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.
For more information about the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2009 including the entry list, position reports and results please visit www.rolexmiddlesearace.com