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Day One: (17.00 CEST) Even with a reduced fleet, half the size of recent years, it was hard to not get sucked into the emotion and atmosphere of today’s Rolex Middle Sea Race start. The 41st edition got underway, as planned, on schedule and, most importantly, all clear. Seven starts and 50 yachts. Given the backdrop of a global pandemic, it marks a remarkable achievement for the organisers, the Royal Malta Yacht Club, and its highly professional volunteer team. As we go to press, the main body of the fleet is streaming across towards Capo Passero on the south eastern tip of Sicily. Impressively, the leading multihull, Maserati (ITA), was abeam the lighthouse on Isola di Capopássero at 1445 CEST, a mere 2.5 hours after its start.

Middle Sea Race competitors emerge from the historic Grand Harbour in Malta’s capital VallettaMiddle Sea Race competitors emerge from the historic Grand Harbour in Malta’s capital Valletta Photo: Kurt Arrigo
Meanwhile, the VO70 I Love Poland, skippered by Grzegorz Baranowski, leads the monohull fleet on the water, passing Capo Passero just after 1600 CEST. The VO65 Sisi-Austrian Ocean Race Project, skippered by Gerwin Jansen was approximately 20 minutes astern with Marton Jozsa’s Hungarian RP60 Wild Joe behind.

It was a glorious day to start a yacht race. Valletta’s golden limestone bastions, rising boldly from the waters of Grand Harbour, bathed in bright sunshine. The force 4 north-westerly, creating a whitecap strewn vista beyond the breakwater, was sufficient to allow crews to clear the line with relative ease. The pin end at the foot of Fort St Angelo was understandably favoured with Valletta casting a wind shadow over section beneath the Saluting Battery, where the race committee was located. The early starts were close fought affairs with teams keen to press home an advantage on their immediate opposition.

Class 1 Start 

The most powerful monohull start, and the penultimate in timing, took a while to wind up. Aragon (NED), the biggest in the fleet, belted across the start with the smaller Wild Joe on her hip and just to leeward. The arguably more powerful I Love Poland and E1, together with Sisi-The Austrian Ocean Race Project were slow to power up in a diminishing wind. Aragon held position and nerve to exit on one tack. Once on the wind, I Love Poland took control overhauling both Aragon (with Nin O'Leary aboard) and Wild Joe by the turning mark at St Julian’s. If conditions do as predicted, the Polish crew will have their work cut out to protect the lead overnight. Many of the Polish crew on E1 are doing the race for the first time. Sailing skipper and helmsman Rafal Sawicki was enthusiastic ahead of the start: “We’re a mainly amateur crew, and we are very happy we can do this 600-mile race even with all the problems around the world. It is really good that the organisers have managed the race and we can take part. It is a must do race.”

Multihull Start
The six-boat multihull class was an extraordinary sight. Reminiscent of a Klingon battle fleet (for anyone that remembers Star Trek from the 1970s), five racing trimarans set up their timed start-line runs from deep within Grand Harbour. Poor Asia, the Outremer 55 Light, more cruising than racing in this company, looked like a startled rabbit in the headlights as she tried to keep clear and find her own lane. Riccardo Pavoncelli’s MOD70 Mana (with Mikey Ferguson aboard) crossed at speed edging Maserati and leaving Antoine Rabaste’s larger Ultim’Emotion in her slipstream. Mana only arrived in Malta yesterday evening. Brian Thompson commented ahead of the start: “We are very excited about this year’s Rolex Middle Sea Race. It is probably the best multihull fleet we have had and, this year, the racecourse looks as challenging as ever.”

Multihulls sprint away from the start Photo: Kurt ArrigoMultihulls sprint away from the start Photo: Kurt Arrigo

Maserati had cut their arrival time even finer, reaching the Valletta Fairway Buoy at 0800 CEST this morning and starting the race without setting foot on Maltese soil in an effort to avoid a period of isolation when they return to Italy after the race. It was quite a sight as Maserati chased Mana through the fleet after exiting the harbour, eventually overhauling them 10nm after the laid mark at St Julian’s.

