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Was Inter-Computer Confusion the Cause of RL Sailing’s Fastnet Race Penalty?

18th August 2021
RL Sailing finishes at Cherbourg to record a five hour win in the Figaro 3 Two-Handed Division in the Rolex Fastnet Race 2021
RL Sailing finishes at Cherbourg to record a five hour win in the Figaro 3 Two-Handed Division in the Rolex Fastnet Race 2021 Credit: RORC

Following a penalty handed down by the Fastnet Race jury, Pamela Lee of RL Sailing tells her side of the story

Not until the late morning after our finish, after celebrating and being interviewed for our win, did we get the news through text message that apparently we had a time penalty from a Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) infringement. I was extremely shocked and in denial, because I specifically remember watching our track closely while going around the TSS to make sure we did so correctly, I was even sure that I saw other boats take an inside track from ours. I remembered it so vividly...

Straight away I went to the race office to investigate and inquire where the grounds for the penalty came from. I was shown our recorded Yellow Brick track that indicated us going inside the TSS corner. Still shocked by the claims and what I was seeing, I explained that I was certain we went outside the TSS and that I had the track on the boat computer to prove it. I was recommended to lodge a hearing request with the Protest committee, which I immediately did.

Pamela Lee & Kenneth Rumball are celebrated after crossing the iine. Many hours were to pass before they were made aware there might be a problem.Pamela Lee and Kenneth Rumball are celebrated after crossing the iine. Many hours were to pass before they were made aware there might be a problem.

At that stage, I had a very short window of time to gather all the information I could to argue our case before the International Jury. The boat was also being prepared to depart immediately to head South for the start of La Solitaire Du Figaro, so there was real-time pressure to get what I needed from the computer.

I retrieved the recorded GPS track from the Adrena Navigating Software on the boat computer, which clearly indicates our GPS recording our track well outside the TSS. I also checked all the coordinates of the TSS against the racing instructions to make sure I had the correct area in, which I did.

All their own on-board data indicated they’d been clear outside the TSSAll their own on-board data indicated they’d been clear outside the TSS - Here the Adrena software track (green line) shows RL sailing outside the TSS. Screenshot RL Sailing

A screenshot of The Yellow Brick RORC GPS tracker showing RL sailing inside the red traffic separation schemeA screenshot of RORC's Fastnet Race GPS tracker showing the no-go traffic separation scheme in red tint and the track of RL Sailing. Source: YB Tracker

Something to note, and that came into play for this entire episode although at the time we did not know it, is that during the race, when we reached the Fastnet Rock (after the alleged TSS infringement) our onboard GPS lost signal and we were forced to round the Rock completely blind in what was a pitch-black night. This in itself was a stressful and nerve-wracking experience as we had to furl the Code 0, avoid the lights of other boats and the rock itself without really knowing where we were. Once we rounded the Rock I was able to re-boot the computer and eventually our GPS signal came back. Strangely, our computer recorded an incorrect track of us going inside the rock, which didn't happen. The Yellow Brick track recorded us going around the rock.

GPS Track Black out at the Fastnet. Screenshot RL SailingA GPS Track black out at the Fastnet Rock. Screenshot RL Sailing

Subsequently, after that and through the rest of the race our GPS signal went a number of times and computer re-boots became the norm. From this post-analysis, a possible conclusion could be that our GPS was giving us the wrong information in the period before arriving at the Fastnet - potentially telling me I was somewhere I was not, or mixing up the information all together. This is disturbing on many levels as early in the race I had taken our navigation very close inshore to get out of the current, unaware of any potential GPS issues.

Redress request

I went into the hearing with the international Jury to request redress of the 10% penalty for infringement of the TSS on the ground that our GPS track showed us very clearly going outside the TSS. One of my witnesses was Yale Poupon, the skipper on the second Figaro, who came to second our story, saying they witnessed our GPS malfunction at the rock and even called us on the radio to check-in and that if such an infringement occurred it was to no gain and should not cause such a penalty.

I sat in front of an international jury of five men and talked through a presentation of our GPS track illustrating the fact that as far as we, and our boat knew we were well outside the TSS. However, it was one GPS word against the other, and as to be expected the Yellow Brick RORC GPS won. On denying the redress, the head Juror hastened to offer that they agreed the 10% time penalty was somewhat archaic and overly harsh. I think that's a slight understatement when over 5 days 10% equates to about 12 hours, so even with over a 5-hour lead we still could not hold on to our position, even though with a conflicting GPS track the infringement was questionable.

Anyway, it is what it is and this, unfortunately, is one of the factors of yacht racing we need to live with and take on board (pardon the pun). I'm choosing to fill you in on this story, not to grumble in grievance, but to highlight an aspect of offshore racing that is really important for navigators, skippers and all racers to learn from. It is not as simple as getting around the course first, there is so much more at play in every race, as well as before and afterwards.

Not a sob story

I am also very conscious for this story not to be turned into a dramatised 'sob story' as I know, through the supporting messages and following we received that many Irish sailors followed our race and may have been motivated and inspired from our success - I hope in particular the younger generation, particularly the female sailors who aspire to skippering and navigating has been so.

For us, we have worked hard to take some key learning points from how the result has unfolded. These include the importance of awareness of the potential weaknesses and faults in your onboard technology, it is easy for us to become reliant on our instruments, but we should always question them and always check them. It has illuminated even more the use of backup GPS programs and to use them even when everything else seems fine and fully functional. It also highlighted to us the disadvantage of having to rent a boat intermittently, which means you do not have ultimate power over-controlling and regulating the functioning of the equipment on board, it also meant we had less time to prepare the boat prior to the race and really test all the equipment. Time in offshore racing is important, not only on the water but all the time beforehand and having the time and the budget to work with your own equipment is just as important as being able to use it to win a race on the day. Going forward, these aspects will take a stronger precedent in my campaign priority's and I hope one day to have enough budget to run my own boat for an entire season and more - and you can be sure any navigation going forward will have threefold GPS signal access and back up!

