ICAP Leopard was the first home at the 2009 Rolex Middle Sea Race taking the award for line honours. Try as they might, Mike Slade’s all-star crew were unable to crack the nut that is Rambler’s course record. Arriving just before midday at the Royal Malta Yacht Club line in Marsamxett Harbour, the 100-foot Farr designed supermaxi was just over half an hour outside the mark set by George David and Ken Read two years ago. She had made a tremendous effort never straying far from the pace required despite less than perfect conditions.
Slade believes they raced as well as they could. He was quick to acknowledge that for every frustration they may have encountered this year, Rambler was sure to have suffered in some similar way herself in 2007. Asked if he could identify any points on the course they could have made up the wayward 30 minutes, he replied wryly, “at least twenty.”
ICAP Leopard‘s record attempt was always in the balance the moment they crossed the start line. They gave it a good go though, relishing a promising forecast. Slade was quick to compliment his crew on a job well done, “it’s fantastic to have finished this tough race. The record was tantalisingly close, but the important thing is that we achieved our goal of getting line honours and bringing the boat home in one piece. The crew were fantastic and our reception in Malta has been amazing – what a wonderful event!”
Even if one sails the boat to its full potential and suffer no breakages, success is still dependent upon the weather. Completing the 606 nautical mile Rolex Middle Sea Race in less than 48 hours is well within the capability of a canting keeled, water ballasted flying machine staffed by some of the world’s top inshore and offshore yacht racing specialists. Brad Jackson, Jules Salter and Guy Salter were all on the winning boat in the last Volvo Ocean Race. Rob Greenhalgh raced on the second placed yacht, whilst Justin Slattery raced on the winning boat in the previous VOR. Jason Carrington has probably built more race winning boats than there have been Rolex Middle Sea Races. Sailmaker Jeremy Elliott is another who has raced around the world and at the America’s Cup. Hugh Agnew navigated the winning yacht at the 2004 Rolex Sydney Hobart. And, in case anyone needed reminding, Mike Slade has moulded teams around him and raced at the grand-prix level of the sport on a variety of state of the art maxi yachts since the early 1990s, invariably with the reassuring hand of Chris Sherlock to run the boat. Experience and ability were two things in plentiful supply. What kept holding Leopard back was the vagaries of the wind.
Slade explained how the race had unfolded, “this race is very special. It always is. It is a tough race and a great race, but any race that goes round in a circle is going to have lots of pitfalls. You are seeing land all the time and you suffer all the things that happen because of the land. There’s a saying that Etna sucks wind out of the Strait and it was true for us. We got stuck in its shadow. We got through and punched on towards Stromboli and that’s where the problems really started.” It was here that the mini maxis Rosebud/Team DYT (USA) and Bella Mente (USA) dropped by the wayside in dramatic fashion on Sunday. Since then some twenty other competing yachts have followed these two into the sickbay as strong gusting winds lashed the northeastern corner of Sicily for a 36-hour period.
“After Stromboli was tough,” comments Slade. “We had 5 or 6 hours of real weather front. We’re a big strong boat and can cope with it. In fact we were hoping to get more of the same at the bottom of the course.” This hope never fully materialised, as he went on to explain. “It took 12 hours to get across to the Egadi Islands and it was only then on the way down to Pantelleria that we started putting on some real boat speed. It was bump, bang, everyone hold on. We would have liked it to carry on down to Lampedusa, but it just didn’t happen. There was no wind there of any consequence.” At this point Leopard was only 75-minutes off Rambler’s blistering pace. Munching the miles to Comino was something this boat was born to do. But she needs wind. Slade had said before the start that 20 knots of wind and flat water would be ideal. What he got for the final long leg was sloppy water and soft winds bouncing between 12 and 18 knots.
“It was a struggle to get back from Lampedusa to Comino,” continued Slade. “And it was a struggle to get into the harbour because the wind was dead aft and we had to do some monumental gybes.” Philosophical in defeat, if line honours in a second successive 600-mile race may be described as such (ICAP Leopard had been first home at the Rolex Fastnet in August), Slade admitted asking himself several times where they could have saved the deal-breaking thirty-minutes. He was adamant that there were any number of places and not one thing in particular could be blamed, adding “that’s yacht racing and we’ll have to do it again now, won’t we!” Malta cannot wait.
The wait for the next boat home was a short one. Just as during the Rolex Fastnet, Karl Kwok’sBeau Geste (HKG) had been shadowing her bigger rival for the whole course, waiting for a chink in the armour that might let her snatch the lead. Skipper Gavin Brady, tactician Francesco de Angelis and navigator Andrew Cape are a deep-filled talent pool, but even they found the conditions testing. Brady is a tough customer, but even he acknowledged the severity of the situation after Stromboli on Saturday night/Sunday morning, “up until then we had been concentrating on getting away from the competition, but when the weather struck we were glad to have some company. We were in survival mode for some time.” The small boats have been reporting difficulties with sail changes at night as bandit squalls struck without warning. Cape confirmed Beau Geste had struggled with this too, particularly as they turned the corner at Favignana, “we had the wrong sail combination up, which caused us to lose a bit of time. In those conditions it can take around an hour to execute a sail change on a boat this size.”
De Angelis was able to throw some humour into the situation describing an incident on board where coming off a wave Cape somersaulted across the cabin to land on top of him, “I have raced against Capey for a long time, but at this moment I got to know him very well!” Karl Kwok is coming to the end of this season’s European adventure, which has seen him and his crew impress at a number of major races and regattas. “We are very happy with the way the boat held up in the conditions. Like others from the [United] States we came to Europe to race because the competition is so good. We’ve not been disappointed.”
With two boats tied up in the harbour we have a yacht race. When Beau Geste crossed the line at 15.28 she moved into pole position on handicap. Her moment in the spotlight was short lived. Alegre (GBR) finished at 18.33 and moved back into a lead that she has held since Stromboli. Neither Rán (GBR) nor Luna Rossa (ITA) were in a position to dislodge her when they finished. Intermatica VO70 (ITA) won the battle of the two Volvo boats, beating Ericsson (SWE) on handicap although not on the water.
The bulk of the fleet is still racing. 23 yachts have now retired citing various reasons, mostly sail and equipment damage resulting from the vicious squalls that persisted until midday today. Next boat home will be DSK Pioneer Investments (ITA), which is halfway between Lampedusa and Malta. After that we are in for a long wait as the competing yachts struggle down the western edge of the course. Seven yachts including the two remaining double-handers have yet to pass Capo San Vito at the northwestern point of Sicily. The forecast shows winds to be remaining from the northwest during the next twelve hours, but lightning up considerably. The smaller yachts are in for a long slog home and those yachts safely back in port will be feeling happier by the hour.