Class 2 Start
The five-boat group is many people’s favourite to provide the overall winner under IRC. Eric de Turkheim’s Teasing Machine (FRA) has form at this race-winning her class in 2017 and finishing third overall. Vadim Yakimenko’s Russian TP52 Freccia Rossa has won the Rolex Giraglia and is reckoned to be a demon in the light conditions predicted to lie ahead. These two led from the line with Freccia Rossa breaking free of the harbour confines ahead of Teasing Machine.

Class 3 Start
A fight for the favoured pin end caused several teams to suffer a less than perfect start. Maksim Nemchenko’s Farr 45 Favorit plus, stayed out of trouble and perfectly executed towards the middle of the line. Dominique Tian’s French Ker 46 Tonnerre de Glen adopted the same tactic. Favorit plus led the class out of Grand Harbour, much to the delight of the team whose home port is Kotor, Montenegro. At 1700 CEST Kito De Pavant’s Class 40 Made in Midi was leading on the water.

First 45 Elusive 2 (left) and Sean Borg’s Xp44 Xpresso Photo: Kurt ArrigoFirst 45 Elusive 2 (left) and Sean Borg’s Xp44 Xpresso Photo: Kurt Arrigo

Class 4 Start
Right from the gun, two Maltese yachts locked horns in a battle that is set to continue around the 606nm course. Sean Borg’s Xp44 Xpresso and First 45 Elusive 2, skippered by Christoph, Aaron & Maya Podesta, both made a great start. While Xpresso was the first boat in class to leave Grand Harbour, after rounding the Fairway Buoy, Elusive 2 soon took up pole position on the water.

Class 5 Start
Jonathan Gambin’s Maltese Dufour 44R Ton Ton Laferla judged their approach to the start to perfection and found good breeze to win the exit from Grand Harbour with the crew stacked high on the windward rail. Also starting well were Paul Debono’s Elan 410 Bait in their first race, Jonathan Camilleri Bowman’s Maltese Falcon II, Alexey Moskvin’s J/122E Buran and Max Muller’s German Luffe 4004 Prettynama2. Towards the back was Italian entry Mia. The owner, Luigi Stoppani, is taking part in not just his first ever Rolex Middle Sea Race, but his first race ever: “Last year I bought my boat, and decided I needed to get to know myself and my boat better. So I took the chance to participate in this race. There are many difficult parts, but we are prepared: the boat, the sails, and the crew, we are ready to start.”


Class 6 Start
The Grand Soleil 40 Aziza, sailed by a Latvian crew and skippered by Ilgonis Balodis, started on port tack at the pin end and pulled off a stunning start. Starting well too was the young Maltese team on J/109 Jarhead, skippered by Lloyd Hamilton. Another J/109, Chestress from Italy, also put in a good start. The owner, Leonardo Petti, is on his second Rolex Middle Sea Race: “We have not sailed as a crew since the race last year. We wanted to, but it has not been possible,” Petti announced. “I think this is one of the most beautiful races I have ever done. The course is fantastic. It is wonderful to see volcanoes, to experience hard conditions. It’s tough.” One of the smallest yachts in the race had the honour of leading the class out of Grand Harbour: Jean-Francois Nouel’s French Sun Fast 3200 Hakuna Matata. At 1700 CEST, Jean Luc Hamon’s French JPK 10.10 Raging Bee was going well.

Seven teams are racing Double Handed, front runners on the water are three Italian boats: Marco Paolucci’s Comet 45 Libertine, Natale Lia's Mylius 14 Zenhea Takesha and Alessio Bernabui’s Akilaria 40 Crossing Routes – Vaquita. Going well after time correction is the French J/109 Jubilee, sailed by Gerald Boess & Jonathan Bordas.

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Mikey Ferguson from Bangor on Belfast Lough was looking forward yesterday (16th) to getting going on the MOD70 Mana in the 41st Edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race which started today from the historic Grand Harbour in Malta's capital Valletta. In light of the global pandemic, the Royal Malta Yacht Club has put in place special protocols and arrangements to ensure the safety of competitors, ashore and at sea.

