After 30 hours of sailing in the Volvo Round Ireland Race, the prospect of a small boat claiming overall victory is starting to become real as virtually all the 56-strong fleet had passed the Fastnet Rock off the West Cork coast last night.
Since starting the 705-nautical mile race from Wicklow on Saturday, moderate to fresh North-Easterly winds have delivered a fast-passage southwards in what is normally a slower upwind slog.
After basking in Ireland’s heatwave conditions, the breeze held to get the fleet past the major hurdle of the change of tide close to the Tuskar Rock just a few hours after the start.
Normally, the larger boats at the front of the fleet would rely on the stage to the Atlantic seaboard to open up ground on the smaller boats and take an advantage on handicap corrected time.
But the unusual weather pattern has allowed the smaller entries to stay in touch with the leaders and the unofficial provisional standings show the big boats suffering.
Their pain started in earnest as they passed the Skelligs yesterday morning and felt the full force of the fresh northerly wind.
The leading pack include pre-race favourite Baraka Gp, skippered by Niall Dowling, with several notable pro sailors on board including past race winner Ian Moore from Carrickfergus and boat captain James Carroll.
In company with Dowling is French Volvo 60-footer Libertalia Team Jolokia and several Open 40 footers. This group comprises the contenders for the ‘line honours’ trophy for first boat home but the overall event is decided on handicap corrected time.
The handicap depends on a variety of factors such as size, materials, age, type of sails and results in a handicap number. Each boat’s total race time is multiplied by the handicap number resulting in a new total race time: whichever boat has the lowest race time is the winner.
Typically, the bigger boats hope to set a fast time in ideal wind and then for the chasing pack to hit light winds and/or adverse tides that slow them down, making their total race time longer. However, wind conditions are currently forecast to hold until perhaps the Irish Sea closing stage from Tuesday or Wednesday onwards.
Yesterday saw the smaller entries climb the leaderboard as the front-runners were slowed by the headwinds off Kerry. Ian Hickey’s Cavatina from Crosshaven, the 40-year race veteran with two prior victories to her credit climb the leaderboard and may yet be a contender for a third win.
Confirmation of the overall winner won’t be known until the smaller entries reach the finish later in the week while the leaders should complete the course on Wednesday.
Despite the benign conditions, there have been several retirements as Riff Raff pulled into Crosshaven reportedly with gear failure while one of the Open 40s was also retiring into West Cork last night.