As the day before the Fastnet comes to an end and the shadows stretch across the pre-race bustle in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, every navigator on the 390 boat fleet should be checking last minute weather forecasts and refining their weather strategy for the trying days ahead.
It's important to prepare a road book of key moments coming up in the race with the times that the tide will be favourable at key headlands along the south coast or when wind shifts are expected. This planning will be crucial on the short-handed Volvo Ocean 65 fleet as the navigators won't have the luxury of hanging out in the nav station for this 605nm sprint as they'll have to be heavily involved in the manoeuvres on deck.
The general situation at start time is a depression halfway between Ireland and Iceland and a ridge of high pressure extending out of the Azores high towards the north coast of France. These two systems combine to create stable westerlies for an upwind beat down the English Channel.
So far, the forecast for the Rolex Fastnet is nothing scary out there, so it puts everyone at ease before we leave the dock. We’re looking at upwind all the way to the Rock and downwind back which is which is pretty standard.Dee Caffari, skipper of Turn the Tide on Plastic
The Volvo Ocean Race fleet has the last start slot, but as some of the fastest boats in the race, will have a stressful beat up the western Solent as the crew will have to watch for the smaller boats ahead as well as the rocks and sandbanks. After clearing the Needles Channel the next challenge will be the headland of the Portland Bill. As you can see in the below chart, the tide will be against the fleet when they're due to pass the point and this building tidal flow will punish any of the Volvo Ocean 65 fleet that is already lagging behind. A classic situation where the rich get richer.
The next key moment will be the passage of Lands End. The fleet is due to arrive at 1000 UTC on Monday morning, the same time as the cold front from the depression I previously mentioned, now over Scotland. This will bring some rain and a shift in the wind from just south of west to north of West which will help the boats head northwards over the top of the prohibited Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) areas around the Scilly Isles.
There will be a lot of sail changes after the passage of the front and after 24 hours of hard coastal racing David Witt's crew on Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag might not be thanking him for their seven crew strategy. Winner of the last Volvo Ocean Race, Ian Walker said it would be hard to sail these boats with less than 8 onboard...
The next challenge for the navigators will be to choose the right time to tack westwards towards the Fastnet Rock. During this beat the wind will shift right, towards the north, so its critical to pick the right moment as it would be easy to be late and sail more miles than necessary.
The Fastnet is one racing landmark that you want to pass at night in order to fully appreciate the visual drama of the beam of light scything over their heads, with the breaking waves at the base of the island glinting in the darkness. With an early morning arrival, it should be beautiful.
It’s going to be a tough race sprint, all the way out to the rock and then hopefully we can relax a bit on the way backXabi Fernández
Xabi and the rest of the Volvo Ocean Race fleet should enjoy the ride back to the finish in Plymouth as they'll be surfing back downwind across the Celtic Sea with wind building to 25kts. After the challenges of a second rounding of the Scillies, with their ships, fishing boats, rocks and currents, it should be a pretty straight reach back to beers and beds in Plymouth.
Key Moments in the Race:
Start time: 1140 UTC Sunday
Portland Bill: 1800 UTC Sunday
Start Point: 0700 UTC Monday
Lands End: 1000 UTC Monday
Tack in the Celtic Sea: 1900 UTC Monday
ETA Fastnet: 0600 UTC Tuesday
Scilly Isles: 1700 UTC Tuesday
ETA Plymouth Finish: 2200 UTC Tuesday