Sir Charles Dunstone

Published in Yachting World – February 2013

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One of my most memorable days on the water was during the Rolex Fastnet Race in 2003 racing my Reichel Pugh 72 Nokia Enigma.
We had spent the Fastnet build-up week doing the odd day’s racing at Cowes Week, which was enjoyable. But I absolutely hate offshore racing and the last thing I wanted to do was head offshore on the Fastnet the next week. To make matters worse the forecast was for really light airs, so the agony of being out at sea was likely to be extended. I was pretty miserable as the start approached.
I braced myself and, together with my 23-strong crew, started the race from the Royal Yacht Squadron line on the Sunday. True to forecast, the wind was exceptionally light, which resulted in a huge concertina effect as the fleet approached Portland with many yachts including Leopard of London stuck in no wind at Portland Bill.
Thankfully, we and two or three other larger yachts like Alpha Romeo and Zephyrus just managed to make it round the Bill and sailed away from the pack.
We had a good race to the Rock, but we knew there were still a few yachts in front of us, all ahead on time. I suppose it was here where the most amazing day started. It was early evening on Monday and we were all enjoying a pleasant sail in the sunset. Interestingly, despite the continuous threat of no wind, we somehow managed to stay in a band of breeze, which meant we made good progress down the Irish Sea.
It was during this period of the race that I remembered (and was reminded) that I had made a very stupid and slightly drunken promise to my crew earlier that season. I said to them that if we won the Fastnet I would buy everyone on board a Rolex watch. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine we would get anywhere near winning because the race is generally such a lottery. I tried not to get carried away with that thought because I knew there was a long way to go and the chances of catching those ahead and making up enough time on them was fairly slim.
As we got closer to the Scilly Isles, however, we were beginning to hear communication that all the big boats
ahead had parked up in a wind-hole. Most owners in this position would have relished the thought of catching the leaders, but on this occasion, all I had were visions of Rolex watches – 23 of them – flashing before my eyes. Not surprisingly, there was a tangible excitement on the boat as we closed up on the leaders.
On the last stretch of the race along the south coast towards the finish at Plymouth we passed a Fastnet boat still struggling on its way to the Rock. I distinctly remember two or three people aboard the boat waving at us. As we glided by, the bacon they were cooking for breakfast smelled delightful and we couldn’t wait to get ashore to enjoy a good meal.

Nokia Enigma rounds the Fastnet Rock during the night in 2003

Nokia Enigma rounds the Fastnet Rock during the night in 2003

We still had a bit of a way to go, but somehow we were flying along, bringing the new breeze with us. We never lost the breeze at all and by this time it became clear to us that we had significantly closed up to the two boats in front.
As the sun went down we finally made it into Plymouth. Then the most bizarre thing happened as we crossed the line at 2100 on that Monday night. There was a huge bang, which marked the start of an enormous fireworks display.
We felt very special and couldn’t believe it was all for us for winning the Rolex Fastnet Race. It wasn’t – it was coincidently the final of the National Firework Display competition in Plymouth, though we still like to believe they had put on the display especially for us.
We had a lot of fun that evening, but the celebratory crew dinner in London after the Fastnet prizegiving where someone from Rolex came and fitted owners with their engraved Rolex was unforgettable. I remember whispering to the man from Rolex as I collected my prize: ‘I’d like a word afterwards – I need 23 Rolex watches in a hurry.’