Mikey is part of an Irish line up in the 70-boat fleet, as described by WM Nixon on Afloat today (17th October) here

He was hopeful of a good result on the multi-maestro Brian Thompson skippered Italian Mana, entered by Riccardo Pavoncelli. "We should do battle for line honours. The weather looks challenging and avoiding wind holes which will litter the course will the main aim. It's easier when its daylight".

Famed for its magnificent offshore race course and revered for the scale of the challenge it presents, the Rolex Middle Sea Race is one of the most prominent events on the international yachting calendar. Mikey is excited to have another Italian entry, the near sistership Multi 70 Maserati, to race against. She set the multihull record in 2016 with a time of 49hrs 25m 1s and now Giovanni Soldini and Maserati are back.

Mikey added, "There will be stiff competition too from the French 80 ft tri Ultim'emotion 2". She is entered by Antoine Rabaste and was winner of the Cape2Rio Race as LoveWater in January. He concludes "It could be a long slow race but hopefully we will avoid separation from the other big Tris and are in the mix at the end for line honours".
You can follow the race on the tracker here 

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People have been unobtrusively getting on with sailing in many places during the pandemic, determinedly maintaining social distance afloat and ashore, reducing their interaction with outsiders to such a minimum it's almost non-existent, and doing it all thoughtfully, with properly-located face coverings.

Where racing has been held, it has been kept low key, and the traditional après sailing became so restrained that many folk, having got in their evening race or mini-cruise or whatever, simply decided to go straight home rather than use the carefully-planned compliant catering which the clubs have worked determinedly and with vision to provide.

Amongst club officials meanwhile, the central thinking is that each club should keep to itself, each boat should keep to itself, and each sailing family should stay within family limits. It's the complete opposite, in other words, of the Hockey Union, which seems to have been penalising clubs because some team members have refused for health reasons to travel to matches at other clubs.

Michael McCann's Etchells 22 on her way to winning the Royal Cork's evening raceThe sense of well-being and feelings of good health induced by evening racing like this is beyond measure. Michael McCann's Etchells 22 on her way to winning the Royal Cork's evening race of Thursday, July 9th 2020. Photo: Robert Bateman

Who got Covid-19 through sailing?

Fortunately, the nature of our sailing is such that a comparable situation doesn't arise. The result is that the sailing community has managed to maintain such a high level of good health that incidences of COVID-19 within it seem very rare indeed, often to the point of non-existence. But instead of making such sweeping assessments based on personal observation and hearsay, Afloat.ie would like to put the record on a more substantial footing, so if you know of anyone in sailing who currently has, or has experienced, COVID-19, then please let us know.

Of course, we don't want names – that would be a gross intrusion on privacy, and probably illegal. But if we could get some sort of ballpark figure (if it exists), it would give substance to the arguments of many club officers, who feel that the National Authority has gone too far in declaring that even the humblest club racing is now verboten, and who feel instead that our beloved and exceptionally healthy sport – of which club sailors are the backbone – deserves much the same treatment as that meted out to golf.

The problem, of course, is that while sailing is a peaceful and often solitary pursuit without paying spectators, it is a high visibility activity. Even the smallest boats popping out for a quick race in the bay will be seen – albeit with scant genuine attention – by very many people. And if one sector of the population is finding its activities restricted in the severest possible way, it's only human to strike out and make sure that everyone else has to endure the same restrictions, and preferably worse.

Dun Laoghaire Water Wags on Lough ReeDun Laoghaire Water Wags on Lough Ree. Casual observers will not be aware of the details of sailing, but they'll certainly know it's going on. Photo: Cathy Mac Aleavey

Despite all this, we've had a truncated but interesting sailing season in Ireland in 2020, and at the time of writing this it's still developing, with Pam Lee and Cat Hunt in the process of setting a new women's two-handed round Ireland record (Record established in a time of 3 days 3d 20h 29m 28s subject to ratification - Web editor). Looking ahead, if allowed there are also prospects of late Autumn and early Winter leagues among people who have come to a fresh realisation of just how much sailing means to them.

