Overnight, the 2011 Rolex Middle Sea Race fleet parked up off the coast of Sicily near Catania – in the shadows of Mount Etna. So far, Esimit Europa 2 (SLO) and Rán (GBR) were the lone boats to have slipped through the Messina Strait, Esimit around 0330 Sunday morning, followed by Rán at 0830. Esimit, which rounded Stromboli four hours later, has since slowed down, and leads Rán by about 50 miles.
The bulk of the fleet is nearing the Strait, including the 90-foot maxi, Med Spirit (FRA) which is reporting 16 knots of boat speed, no doubt in a favourable current. The Mills 68, Alegre (GBR) is further east, hugging the Italian mainland coast. Current Class 2 leaders on the water are Dralion (MLT) and Cantankerous (ITA), while front of Class 3 are the Grand Soleil 50, One (ITA) and the Xp44Vikesha II (MLT) co-skippered by Oleg Evdokimenko and local Maltese sailor Timmy Camilleri. This is Camilleri’s 17th Rolex Middle Sea Race, which he has won overall three times. Aziza (MLT), Pita Maha (ITA), Aurora (ITA), Three Sisters (CZE) are close together leading Class 4, approximately 40 nautical miles south of Messina.
Atame (GBR), is a 42-footer being sailed double-handed for the second year in a row by Beppe Bisotto and Ian Knight. The duo on the Fast 42 chose a course through the night just off the Sicilian coast. Bisotto from Venice, Italy, emailed a report, “What a night! Tacking against other boats, alone helming! This afternoon we expected the gusts and did not hoist the large spinnaker; nonetheless we changed eight times the sails and exploded one spinnaker. Our race is against all the fleet and we do not hesitate to keep our performance up.”
He may have been rethinking his choice to sail shorthanded, as he added, “My kid Attilio, nine years old, called me tonight asking ‘what are we doing just two on board?’ It is like playing soccer against a team of eleven, with just one goalkeeper and one midfielder!”
Nearby Beppe Fornich, skipper of the Dufour 34, Nigno (ITA) called in to verify a slow night with the breeze at only four to five knots. But Nigno was within sight of the formidable Mount Etna and the crew was enjoying their tea and brioche, and looking forward to the next meal prepared by their onboard ‘chef’ Mario Cudio.
The crew of the J/133, Oiltanking Juno (MLT), is clearly enjoying itself despite one or two issues yesterday, reporting in with a recap the early adventures, “Once out of the harbour, some local storm clouds brought with them squalls. We saw some boats tear their code zeros and spinnakers. On Juno, we were not free of problems either. Even though we made the correct sail calls at the right times, at one point we lost both our spinnaker sheets and tack lines, giving us major problems with one of our spinnakers. Due to great teamwork, we managed to make a good recovery and now find ourselves sailing up the east coast of Sicily towards the infamous straights of Messina.”
A further report will be issued this afternoon, by which time the Royal Malta Yacht Club expects many more of the fleet to have passed through the notorious Messina Strait.
Part of the Aeolian island chain, Stromboli is located in the Tyrrhenian Sea, off the north coast of Sicily. The active volcano is approximately 900 m (3,000 ft) high, and its most recent eruption was in August 2009. There are two villages on the island with several hundred inhabitants.
Stromboli gained acclaim in1950 when Italian director, Roberto Rossellini set the classic movie “Stromboli” starring Ingrid Bergman, on the island. The island, and nearby Strombolicchio, are marks of the Rolex Middle Sea Race course, left to port by the race fleet.
70 yachts started the 32nd Rolex Middle Sea Race on Saturday, 22 October.
In 2007, George David’s Rambler (USA) established the current Course Record of 47 hours, 55 minutes, 3 seconds. In order to beat this record the first boat must finish by approximately 11.30 CEST Monday, 24 October.
The final prize giving is at 12.00CEST on Saturday, 29 October at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta.
The Rolex Middle Sea Race heads towards its 31st edition in great health. In recent years the 606 nautical mile race has seen a consistency in entry levels that seemed inconceivable, ten years ago. Not just are numbers good, the quality is excellent and the international contingent a key contributor. Throw into the mix that the Royal Malta Yacht Club has moved into new, modern premises and put the showpiece start into one of the world’s showpiece arenas – Grand Harbour – and there seems little doubt that this classic offshore test will continue to move from strength to strength. The 2010 Rolex Middle Sea Race starts in a little under five months time on 23 October.
