One of the strongest competitions within the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s 50th Rolex Fastnet Race was in the ever-swelling ranks of IRC Two-Handed, mostly populated from IRC Two and IRC Three.
This has steadily grown since it was first introduced in 2005 – this year it was up to a record 96, a quantum leap from the 64 that raced in pre-COVID 2019. And this figure doesn’t include the IMOCAs and several Class40s, many competing doublehanded in preparation for this autumn’s Transat Jacques Vabre.
In the early hours of a wet, stormy Thursday, first to finish into Cherbourg in IRC Two-Handed was Lann Ael 3, raced by the 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race’s outright winner Didier Gaudoux and former Figaro sailor Erwan Tabarly (nephew of the late Eric). Launched this April to replace Gaudoux’s previous 39ft Nivelt-designed winner, this special new purpose-built racer was designed to race doublehanded in a special co-operation between Mini/Class40/IMOCA designer Sam Manuard and French yacht design legend Bernard Nivelt. When she finished, Lann Ael 3 topped the leaderboard, but subsequent arrivals dropped her down it.
Ultimately in IRC Two-Handed Romain Gibon and Alban Mesnil on Les P’Tits Doudous en Duo prevailed, also winning IRC Three in the process. This double win continued the tradition begun by Cherbourg-based father and son Pascal and Alexis Loison on their JPK 1010 Night And Day, who not only won both classes but also became the first and, to date, only, doublehanded overall winners of the Rolex Fastnet Race in 2013. They won IRC Two-Handed and Three again in 2017, Figaro sailor son Alexis going on to repeat this with ‘Mr JPK’ Jean-Pierre Kelbert in the latter’s JPK 1030 Léon in both 2019 and then again with Guillaume Pirouelle in 2021.
This year’s IRC Two-Handed victors were from Le Havre, like the 2023 IRC One winners on Pintia. However unlike Alexis Loison, Gibon and Mesnil are amateur sailors (Gibon is an engineer, Mesnil works in insurance) albeit highly experienced and heavily trained. For example when they acquired their JPK 1010 they already had the full measure of it having raced extensively on Noel Racine’s previous Foggy Dew. JPK 1010s also have a great track record – it is the third occasion this Jacques Valer-design has won this trophy and the fourth time a JPK has simultaneously lifted both trophies. Inside this year’s IRC Two-Handed top 10, the first, second, fourth and ninth-placed IRC Two-Handed finishers were all JPK 1010s, in addition to the a JPK 1030, J/99, Sun Fast 3200 R2 and three Sun Fast 3300s.
This year the spread of the IRC Two-Handed top ten fell equally across both IRC Two and Three. However such is the dominance today of those racing two-up, that the fully-crewed competitors in these classes have some work to do: This year there were eight doublehanded yachts in the top 10 in IRC Two and seven in IRC Three.
In terms of nationality, France claimed the top five places and ninth, with three British boats in the bottom half of the top 10 and one US boat. (In 2021 six in the top 10 were French and four Brits, while the last British IRC Two-Handed winners were Stuart Childerley and Kelvin Rawlins in 2015 aboard the J/105 Jester).
Even if they were amateurs, who had only raced doublehanding for the past year and a half, Gibon and Mesnil managed to soak up knowledge from France’s many pro shorthanded sailors, notably Alexis Loison. Among the lessons was knowing when to push, but also how to make sail changes as efficiently as possible. This proved vital on the final night when, as they were negotiating this race’s third front, they blew up two spinnakers, forcing them to revert to their genoa.