It's all controllable within a very defined club bubble, but special challenges arise when a major international event comes up on the agenda, and those involved think they can just about run it provided the countdown and the participants have all been careful beyond diligent in preparing themselves and their crews.

Middle Sea Race's impressive turnout

Today's Royal Malta Rolex Middle Sea Race really has bent over backwards to be pandemic-fit. But even in Malta, there are Middle Sea-proven boats and crews who wouldn't dream of taking part. Despite that, the entry of 71 boats with crews from 21 countries is an impressive turnout, and there seems to be a basic underlying feeling that the race must take place as scheduled at 11 o'clock local time today (Saturday), not least for the morale of Malta and the good of world sailing.

This may all sound a bit high-flown for a specialised sporting event, but the Middle Sea Race can happen with no detrimental effect on preventing the spread of COVID-19, it will further improve the health of those taking part, and it will do us all no end of good simply to know it's taking place.

The Podesta family's First 45 Elusive 2The Podesta family's First 45 Elusive 2 on her way to winning the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2019. Photo Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

So we find every bit of Irish interest that's going. Even the defending champion. the Podesta family's First 45 Elusive 2, has a tenuous connection to us. The late Arthur Podesta, the father of the remarkable Podesta siblings Maya, Christoph and Aaron, took a best result of third overall in the Middle Sea Race with the first Elusive, which was an earlier First 45 – a sister-ship of Cormac Twomey's Sarah J which won the Dingle Race in 1997 and 1999 – which had originally been taken out to the Mediterranean by John Sisk of Dun Laoghaire.

Thus we need to claim a bit of Elusive 2, as our key offshore sailors in Malta - Barry Hurley and Brian Flahive who have many outstanding offshore achievements between them - are sitting this one out, though they have been getting in a spot of sailing by both being at the sharp end of SB20 racing in Malta.

Another serious contender that rings a bell is the hugely individualistic Lombard 45 Pata Negra, the vehicle of dreams for many Irish offshore successes. She's chartered this time round by Andrew Hall of Pwllheli and the Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association.

Jean-Pierre Dick's JP 54 The Kid took line honours in the Malta Coastal Race on Wednesday, and placed third overall Jean-Pierre Dick's JP 54 The Kid took line honours in the Malta Coastal Race on Wednesday and placed third overall

And though Honorary Irish Sailor Jean-Pierre Dick (he was up at The Park, don't y'know) put down a marker for line honours with his JP54 The Kid in Wednesday's 30-mile Malta Coastal Race, the formidable talents of Nin O'Leary of Crosshaven have been shipped aboard the Dutch-owned Maxi 72 Aragon, a Reichel-Pugh design. And there's nothing Nin enjoys more than making a luxury performance cruiser sail much faster than anyone thought possible.

So there's an Irish lineup of sorts, and doubtless once the fleet finally crosses the start line, we'll find that there are others of us among the crews, for there's also representation in the multi-hulls with northerner Mikey Ferguson crewing on the MOD 70 Mana

Nin O'Leary's Middle Sea contender AragonNin O'Leary's Middle Sea contender Aragon - her CV already includes winning the RORC Transatlantic race.

Vendee Globe in November

The pace is then ratcheted with the Vendee Globe getting underway in November. Theoretically, it’s the perfect lockdown event, as it's all about isolation. But there is the problem that if anything happens to one of the contenders, they might have to put into some remote little island which would be just rife for infection from all sorts of novel viruses and bacteria. But that’s an unlikely enough scenario, and either way we can be sure that Marcus Hutchinson, much involved in recent days with the Magenta Project Female Two-Handed Round Ireland Record, will be right in the thick of things in Les Sables d’Olonne, even if they are going to try and run the legendary village oo socially distanced lines.

 The hundred footers make their start in the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race. Until the pandemic struck, three of them had hoped to be racing in European waters this summer. Photo: Rolex/Carlo BorlenghiThe hundred footers make their start in the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race. Until the pandemic struck, three of them had hoped to be racing in European waters this summer. Photo: Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

Sydney Hobart holds out

Beyond that, the focus will swing to the southern hemisphere, where the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia are determinedly holding out on being able to stage the annual Sydney-Hobart race on December 26th. If it does happen, defending overall ace is our own Gordon Maguire, and the likelihood of top navigator-tactician Adrienne Cahalane – originally of Offaly – being in some key role in the fleet can be taken as read.

