either eastwards or westwards, according to the state of the tide in the early Fastnet races and the Scillies and the Fastnet Rock could be rounded in either direction for many years.
The first Fastnet race attracted seven boats to the start line. The fleet consisted mainly of a collection of old cruising boats starting the race from the Royal Victorian Yacht Club at Ryde on 15 August, 1925. It turned out to be a typical race for the course with the faster yachts making good time and safely in port when the slower entries were hit by high winds and uncomfortable seas. Two boats retired and one made such slow progress that she was unable to reach the finishing line before the timekeepers had gone home.
Two boats in the race stood out among the fleet – Jolie Brise, the 56-foot pilot cutter and Gull, a 30 year old yacht. Battling it out on the race course, Jolie Brise ended up with a resounding victory, finishing 20 hours ahead of her rival in 6days, 14hrs, 45mins at sea. In future years she went on to win the race again in 1929 and 1930. She is still sailing today and won the 2000 Tall Ships Race Overall.
It was during this first race that the owner of Jolie Brise, George Martin announced the formation of the Ocean Racing Club. The race had been fun and it was proposed that it should be held again the following year.
The Fastnet race was now firmly established by the 1930′s after running races for several years with fluctuating numbers. The 1930 race saw six American and two French yachts competing alongside the nine British entries.
The early Fastnets saw a high proportion of yachts failing to complete the course. This was mainly due to the toughness of the course, inexperienced crews, old, slow and ill-equipped yachts and the traditional designs of the British yachts lagged behind their fellow competitors from across the pond. Bad weather was also a dominant factor and the 1931 Fastnet saw gale force conditions and many problems for participating yachts, with one person being lost overboard. The tragedy marred what otherwise would have been a classic Fastnet, as the four leading yachts raced the last miles in close company and finished within minutes of one another.
This race was also the end of an era for Jolie Brise who were outclassed by the new yachts now taking part in the race. It was at this time that the British were persuaded to build several new yachts in order to keep the Fastnet race alive and several new competitive yachts were produced to meet the American challenge and to race in the 1935 Transatlantic race.
It was not until 1957 however that the Admiral’s Cup was introduced. As a private challenge by five well-known British yachtsmen to their American counterparts, the Challenge consisted of a series of races which included the Fastnet as the final race. The Admiral’s Cup soon became known as the most hotly competed ocean racing event in the world and the Fastnet as one of the toughest ocean racing challenges. The 1927, 1930, 1949 and 1957 races went down on record as being the toughest Fastnets ever. In 1957 there were 29 retirements from the fleet of 41 yachts. Two years later the Admiral’s Cup was thrown open to teams from all nations and the Swedish S & S-designed yawl Anitra won the Fastnet in this year.
With thanks to The Royal Ocean Racing Club programme archives:
The Royal Ocean Racing Club, Ian Dear – published by Adlard Coles 2000
The Champagne Mumm Book of Ocean Racing – An Illustrated History, Ian Dear – published by Severn House Publishers 1985