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Page last updated at 14:49 GMT, Friday, 7 August 2009 15:49 UK

Facing up to the Fastnet

One of the world's most celebrated yacht races, the 600-mile Rolex Fastnet 2009 starts on Sunday.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the race in 1979 in which more than a dozen sailors lost their lives. The BBC's Marcus George is participating in the race for the first time.

By Marcus George

Fastnet Rock
The race is from Cowes to the Fastnet rock off Ireland and back to Plymouth

It's not a nice feeling being soaked to the skin and squashed into a life-raft with six others.

Fortunately the scene was a blacked-out indoor swimming pool in Southampton. This was a sea- survival course and my first step towards entering the 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race.

On Saturday I'll join up with my fellow crew on the Lutine, the Lloyds Yacht Club boat that we've entered into the race.

Between Lands End and the south-west coast of Ireland where the Fastnet Rock lies, we'll be exposed to 300 miles of open water and with it, the full potential of the Atlantic Ocean. That's why this has been described as one of the most dangerous races in the world.

Our preparation has been a year in the making. Together we've spent many hours at sea, throughout the day and the night, in high winds and no winds. During that time I've experienced a steep learning curve.

Kate Adie's report on the 1979 Fastnet race in which 15 people lost their lives

For a thirty-something BBC journalist who cannot boast of a single sporting trophy, I feel reasonably well prepared. But whenever I think about the race, a wave of adrenaline surges through my body.

Is this a serious case of nerves, I wonder? I phone Fastnet veteran and professional navigator, Mike Broughton and ask him.

"I'm hugely excited by it too, even though I've done it 14 times or something," says Mike. "If you take it in your stride, then you're missing the point."

He emphasises the importance of preparation and relaxation. "You need to take time out and look after yourself so you can wind up the right gears when the race kicks in." He then tells me the story of an ill-timed curry night before a big race.

He admits his first Fastnet in the well-documented 1979 edition didn't show much preparation. He arrived on the Isle of Wight and camped until he was invited to join a boat on the morning of the race. He stepped aboard with a cagoule and his tent.

Over recent months I've read a lot about the 1979 race - tragic tales of sailors helplessly drifting away in the Atlantic, the roaring winds and the mountainous seas. Good conditions at the start gave way to a combination of elements that tore through the fleet. By 15 August, 15 sailors were dead or lost.

"1979 was the worst tragedy of its kind within an offshore event in yachting history," says Janet Grosvenor, who's worked for the race organiser, the Royal Ocean Racing Club (Rorc) - for the last 40 years.

Fastnet Race
I somehow doubt we'll be seeing in the Rock with freshly roasted beef and champagne

"Things started to change immediately. There was an official inquiry and after three months of intensive questioning of competitors and systems, recommendations were made to improve things."

Now Rorc enforces strict safety regulations. The majority of every crew has to clock up 300 nautical miles in qualifying races and everyone has to complete a sea-survival course.

From its origins in 1925, the race is now unrecognisable. Back then, seven boats competed. Now it is so popular, the entry list is capped at 300 and crews come from all over the world to participate in what's seen as one of the most challenging races of its type.

"I find the Fastnet one of the most complex races because there are so many tactical challenges, says Broughton. "And I have a great zest for that. It's how you temper your tactics against your competitors."

Luckily for us, our crew has morphed into a tight-knit, competitive group with a positive outlook. And it's a good thing, too. At 53ft, Lutine is a spacious yacht, but I soon discovered how cosy life gets sharing a boat with 13 others, copious sails and kit bags. And our journey could take five days or longer.

Leading the charge is Lutine's skipper, Simon Vayro, whose energy - somehow drawn from copious amounts of Dr Pepper - knows no bounds. He's marshalled and tutored us in equal amounts. And, like any crew, we're split into watches. After the start period, it'll be four hours on, four hours off for the entire race.

Naturally, we'll all be up on deck to round the Rock. But I somehow doubt we'll be seeing it in with the freshly roasted beef and champagne that I've read some boats have enjoyed in the past. A pasty and a cup of tea is more likely to be on the menu.

At the end of our conversation, I ask Broughton for other useful tips

"Enjoy the spectacle. We're lucky to sail alongside some of the best sailors in the world," he adds.

"You can't do that in most sports, but we can.

"And don't have a curry the night before the race."

Marcus George is a senior broadcast journalist for BBC World Service News and has previously worked in Iran, Afghanistan and across the Middle East.

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see also
Memories of 1979 Fastnet tragedy
05 Aug 09 |  Today
Fastnet race victims remembered
05 Aug 09 |  Hampshire
1979: 'Beyond fear'
11 Aug 04 |  14

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