America's Cup selection stages

Meanwhile, December will see the first selection stages of next year's America's Cup being raced in New Zealand. New Zealand has of course been the poster-girl for national avoidance of COVID-19, so the anti-viral tests which boats and crews being shipped out to Auckland have had to pass are of the most demanding and rigorous type.

New Zealand has been under almost total outsider-exclusion for quite some time now. Thus the chink of light which may be allowed in by the America's Cup is surely welcome, as the prolonged period of virtually total isolation seems to have resulted in the distinctive Kiwi accent becoming even more different from English as she is spoken elsewhere than it was already. Unless some outsiders get in there quite soon, it's only a matter of time before there won't be anybody who can understand a word they say……..

Auckland, the City of a Thousand SailsAuckland, the City of a Thousand Sails, where the total pandemic isolation of New Zealand is resulting in the development of a strange new dialect of English

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Famed for its magnificent offshore race course and revered for the scale of the challenge it presents, the Rolex Middle Sea Race is one of the most prominent events on the international yachting calendar.

The 41st edition of the race is scheduled to commence from the historic Grand Harbour in Malta’s capital Valletta on Saturday, 17 October, and, in light of the global pandemic, the RMYC has put in place special protocols and arrangements to ensure the safety of competitors, ashore and at sea.

Malta Middle Sea RaceThe Royal Malta Yacht Club Middle Sea Race course

Entry numbers for the anticlockwise circumnavigation of Sicily have been on an upward trajectory over the past decade, with more than 100 yachts from 20-plus countries regularly on the start line. This year may have fewer participants, but the attraction of the 606-nm racecourse – unique in offshore yacht racing as it starts and finishes in the same place – remains strong. The Mediterranean course’s competitive, historical, cultural and geological allure is perhaps without equal. Contested on waters where empires have risen and fallen and that form the setting for Homer’s Odyssey, the race takes in the active volcanoes of Etna and Stromboli and a myriad of islands. It is an epic adventure that stirs strong emotions and a sense of accomplishment in all who take part.

Maltese yacht Elusive 2 won the race last yearMaltese yacht Elusive 2 won the race last year

Crews comprise both professional and Corinthian sailors, veterans and debutants. The transfer of knowledge and the passing on of tradition from the experienced to the less-experienced are among the race’s great legacies. When Maltese yacht Elusive 2 won the race last year, the co-skippers were siblings Maya, Aaron and Christoph Podesta. They had served their apprenticeship under the guidance of their late father Arthur Podesta, himself a 35-race veteran and crew member of Josian, which won the inaugural event in 1968.

Middle Sea Race competitors emerge from the historic Grand Harbour in Malta’s capital VallettaMiddle Sea Race competitors emerge from the historic Grand Harbour in Malta’s capital Valletta

Two Rolex Testimonees have fond memories of taking part. US sailing legend Paul Cayard says: “Nothing prepares you for the beauty of the course. The race is truly a classic, with incredible drama and breathtaking backdrops.” Brazilian Robert Scheidt, a five-time Olympic medallist, agrees. “While it is one of the most beautiful races in the world, it is also very tough. When I competed, we faced strong winds and the heaviest sea I’ve ever witnessed in my career. At the finish line we were exhausted, but felt a profound sense of achievement.”

The race takes in the active volcanoes of Etna and Stromboli and a myriad of islandsThe race takes in the active volcanoes of Etna and Stromboli and a myriad of islands

The Middle Sea Race is a test of endurance, even for crews on the fastest yachts. The race record of 47 hours, 55 minutes has not been broken since 2007 and line-honours times in recent years have regularly exceeded 60 hours.