Unsurprisingly, entries have already begun to arrive in the Royal Malta Yacht Club’s mailbox. The current entry list has competitors from the USA, the UK, Italy, The Netherlands, Germany and, of course, Malta. Whilst some eyes may be on the movements of last year’s overall winner, Andres Soriano, to see if he returns with his Mills 68 Alegre (GBR) to defend his hard won crown, an equal number will be watching Mike Slade and ICAP Leopard (GBR) to see if they will return for another stab at the course record that narrowly eluded them last year. Neither has yet been drawn on their intentions for this year. Of course, though, there is more to headline grabbers with this race.
The course is without doubt a true navigational test. It is one that involves volcanoes, islands, headlands, tidal gates, varied winds and rapidly changeable seas. Tom Addis, a competitor last year and one whose professional resume includes the Volvo Ocean Race, describes the navigator’s challenge, “this race is always very interesting. You don’t get many 600-mile races with this number of corners and land effects. Quick changes in conditions and very local changes, especially going up through the Strait of Messina. There’s always something to be working on next with no big straight lines,”
In 2006 it was Hasso Plattner, owner of the maxi Morning Glory that best summed up the peculiarities ““It’s warm, it’s great [racing] around the islands and you’re never out of the race. Every corner you turn, and it starts again. We had a fantastic race against Maximus. Each corner, it was hello, good morning, and let’s start the race again.”
Peter Isler is another renowned navigator who has attempted the challenge. In his case, back in 2007, and he has acknowledged the tricky nature of the racetrack, “the course has a lot of opportunities for tactical decisions and local knowledge. The race is set up for someone who has done it before. You could build up a lot of local knowledge…I aim to talk to someone who has done the race before about how to get up through the Straits, playing the currents there and the winds at the various turning marks. It’ll be fun though. I love a highly tactical race with a lot of challenges.
Some of those with local knowledge already have their preparation well in hand. Jonas Diamantino from Malta aims to embark on his tenth race. Last year Diamantino was third in his IRC class and finished twenty-second overall with Comanche Raider II Gasan Mamo Insurance.
“Comanche Raider II is a Judel/Vrolijk designed ILC 40 optimised for IRC, ” according to Diamantino, who has made a number of changes since acquiring her. “We’ve already replaced the keel, fitted a fixed bowsprit and installed a high-modulus carbon mast. This year we’ve added a carbon boom. All of which allows bigger, masthead asymmetric sails and more speed downwind.” Diamantino takes great pride in his participation, “for me, the Rolex Middle Sea Race is all about the excitement and tension leading up to the start, and, the satisfaction of completing the race safely.”
Another local Maltese crew looking ahead is Jonathon Gambin and Ton Ton Surfside. This will be Gambin’s fourth race. Last year he suffered the frustration of retiring on the first night with rig trouble following some heavy conditions that eventually put paid to a number of other yachts. “We were having a really good race [and] were at the front of our class. We had seen winds between 25 and 30 knots, and were fast with good boat speed. We needed to free a halyard during a sail change and sent a man up the mast. He spotted a big crack in the starboard spreader. Luckily, we were on port tack. We chose not to risk any more, dropped our sails and retired.” A few hours later Tom Addis’s ride, the STP65 Rosebud, lost her mast.
Gambin is on a mission to do better this year, “we have been racing hard and well this season. I have a regular crew, all with experience of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. I feel much better prepared already, this year, and with a little help from the weather we will be trying our best for an overall win.”
That might seem seriously ambitious. But the Maltese have a history of winning this race. The last time a Maltese yacht won was in 2003, and many think their time is due again.
For the 31st edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race, the Royal Malta Yacht Club is looking to break the eighty-boat barrier. “It can be done and we are working hard to maximize entries,” says Commodore Georges Bonello DuPuis, “but naturally we are always satisfied simply to put on another successful race that matches or exceeds the expectations of all the competitors – however many they are and wherever they come from.”
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.