Published: Monday, 24 October 2016

The Fastnet Race, one of the most revered and feared tests in sailing, and a new Lisbon-Alicante Prologue will both feature in an intense period of pre-race qualifying for the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18 – serving as a first clash of the fleet while providing an early form guide for the fans.

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(Photos: Volvo Ocean Race)

In the sixth of a series of 10 major announcements in 10 days, Race Management outlined a number of mandatory qualifiers before the start in Alicante, Spain, in October 2017 – including provisionally a transatlantic test for all the fleet in June or July.

In August, the fleet will assemble for Cowes Week in the Isle of Wight, UK for ‘Leg Zero’, which will include the 600-mile Fastnet Race.

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The Rolex Fastnet Race will take the teams from Cowes, through the English Channel, around Land’s End and out into the Celtic Sea. After rounding Fastnet Rock off the southwest coast of Ireland, they race on from Plymouth. The boats will then race from Plymouth to Lisbon, Portugal to complete Leg Zero.

Teams will then tackle a brand new Prologue race from Lisbon to Alicante, where they will remain until the start of the 2017-18 edition.

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“You train for months, alone, and so it’s good to be able to do more racing as a team before the start. It’s very different, racing under pressure, then training, and good for boat testing,” comments France’s Charles Caudrelier, who skippered Dongfeng Race Team in 2014-15. “I’ve done a few Fastnet Races. Some were windy and some were light. It’s a nice course, very fun and interesting to sail around the coast, with the effect of the currents. It’s a good test and a very dynamic race, with an interesting weather. In two or three days, you have a lot of decision-making to do, so it’s good to test not just everyone’s speed, but also taking decisions quickly under pressure. And of course, you get to see which teams are stronger.”

Many Volvo Ocean Race teams have used the Fastnet Race as part of their preparations but it has never before been a mandatory qualifier.

The maxi yacht Drum, preparing for the 1985-86 race, famously capsized during the Fastnet and pop star Simon Le Bon was among the crew who had to be rescued by the Royal Navy.

“It’s super important to be doing these miles, at the right time of year,” says Race Operations Director and four-time race veteran Richard Mason. “It’ll provide some awesome hours on the water for the teams, and that’s where they’ll learn the most – getting out there in the middle of the ocean, and getting amongst those weather systems, in a race that no sailor would dare take on lightly.

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“The Fastnet Race is on the bucket list of every ocean racer in the world. It’s famous for being very tricky and coastal. You can have no wind, you can have enormous amounts of breeze, and vicious seas, out near Fastnet Rock, it’s navigationally and tactically challenging, you don’t get much sleep. It’s the perfect race – an amazing thing to be a part of.”

The seven existing Volvo Ocean 65s are currently undergoing a stringent re-fit process at the race’s Boatyard facility in Lisbon, Portugal, and an eighth boat is currently being built. 

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Meanwhile, the seventh in a series of 10 announcements from the Race in 10 days is designed to open up the competition in an era of incredibly close One Design racing and give an incentive for teams to gamble more often to split the fleet.

The new rules state:

- Scoring will change to a high-point system

- The two Southern Ocean legs – from Cape Town to Hong Kong, and Auckland to Itajaí, plus the North Atlantic leg near the end of the race, Newport to Cardiff – will all score double points

- The winner of each and every leg will score one bonus point (10 for a win, eight for second, seven for third, etc)

- There will be a bonus point for the first team to round Cape Horn in a nod to the mythical significance of this turning point in the race
- A further bonus point will be awarded for the team with the best total elapsed time overall in the race

- The In-Port Series will remain the tiebreaker should teams, as in the last edition, be tied on points at the finish in The Hague

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The Volvo Ocean Race is revolutionising the scoring system for 2017-18 to encourage strategic risk-taking from the teams and give extra reward for strong performances in the two Southern Ocean legs and the final ocean leg of the race, across the North Atlantic from Newport to Cardiff. The new scoring system is the first confirmed change in a series of options being considered by Race HQ.

“One of the most fantastic things about the move to One Design in 2014-15 was that we had extraordinarily close racing all the way around the world – but there was also a bit of a ‘sheep’ mentality, with no one really wanting to break from the fleet for fear of being left behind, and instead just wanting to play the averages,” explains Race CEO Mark Turner. “We need to do something to encourage that strategic risk-taking. We’re amending the points system, but we’re also considering things like blackouts in terms of positions, so teams can go into ‘stealth’ mode, and in terms of weather data provided, so that navigators need to use more of their own judgement at certain times.”

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“I think these bonus points could be interesting. It’s good to have a bonus point for rounding Cape Horn first, as sometimes you lead part of the leg and fall back because the end of the race is in a light spot, and you don’t deserve that,” says Caudrelier. “Stealth mode could be interesting, and the weather blackout is something we’ve done in other races. Yes, maybe, it could be good if they choose an important moment to stop the forecast, but I don’t really think it will change a lot.” 

As in the 2014-15 edition, In-Port Races will be scored as a separate series and used to break any ties in the final table.

The race begins in Alicante in October 2017 and will take the teams 45,000nm around the planet, including three times more Southern Ocean miles than in the last edition, on their way to the finish in The Hague eight months later, visiting a total of 11 landmark cities.