Brazilian sailing legends Robert Scheidt (left) and Torben Grael racing in the Middle Sea RaceBrazilian sailing legends Robert Scheidt (left) and Torben Grael racing in the Middle Sea Race

This supreme test of seamanship comes from the prevailing conditions and the shape of the course. October can be a difficult month in this part of the Mediterranean, bringing strong winds and brutal seas, interspersed with flat calm. As the fleet rounds Sicily, the numerous corners break up the race into distinct sections, each with its own characteristics and obstacles to overcome. The navigational and tactical conundrums stretch even the most experienced sailors. “The race is relentless,” adds Scheidt. “There is no time to rest on your laurels. Your opposition is often within sight and there is constant pressure to be in the best position to take advantage of the next wind shift.” 

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The buildup to the 41st edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Offshore Race from Malta on Saturday (October 17th) continues in Valetta in muted style in line with pandemic restrictions, and while yesterday's traditional preview event, the Yachting Malta Coastal Race, may have been staged in idyllic conditions, it was with a smaller fleet than normal. This had already been expected in the circumstances, but numbers were further reduced by some Middle Sea Race participants being delayed by a storm on their way to Malta.

In conditions which showed the storms are well cleared for the time being, PRO Peter Dimech chose a race of approximately 30nm, starting from outside the Royal Malta Yacht Club, with the fleet rounding the island of Comino before returning to Marsamxett Harbour.

"It was champagne sailing," commented Dimech. "12-15 knots from the southwest building to 18 knots later in the day. There was about a metre of swell on the west coast of Comino, but flatter seas on the east coast."

In the first start, Timofey Zhbankov's Russian JPK 10.80 Rossko got the best start and went on to win their class and place second overall. In the second start, the Podesta family racing Maltese First 45 Elusive 2, the Middle Sea Race Overall winner in 2019, showed the way with great pace out of the harbour, going on to win the race overall after IRC time correction. Rossko was second and Jean-Pierre Dick's French JP54 The Kid – which took line honours - placed third overall on IRC.

round the world races veteran Jean-Pierre Dick's JP54 The Kid Multiple round the world races veteran Jean-Pierre Dick's JP54 The Kid took line honours in yesterday's Malta Coastal Race. He will be sailing his second Middle Sea challenge on Saturday with a Czech crew.

Christophta, co-skipper of Elusive 2, commented after the race: "Last year we showed our potential by winning the Rolex Middle Sea Race overall. We know it is a tough race to win and we are not getting big-headed. We hope we can be faster than in 2019 and win our class. But winning overall is dependent on things beyond our control, yet we can sail to our potential and certainly enjoy the race."

Jean-Pierre Dick's JP54 The Kid took line honours in an elapsed time of 2 hrs 47 mins 39 secs, and she will be sailing her second Rolex Middle Sea Race on Saturday with J-P Dick as skipper. A veteran of three Vendee Globe Races, he won the Barcelona Round the World Race in February 2008 with Ireland's Damian Foxall as co-skipper, resulting in a celebratory reception for the dynamic duo at Aras an Uachtarain in Dublin with President Mary McAleese and her family.

"We are competing with the same Czech-based crew, this race is a lot of fun and I come from Nice, so I love the Mediterranean," commented Dick. "Today's race was a good test for the boat in racing conditions and to practice manoeuvres and sail changes. Some of the boats did not make it for the Coastal Race because of the storm. However, for the Rolex Middle Sea Race there will be fierce competition. This is a different game to the Vendee Globe, but it is a challenge just the same, and this year the race is wide open."

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Cork Harbour rockstar helm Nin O'Leary will be racing the Reichel Pugh 72 Aragon in October's Middle Sea Offshore Race if the Royal Malta Yacht Club can successfully maintain its careful progress through the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, something in which the race's own Maltese competitor Dr Maya Podesta, as Afloat reported here, is playing a key role.

O'Leary of Crosshaven who – if all continues according to plan – will be racing on the Reichel Pugh-designed Mini Maxi Aragon, a Marteen 72 which has shown well on the Mediterranean circuit.

Part of the preparation for this month's race is that all the crews are expected to be fully compliant with the COVID-19 restrctions, including infection-free self-isolation before travelling to Malta.

Doubtless, the names of other Irish participants will emerge as the race time comes nearer on Saturday, October 17th. But for now, we keep our fingers crossed that Dr Podesta and her team can continue to keep the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2020 on track through these exceptionally difficult times.

