The Rolex Middle Sea Race, which this year starts on Saturday, 17 October, has witnessed many changes and challenges over its forty-one year history and 2009 is no exception. For the first time ever the race will start from Malta’s most famous natural harbour – Grand Harbour – a significant change to past routine. Perhaps more exceptional, though, is the change that has taken place over the past year to the Royal Malta Yacht Club’s premises, the headquarters for the race.
For those taking part in the Rolex Middle Sea Race for the first time, the enormity of the change may well be lost. The remarkable atmosphere created by the surroundings of eighteenth century Fort Manoel has been swept away and replaced by a stunning, modern enterprise that looks as though it has been operating for a number years. Nothing could be further from the truth. When the horn sounded as last boat home, Squibs, crossed the finish line of the Rolex Middle Sea Race last year, one chapter in the history of the Royal Malta Yacht Club and its flagship event closed and a new one was just beginning. One that was by no means certain with its ending.
John Ripard, President of the Royal Malta Yacht Club, sheds some light on the extraordinary events that have unfolded and seen the club shift its operation from Manoel Island across Msida Creek to Ta’ Xbiex, “sitting in this building today it is hard to imagine that twelve months ago we did not have title or really even the idea that we would be coming here. It has been a tremendous undertaking. I have to acknowledge that a great deal of the merit for having achieved all this: the acceptance that we had to move, dealing with the trauma connected with the move after so long in Fort Manoel, to actually creating a clubhouse such as this one in a very short space of time; we have to attribute to the indefatigable effort, time and energy that our present commodore Georges Bonello Dupuis has devoted to the whole project.”
It has been some achievement. Most clubs running a 600 nautical-mile offshore race attracting some of the world’s top offshore race boats and more spend a good eight months preparing for it. Very few contemplate or even execute during that same period a move of premises, especially to ones that need gutting and rebuilding. The move required verve and nerve. Negotiations with the Maltese Government were not finalised until two weeks ago when the lease was formally signed. In the meantime, the RMYC Committee pushed ahead with the design and refurbishment of the former Yachting Centre that used to house Customs, Immigration and Malta Maritime Authority services. The deadline for completion was always the 2009 Rolex Middle Sea Race, the thirtieth edition of this internationally acclaimed distance race.
The deadline was a real one. The Rolex Middle Sea Race now typically attracts over 70 yachts to Malta from all around the world – this year’s list currently stands at 77, the record fleet is 78. The need to make excuses for the RMYC’s archaic former premises was always lost in the bewilderment of the newly arrived foreign crews taking in the history of the place. Seasoned participants grew to enjoy the eclectic charm that formed part of the attraction of the race. Inviting these same well-travelled crews to a half-built club, even one with a magnificent view of Valletta, did not bear thinking about. Not for a club as proud as this one.
Chief Architect to the project, Godwin Zammit, is also Rear Commodore Racing and Chairman of the Rolex Middle Sea Race Committee. Initially he was sceptical that everything could be achieved in the time available, “I had my doubts initially, it was a big job. We had to move into a building before we had renovated it so we have had to move around within it, while we gutted and remodelled it, knocked parts of it down and rebuilt it. Once we committed to it we pulled our socks up and did what we had to do to finish.” What we see today would be enough for many clubs, with large open spaces housing offices, committee rooms, briefing rooms and a bar area overlooking the water. According to Zammit, though, this is only the end of phase one.
This is not the first time in its long history that the Royal Malta Yacht Club has moved premises. The club is reputed to date back to 1835, but its first true clubhouse was built in 1930 at Floriana. This building was demolished by a bomb in 1942, during World World II. The St Rocco Baths were used as temporary facilities in the immediate aftermath, until a new clubhouse could be built at Hay Wharf, Floriana, in 1951. In 1972, the RMYC moved house again to the Couvre Port of Fort Manoel, where it remained until last year, an official squatter. The RMYC’s position at Fort Manoel was at times as precarious as the building itself. The Club had never been able to acquire formal ownership rights and after more than ten years of negotiation with the Maltese Government and the owners of Manoel Island, suitable permanent premises at Ta’ Xbiex Wharf were eventually identified late in 2008.
As noted by John Ripard, whose experiences with the Club date back to the late 1950s, one of the prime movers behind the successful change has been Commodore Georges Bonello Dupuis. For Bonello Dupuis this was a move brought about by force of circumstance, but one that the Club needed to embrace positively. ” Staying where we were would have meant probable death for the Club. By contrast, this is an incredible opportunity for us, but it has not been easy. There were huge emotional ties to Fort Manoel; the start of the Rolex Middle Sea Race has always been conducted from the terrace in front of the old Club,” he says; continuing, “as Godwin says, once the decision was made we always had a target date to meet. The start of the Rolex Middle Sea Race has served to focus the minds of all those behind the move. It was unconscionable that we would greet the entrants to this great event from anything less than a fully functioning clubhouse.”
To say the Royal Malta Yacht Club has been successful is an under-statement, as any of the participating crews would testify. With the start of the 30th Rolex Middle Sea Race only four days away, the organisation is safely housed and the competitors being welcomed as only is possible in Malta.
Tomorrow, Wednesday 14 October, sees a warm-up Coastal Race starting from Marsamxett Harbour at 10.00 CEST. The 2009 Rolex Middle Sea Race starts from Grand Harbour at 11.00 CEST on Saturday, 17 October.
The final prize giving is at noon on 24th October.
George David’s Rambler (USA) established the current Course Record of 47 hours 55 minutes and 3 seconds in 2007.
