The 30th Rolex Middle Sea Race is proving to be one of the most fascinating in recent years and we are only thirty hours or so into the race. The pressure is on for Mike Slade and the crew of ICAP Leopard (GBR) if they still have ambitions to improve on the race record as well as take line honours. At 19.00 on Sunday evening the potent supermaxi had turned the northwest corner of Sicily and is almost exactly two hours behind the current course record holder's pace. This may not seem a huge deficit, but in the high stakes game of poker being played it remains to be seen whether Slade is holding a Royal Flush or something less compelling.
For the moment it remains a big boat race for overall honours with, so far, the mini-maxis dominating the top five handicap positions at Capo Passero, Messina and Stromboli. Yet this part of the game is also far from over. Bella Mente (USA) and Rosebud/Team DYT (USA) have been the two biggest named casualties to join the increasing list of retirees today. With all monohulls bar one left to pass through the speed trap at Strait of Messina, the challenging conditions encountered so far have proved equally testing for front runners, mid-fleet and back markers.
It took the 69 competing yachts between five and eleven hours to cross the sea between Malta and Sicily on Saturday; certainly one of the faster fleet passages on record. ICAP Leopard was first to Capo Passero, only four minutes ahead of Karl Kwok's Beau Geste (HKG) and, significantly, fifteen-minutes inside Rambler's 2007 time. Last boat to pass, some six hours later was Zizanie (ITA), the veteran Sparkman & Stephens design that last did the race in 1974, winning the cruising division in the process. She was narrowly beaten to the rocky cape by Manana (MLT), surely the most heartening story in the race. Just three days ago, skipper, Kevin Dingli was cutting the remains of his mast free from his yacht Fekruna after a disastrous encounter with a waterspout during the coastal race. Step in the following morning his close friend, Peter Ellul Vincente, owner of Mananawith an offer of his boat. Some quick work to bring her up to standard and Dingli is back in the long distance race. His worst nightmares reverting to a dream come true. Dingli would like to do well, but right now is relieved just to be taking part. Manana exited the Strait just before sunset on Sunday night.
Saturday night, Sunday morning saw fun and games for all the crews, though a few will be ruing their luck as the pressure on equipment that typifies an offshore race started to take its toll. Wizsoft (ISR) was the first to pull into port with equipment failure, followed by Apepazza H30 (ITA). With reports from boats such as Elusive II Medbank (MLT) and Otra Vez Fexco (MLT) making reference to squalls coming from nowhere in the darkness retirements were to be expected. Maya Podesta on Elusive reported, “these things always seem to happen at night! Knock down after knock down with squall after squall. The lower spreader even managed to get a taste of salt in a 40-knot gust. Everyone aboard is a little wet, but fine.” The good news was that the crew were managing to tuck into some smoked salmon sandwiches. Not quite up to Nikata's (GBR) haute cuisine standards of “slow roasted Moroccan lamb tagine and Sicilian cheese pasta” but surely welcome.
No news of the menu from Otra Vez, but clearly some bruising reminders of the 2007 race for Edward Gatt Floridia's crew, as they wondered what else the gods of sea and wind had in store, advising, “wild conditions last night. Sailing with a second reef and small jib. Sea state up and we've no numbers after losing the wand [which records wind speeds at the top of the mast] in a squall.” By all accounts the fast downwind ride up the western shore of Sicily was carrying a sting in the tail for the unprepared and unlucky.
Leopard's report of the night's proceedings was understandably upbeat, even though Slade was finding it hard to shake off Beau Geste, which tailed her bigger opponent up through the Strait like a policeman might a criminal. Leopard was playing the game smart and fair, her team of experienced ocean racers getting her through the tricky channel between mainland Italy and Sicily a good twenty minutes ahead of Rambler's 2007 pace, at ten to midnight in the rain and fifty minutes ahead of Beau Geste.
The daylight hours of Sunday have been easier towards the back of the fleet, but drama was unfolding from early morning at the front. First Hap Fauth's Bella Mente pulled out with equipment failure; an unfortunate and premature end to Fauth's previously successful Mediterranean season. Then, a couple of hours later, news arrived that Roger Sturgeon's, 2007 Rolex Sydney Hobart winner, Rosebud/Team DYT had broken her mast and was heading to Milazzo, all crew unharmed. These two were joined a little while later by Jonathan Gambin's Ton Ton Surfside (MLT). Gambin has good cause to be seriously disappointed, but was by all accounts lucky not to lose his mast as well. “We were having a really good race. We were at the front of our class even though we are not at our best point of sail going downwind,” said Gambin, continuing, “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. Fortunately, we were on port tack. We might have lost the mast if the spreader had gone.” Gambin chose not to chance his luck any further, dropped his sails and has motored to Syracuse.
With 53 yachts round Stromboli by Sunday evening, the overall handicap leader is Andres Soriano's Alegre (GBR), line honours winner at the 2008 Rolex Middle Sea Race. At Stromboli she led Luna Rossa (ITA) and Rán 2 (GBR) by a matter of a few seconds and minutes respectively. Just as on Saturday night, though, this is far too early to be popping the champagne cork even though the smaller yachts rounding the volcanic island later in the day have struck windless patches, as Hilary Cook on Nisida (GBR) reports, “After a varied race so far with a mix of near calm and 38 knot squalls, Stromboli has proved as atmospheric as ever. Approaching in the company of several boats we were suddenly doing 10 knots in driving rain and zero visibility. The rain then cleared for us to see other boats were headed or had their mainsails down. Then the wind died for us too as we went into the lee of the island. Of most note however is that this is the first time in 6 years – even two years ago – that we haven't been becalmed off Stromboli.”
For ICAP Leopard, passing by Favignana this evening, her line honours position is commanding going into the second half the course. For the course record she needs to put on the afterburners down the western side of the racetrack. With the wind forecast to remain from the northwest for the next 18 hours and in excess of 20 knots, a beacon of hope remains. As we sign off, Leopard's average boat speed is climbing steadily and now exceeds 20-knots. If Slade and crew can keep up that sort of momentum as relentlessly as Ken Read and George David did in 2007, Leopard's card hand will be looking better and better by the hour. Leopard's hardened racers will surely be hoping they have been dealt something special.
George David's Rambler (USA) established the current Course Record of 47 hours 55 minutes and 3 seconds in 2007. In order to better this time, the first yacht needs to be home by approximately 11.00 local time on Monday, 19 October.
69 yachts representing twenty nations started the race.
For more information about the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2009 including the entry list, position reports and results please visit www.rolexmiddlesearace.com