At the end of the day we are lucky it wasn't more serious, a questionable infringement that lost us the best race of my life so far......still much better than hitting a rock, or another boat. It is character and experience building and I truly believe that to improve at offshore sailing you need to build, build and build on experience.

Awesome race

As far as we are concerned, we raced an awesome race that put us across the finish line over 5 hours ahead of the next competitor in a one-design class. We sailed the boat fast, we pushed hard and we made smart navigation decisions that paid off. Not for a moment in that race did I stop thinking about 'the next move'. We battled to the end and even then took places on the finish from a double-handed boat sailed by sailors we revere such as Alexis Loison on Leon and Shirley Robertson Swell! Above all, we had fun and capitalized on our hard work and training from the season. Even with all that happened and after six days of no sleep - I was still ready to go out and do it all again the next day! I hope that everyone watching took this away from the Fastnet 2021 and we will see even more Irish sailors on the start line and the leader board next time.

Fastnet Race Live Tracker 2021

Track the progress of the 2021 Fastnet Yacht Race fleet on the live tracker above 

The 49th edition of the 700-mile race organised by the Royal Ocean Racing Club starts on Sunday, August 8th from Cowes. Team

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RORC Fastnet Race

This race is both a blue riband international yachting fixture and a biennial offshore pilgrimage that attracts crews from all walks of life:- from aspiring sailors to professional crews; all ages and all professions. Some are racing for charity, others for a personal challenge.

For the world's top professional sailors, it is a 'must-do' race. For some, it will be their first-ever race, and for others, something they have competed in for over 50 years! The race attracts the most diverse fleet of yachts, from beautiful classic yachts to some of the fastest racing machines on the planet – and everything in between.

The testing course passes eight famous landmarks along the route: The Needles, Portland Bill, Start Point, the Lizard, Land’s End, the Fastnet Rock, Bishop’s Rock off the Scillies and Plymouth breakwater (now Cherbourg for 2021 and 2023). After the start in Cowes, the fleet heads westward down The Solent, before exiting into the English Channel at Hurst Castle. The finish for 2021 is in Cherbourg via the Fastnet Rock, off the southern tip of Ireland.

  • The leg across the Celtic Sea to (and from) the Fastnet Rock is known to be unpredictable and challenging. The competitors are exposed to fast-moving Atlantic weather systems and the fleet often encounter tough conditions
  • Flawless decision-making, determination and total commitment are the essential requirements. Crews have to manage and anticipate the changing tidal and meteorological conditions imposed by the complex course
  • The symbol of the race is the Fastnet Rock, located off the southern coast of Ireland. Also known as the Teardrop of Ireland, the Rock marks an evocative turning point in the challenging race
  • Once sailors reach the Fastnet Rock, they are well over halfway to the finish in Cherbourg.

Fastnet Race - FAQs

The 49th edition of the biennial Rolex Fastnet Race will start from the Royal Yacht Squadron line in Cowes, UK on Sunday 8th August 2021.

The next two editions of the race in 2021 and 2023 will finish in Cherbourg-en-Cotentin at the head of the Normandy peninsula, France

Over 300. A record fleet is once again anticipated for the world's largest offshore yacht race.

The international fleet attracts both enthusiastic amateur, the seasoned offshore racer, as well as out-and-out professionals from all corners of the world.

Boats of all shapes, sizes and age take part in this historic race, from 9m-34m (30-110ft) – and everything in between.

The Fastnet Race multihull course record is: 1 day 4 hours 2 minutes and 26 seconds (2019, Ultim Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, Franck Cammas / Charles Caudrelier)

The Fastnet Race monohull course record is: 1 day, 18 hours, 39 minutes (2011, Volvo 70, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing).

David and Peter Askew's American VO70 Wizard won the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race, claiming the Fastnet Challenge Cup for 1st in IRC Overall.

Rolex SA has been a longstanding sponsor of the race since 2001.

The first race was in 1925 with 7 boats. The Royal Ocean Racing Club was set up as a result.

The winner of the first Fastnet Race was the former pilot cutter Jolie Brise, a boat that is still sailing today.

Cork sailor Henry P F Donegan (1870-1940), who gave his total support for the Fastnet Race from its inception in 1925 and competed in the inaugural race in his 43ft cutter Gull from Cork.

Ireland has won the Fastnet Race twice. In 1987 the Dubois 40 Irish Independent won the Fastnet Race overall for the first time and then in 2007 – all of twenty years after Irish Independent’s win – Ireland secured the overall win again this time thanks to Ger O’Rourke’s Cookson 50 Chieftain from the Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland in Kilrush.

©Afloat 2020

Fastnet Race 2023 Date

The 2023 50th Rolex Fastnet Race will start on Saturday, 22nd July 2023


At A Glance – Fastnet Race

  • The world's largest offshore yacht race
  • The biennial race is 605 nautical miles - Cowes, Fastnet Rock, Plymouth
  • A fleet of over 400 yachts regularly will take part
  • The international fleet is made up of over 26 countries
  • Multihull course record: 1 day, 8 hours, 48 minutes (2011, Banque Populaire V)
  • Monohull course record: 1 day, 18 hours, 39 minutes (2011, Volvo 70, Abu Dhabi)
  • Largest IRC Rated boat is the 100ft (30.48m) Scallywag 100 (HKG)
  • Some of the Smallest boats in the fleet are 30 footers
  • Rolex SA has been a longstanding sponsor of the race since 2001
  • The first race was in 1925 with 7 boats. The Royal Ocean Racing Club was set up as a result

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