Two months out from the start of an event the stature and complexity of the Rolex Middle Sea Race, most yacht clubs would be happy to be entering the home straight of processing competitor registrations. Not the Royal Malta Yacht Club. Not only are they organising this 606 nautical mile offshore race, they are preparing to start it from a new line and with the new yacht club premises still in build. Only in Malta. On the plus side this is the thirtieth time the race has been held and this year’s fleet looks no less exciting than any of the past decade; a period which has seen the race return to the world stage of competitive offshore sailing.
Mike Slade’s ICAP Leopard is the headline act at this year’s Rolex Middle Sea Race. Bursting with satisfaction having taken back-to-back line honours at the Rolex Fastnet, the crew of this 100-foot ocean-eater will be looking to add part two of an offshore racing trifecta that Slade hopes will culminate in December with the Rolex Sydney Hobart. The only other yacht to take consecutive Line Honours at all three of these 600-plus mile races is Neville Crichton’s first Alfa Romeo, which some years later in the hands of George David and under the name Rambler, scorched to a new course record in 2007. And, that will be another of Slade’s objectives when he hits the line on Saturday, 17 October.
Where in the fleet the overall victory is decided will depend on the prevailing weather. The Rolex Middle Sea Race is a four-sided course, not without its share of traps and pitfalls for the unwary. The tidal gate at the Strait of Messina that separates Sicily from mainland Italy is a critical point in the race, but it comes at the end of the first straight. With three more sides of the irregular quadrilateral to go, no one is certain of victory at this juncture.
Leopard’s closest rival on the water at this summer’s Rolex Fastnet was Karl Kwok’s brand new Farr 80 Beau Geste. Led once again by Gavin Brady and Francesco de Angelis, do not be surprised to see this Hong Kong maxi breathing down the neck of Leopard, despite being 20 foot shorter. Strategy and tactics are as key to success in this race as speed. Slightly further a back major battle will be underway between the Mini Maxis. The Royal Malta Yacht Club expects Niklas Zennstrom’s Rán 2 (overall winner of the 2009 Rolex Fastnet) and the STP 65s of Udo Schütz (Container/GER), Patrizio Bertelli (Luna Rossa/ITA) and Roger Sturgeon (Rosebud/USA – overall winner of the 2007 Rolex Sydney Hobart) to be joining Hap Fauth’s Bella Mente (USA) and Andres Soriano’s Alegre (GBR) – the 2008 Rolex Middle Sea Race Line Honours winner – for the another major offshore race line-up in the class.
Recent years have proved time and again that size is not everything in this race. The 2008 winner of the magnificent Rolex Middle Sea Race trophy for victory overall was the 40 foot French yacht Spirit of Ad Hoc. In 2004, it was the 50-foot Greek yacht Optimum 3. The Maltese also stuck the flag in the sand for small boats back in 2002, when the 32-foot Market Wizard claimed the prize. The Maltese will be out in force again this year. Some more experienced than others, but none just in it for the ride.
Jonathan Gambin has entered his own boat, Ton Ton, for a second time and whilst this will be only his third race, it confirms a growing enthusiasm for the course. This is no surprise. Even before crossing the start line in 2008, Gambin vowed “whatever the result I’ll be back again next year.” He finished a very respectable eleventh overall on handicap, beating two-thirds of his class in the process. Kevin Dingli is one of this year’s novice skippers. Last year he participated on Squibs, the last boat to finish the race. Undeterred, for this edition, he will be leading a crew on his 40-foot Beneteau, Fekruna. “I only started racing in 2005,” says Dingli. “Although we are relative novices, we are taking the race seriously. Taking my own yacht on the race is something I have long wanted to do and it will be an adventure. I’m looking forward to both the start and finish,” he continues, “The start will be an adrenalin charged moment, especially within the confines of Grand Harbour. But our main objectives are to finish safely and within the time limit.”
Other yachts to watch out for are: Kees Kaan’s GS43 ROARK/Claus en Kaan’s Architecten (NED), Boat of the Series at the 2008 Rolex Commodores’ Cup, and fellow countryman Piet de Vroon and his latest Tonnerre de Breskens. De Vroon is a former winner of the Rolex Fastnet. Yachts likely to catch the eye are the brand new Shipman 72, Geometry (BVI), entered by Philippe Gigon and the Swan 82RS, Nikata (GBR), entered by Nicolai Tangen. Gigon is another on a fast learning curve for this race, although the unknowns are primarily associated with his yacht. “Geometry was launched on 13 July this year,” explains Gigon. “We’re still testing the systems and sails, and will do so right up to the start. My co-skipper did this race last year on Coral and we both have racing backgrounds, so we’ll do our best to get round the course at the best of Geometry’s potential.” Like Dingli, Gigon is looking forward to the start. Amusingly, he says the bit he is not looking forward to is the finish, since it means a return to winter quarters in Italy.
The place to be to watch the start of the race this year will undoubtedly be the Saluting Battery in the Upper Barrakka Gardens overlooking Grand Harbour from the Valletta side. This will be the first time in the forty-one year history of the race that Malta’s most famous port will host the start. The RMYC is working hard on the final details with the Malta Maritime Authority, which will be closing the harbour for around four hours on the day. The purists need not worry that some of the theatre may be lost with this move of venue. The line is planned to stretch across to the bastions of Fort St Angelo on the Birgu side of the harbour and there will be plenty of the familiar echoing gunfire as the starting procedures get underway.
As for the yacht club premises, given the short lead-time, Commodore Georges Bonello DuPuis is delighted with progress to date, “the majority of the major works have been completed. As with all projects of this nature there are moments of difficulty, but the membership of the club is thoroughly involved and we will be in good shape come October. We’re all looking forward to another great race.”
The Rolex Middle Sea Race commences on Saturday, 17 October 2009. Entries close on 10 October. The final prize giving is on Saturday, 24 October 2009.
George David’s Rambler established the current Course Record of 47 hours 55 minutes and 3 seconds in 2007.