Two admirable feats of seamanship ended in Marsamxett Harbour in the early hours of Friday morning. The last two yachts in the 30th Rolex Middle Sea Race finally completed the 606 nautical mile course. Double-handed. Both crews have faced the adversity of a race that twenty-three fully crewed yachts were unable to cope with. The third two-handed yacht that started the race last Saturday retired on the second day. The tales from the two yachts are similar. Both crews know they have achieved; both walk away with a sense of pride. One tale ended more happily than the other, but the accomplishment outweighs any disappointment.
The two yachts concerned could not be at further ends of the competitive spectrum. Cymba was crewed by Isidoro Santececca and Francesco Piva aged 51 and 41 respectively. They have raced together for a number of years, including three previous Rolex Middle Sea Races, winning the double-handed division in 2002. Steven and Michael Clough, the co-skippers of Cambo III, are cousins aged 63 and 60. Neither has extensive experience of short-handed racing and none at all over the course of this race. Santececca and Piva were racing a Sunfast 3200, a modern yacht design suited to sailing with limited crew. The Cloughs were on board a Hunter Mystery 35, described in the yachting press as having “an air of restrained elegance that suggests docile manners.” Cambo III is pretty, with classic lines. She is two-feet longer overall than Cymba, but four feet shorter on the waterline. She is also 2,500kg heavier. Not exactly a racing yacht then.
Short-handed racing is as much about the preparation and the mind-set, as it is about the execution. Ahead of the race, both crews exhibited a quiet confidence, a willingness to accept whatever was to be thrown at them and simply to get on with it. A trait particularly appealing to the Maltese. Santececca and Piva set off with thoughts in mind of competing in the 2011 Transquadra, a 2,700 nautical mile from Madeira to Martinique. The Cloughs just hoped to get around the track and preferably inside the time limit. The weather and sea conditions faced by the smaller yachts have been well described already. That a third of the fleet failed to complete the race, most retiring within the first thirty-six hours, puts the achievement of these Italian and British crews into better perspective.
For much of the race the two yachts were locked together, fighting out a duel in traditional style, 'mano-a-mano'. Cymba led at Capo Passero by 25-minutes. Cambo III had reversed that deficit by Messina and extended their on-water lead by Stromboli to over an hour. At Favignana the split was back to 25-minutes in favour of the British. Neither crew was aware that by this stage their contest within the context of the Rolex Middle Sea Race had effectively ended. The crew of Cymba explained, “The beat was very tough between Stromboli and Favignana. This boat is better at downwind sailing and reaching rather than upwind. We were having real problems with the mainsail. Some of the race we had to do with three reefs and part of the race without a main at all. We tried to repair it, but this was very difficult.” Cymba's mistake, which seems entirely understandable given the conditions and their situation, was to pass inside one of the Aeolian Islands in breach of the Sailing Instructions. “We made a genuine mistake and have officially retired because we did not want to be disqualified.” The crew walk away heads held high, “for us it makes no difference; it was important to finish the race. It has not left a bitter taste in our mouths. We are here, that is important, and we feel like winners.”
The Cloughs indicated that they had almost made the same error. Seeking some shelter in the lee of Alicudi looked to be a good option until a last-minute check of the course reminded them of the correct route.
Racing on, oblivious of the fatal error by Cymba, the two crews arrived at Pantelleria 10-minutes apart. The Italians back in the lead. Both Cambo III's autopilots chose this moment to pack up adding further stress to her crew's situation. “We were struggling. The tiller is heavy and it is really heavy in a lot of wind. Once past Pantelleria I kept her as close to the wind as I could to keep a lot of weight off and ease the main to try and balance her as best I could, but I was exhausted, absolutely exhausted.” Steve took over and did the night shift allowing Michael to recover.
By Lampedusa, the Cloughs had seemingly worked a miracle, had overcome their issue with the autopilots and found themselves ahead by over an hour again, as Michael explained, “we thought Cymba would be well ahead of us because she had been going faster when we last saw her. By chance I checked the fleet tracker and saw we were ahead. We didn't believe it possible. Steve had done a magnificent job overnight” Sadly the elation was short-lived.
Just after midnight, early in the morning on 22 October the Cloughs reached their lowest point in the race, as Steven explained, “there was a heck of a bang, it was night time and it took us a little while to work out that one of the jumpers [supporting the mast] had gone. We thought through the options and decided continue as gently as we could. We had time and were determined to finish this race. We think we were fortunate that we were never on starboard tack.”
“There were only two of us, we were hand-steering and the rig was in trouble. Once we dismissed the idea of retiring we started thinking about right sail plan. We triple reefed the main and put up the storm jib for a while.”
Michael explained how they believed if they could make sure that pressure on the mast was limited to below the lower set of spreaders the mast would survive. Keeping boat speed beneath 4-knots would seem an anathema to a racing crew, but this was about protecting the rig and completing the remaining 100 nautical miles of the race. The de-powering reached the ultimate on the last stretch from Comino Channel. “Bare poles and over five knots of boat speed for over three-quarters of an hour. I've never done that before!” laughed Steven. “The key to making it was reigning ourselves in. We were both in race mode by now and had to keep telling each other to back off.”
Both crews were relieved to reach the finish. Unsurprisingly, Cymba did so twelve hours ahead of Cambo III. It was a cracking race between the pair, certainly until Lampedusa, and one that has enthralled those watching on shore as much as the battles towards the front of the fleet. Steven Clough who is facing tougher battles in his life summed up the adventure, “it's been emotional, it's been tough, but it's been rewarding.” Tomorrow the Cloughs will be awarded the trophy as winners of the double-handed division. That there was some luck on their part and some misfortune on the part of others is true. Unquestionably, though, they are worthy.
69 yachts representing twenty nations started the race.
George David's Rambler (USA) established the current Course Record of 47 hours 55 minutes and 3 seconds in 2007.
The prize giving will be held at the Sacra Infermeria, in the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta, on Saturday, 24 October.
For more information about the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2009 including the entry list, position reports and results please visit www.rolexmiddlesearace.com