The 2009 Rolex Middle Sea Race set off this morning from the incomparable setting of Grand Harbour. To the sound of gunfire from the Saluting Battery, high above the water, the biggest fleet to depart Malta since the Turks left at the end of the Great Siege in 1565 set off on its 606 nautical mile adventure. 69 yachts crossed the start line, which used Fort St Angelo as its pin end. Crowds filled every vantage point on the southern side of Valletta, witnessing at first hand the dawn of a new era in this classic race. As the fleet streams across towards Sicily, ICAP Leopard (GBR) led on the water from Beau Geste (HKG), Bella Mente (USA) and Rán (GBR). By 17.00 local time Leopard was already abreast of Capo Passero. Game on.
The 30th edition has attracted a strong, international fleet. Trying to pick handicap favourites ahead of the start has not been straightforward. This is a race where making reliable predictions is as easy as picking winners in the Kentucky Derby. This morning, though, the bigger yachts in the fleet were feeling this might be their year. Mike Slade, owner of the biggest and fastest weapon in the fleet, the mighty ICAP Leopard – twice winner of line honours and course record holder at the Rolex Fastnet – was in ebullient mood. “I think the record is on, definitely, with these conditions,” he remarked just before the off. “The weather is looking very favourable for the big boats. We expect to be quite quick across to Sicily and up to Stromboli. Then, when we turn left, well, we'll get all hell knocked out of us. When the forecast front comes in we'll close on it very quickly. Getting to Palermo and the Egadi Islands is going to be a real fight. We'll batten down and try to survive it. Once we turn that corner, though, and get the kite up we expect to see about 30-knots of boat speed, maybe even more. Whether we're in on Monday morning, Monday midday or Monday night we'll have to wait and see.”
If the big wind and seaway anticipated off the northern coast of Sicily does come to fruition, Slade will rest easier with the knowledge that he has the likes of world-girdling yacht-racers Brad Jackson (a three-time Volvo Ocean Race winner), Jules Salter, Rob Greenhalgh, Justin Slattery and Jason Carrington in his team. They have seen it all before and will know how to keep Leopard trucking along. Intact.
Thoughts of heavy weather were far from the spectators minds as Grand Harbour laid on the perfect morning for the watching crowds gathered to cheer on the departing fleet. Peter Dimech, Principal Race Officer for the Royal Malta Yacht Club, had divided the yachts into five starts, with the smallest boats leaving at 11 o'clock sharp to the resounding crash of a 24-pounder cannon, manned by Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna volunteers dressed in 19th century Royal Malta Artillery uniform. Contending with light and variable winds in the start area, Tomas Dolezal's Three Sisters (CZE), with Milan Hajek on the helm, took the bragging prize for first yacht out through the breakwater. She was closely followed by the Maltese local heroes on Geisha. David Pizzuto is on his eighth race. Both he and his crew will have been delighted to overhaul their Czech opponents by St George's Bay and to round the final mark off the Maltese coast in first place. The Italians on Alba Blu w ere third, rounding just before midday.
The second start was the biggest with twenty-four boats stretched across the water from the 16th century St Peter and St Paul's Bastion to Dockyard Creek. Maltese representation was strong with Arthur Podesta's Elusive II Medbank, Jonas Diamantino's Comanche Raider II Gasan Mamo, Mark Schranz and Isaac Borg sailing Nemesis Credal double-handed, Jost Mertens' Rebel, David Franks' Strait Dealer and the Timmy Camilleri skippered Vikesha. Austrian Gosta Pongratz on his chartered yacht One has also secured some local knowledge with Anthony Camilleri an eight-race veteran. Camilleri endorsed the view it was likely to be a race that favoured the bigger yachts. “I think we will miss the bad weather likely to affect the faster boats. What is worrying me is towards the end of the race – Wednesday.Thursday – when we get the south-easterly. That is going to be Force 8 and a headwind all the way from Pantelleria to Lampedusa and then to Mal ta,” Camilleri explained. “It's the end of the race, everyone is tired and it is a beat, which is hard against the strong winds.”
The third start of the day featured former Rolex Fastnet winner Piet Vroon and Tonnerre de Breskens III (NED), American Arthur 'Bugs' Baer with his chartered yacht Nix (BVI) and counting the talented single-handed racer Brian Thompson within his crew, and, the largely British manned Nisida led by Peter Hopps and Hilary Cook who are embarking on their sixth encounter with the Mediterranean's biggest offshore race. Ian Loffhagen, Racing Manager of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, is aboard Tonnerre de Breskens III, “I think we are going to have a bit of everything. We're going to get battered on the north side of Sicily, we're then going to get dried out and a bit bored, but it should be a reasonably fast race. All the weather models seem to concur and it is a question of when the next front comes through and how far we've got before that kicks in. We think we'll be finished before the winds get too strong and back into the south-east.”
The final monohull start saw the grand-prix racers have their moment in the spotlight. Torben Grael and Robert Scheidt, with eight Olympic medals between them, showed some small boat skills to get the STP 65 Luna Rossa (ITA) off the line first and out past the breakwater before their bigger rivals seemed to have woken-up. Hap Fauth and Bella Mente (USA) will be pleased to have been second out of the trap. Fauth is on his first Rolex Middle Sea Race and appears to have chosen a challenging one, “it looks like we're going to have a fair breeze on the top side of Sicily with about 48 hours of 30-plus knots. May be as much as 45 knots. That said it changes every 24 hours, so who knows! Our idea is to be prepared for everything. You can't win, if you don't finish and I think there could be a fair amount of those. We're looking forward to a good race.”
The fifth start was reserved for the two multihulls, Richard Mueller's Silver Chiller (GER) and Hans Nagel's High Q1 (GER). Mueller and Nagel are friends from Munich and enjoy the idea of their private duel, as Mueller explains, “we're on the bigger of the two and we look forward to competing against them. We have to finish ahead to win.” Mueller did the race last year and sees this one as being similar, except in reverse, “last time there was low wind in the first three days and we expect more wind at the beginning this time. We could also get a little bit more at the end after five days.” Generally, though, Mueller is happy, “if you have no wind it is crazy for a sail boat!”
As yachts start passing the first transit mark of the racecourse at Capo Passero the early stages overall handicap standings will become clearer. But this is only 55 nautical miles into the race and with 551 still to go, no one will be celebrating at this point.
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