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Dr Maya Podesta belongs to one of Malta's most noted offshore sailing families. Her late father Arthur (who died in 2015) was a pioneer of the Middle Sea Race – he raced in the first one in 1968, and raced in many thereafter, crewing on the winning boat three times, and taking third overall in command of his own boat Elusive.

With a pedigree like that, Maya Podesta has always been into sailing, and the Rolex Middle Sea Race in particular. With her brothers Aaron and Christoph on the First 45 Elusive, the Podestas are a force to be reckoned with in Mediterranean sailing, and this was underlined in last year's Middle Sea Race, when George David's legendary Rambler 88 may have taken line honours, but Elusive was overall winner.

Thus there was never any question that Elusive would be back as defending champions in 2020. But it has now all come down to whether or not the Royal Malta Yacht Club can successfully maintain its careful progress through the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, something in which Maya Podesta is playing a key role.

The Maltese First 45 Elusive on her way to overall victory for the Podesta family in the 2019 Rolex Middle Sea RaceThe Maltese First 45 Elusive on her way to overall victory for the Podesta family in the 2019 Rolex Middle Sea Race. Photo: Kurt Arrigo

As 2020's race approaches, she is both an entry as the defending champion, and as a medical professional is the Consultant to Malta's Office of the Superintendence of Public Health. The OSPH is closely monitoring the effects of COVID-19 both in Malta and along the 606-mile race course, and will be giving advice as to whether or not the race should go ahead at the highest administrative level in the final stages before the scheduled start on Saturday, October 17th.

It's all being done on a softly-softly, day-by-day approach, and at the moment it's a case of so far, so good, with 79 boats entered from 21 countries, and all the crews fully informed as to what is expected of them by way of compliance, including infection-free self-isolation before travelling to Malta.

We keep our fingers crossed that Dr Podesta and her team can continue to keep the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2020 on track through these exceptionally difficult times.

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The 41st Rolex Middle Sea Race entry list stands at 65 yachts representing 18 countries. It is a remarkable achievement in this extraordinary year. And, while there are less than two months to the race start on 17 October, there will be more twists and turns for both the organisers, the Royal Malta Yacht Club (RMYC), and the prospective competitors before the starting cannon fire in Grand Harbour.

With COVID-19 cases recently on the rise in Malta, the RMYC would like to reassure those competitors who have entered this year’s race and those still considering to do so that it is doing all it can to enable the race to take place. The spread of the pandemic and the national and international governmental measures in response are obviously matters outside of the Club’s control. The headwinds are coming from various directions. “In terms of the operational elements, we are closely following guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation and the Malta Health authorities, and also World Sailing, who have provided considerable best practice advice generally and specifically for offshore races,” explains Dimech. “We are also looking at the best practice of other national federations to ensure we are adopting a comprehensive approach.”

One of the federations, the RMYC has turned to is the Royal Yachting Association in the UK. Its Club Guidance on restarting boating activity and managing COVID-19 has been a very useful resource. The guidance is regularly updated, most recently on 7 August. “We are fortunate to have Gordon Stredwick as the Head of our International Jury,” explains Dimech. “He has helped us expedite the process for locating the most helpful resources.”

The RMYC has appointed a COVID-19 Officer, Mark Vella, a former flag officer of the club. Vella’s brief is to manage the task force addressing the issues raised by the pandemic and the regulations that follow. The most recent measures taken by the Maltese Government to regain control of the infection rate have been to close discos, night clubs, concert halls and bars.

“Naturally, this latest, understandable move impacts our operations,” confirms Vella. “We are actively minimising our impact on the general situation. Cancelling local racing, limiting the activities of the sailing school and accepting, for the moment, that the club cannot be a social hub in the normal sense are initial measures. In spite of this, we continue to move forward with arrangements for the Rolex Middle Sea Race.”

Behind the scenes, the COVID-19 Task Force is addressing shoreside aspects of the race. “We cannot simply carry on as usual,” says Vella. “If we are able to bring international crews to Malta our objective is to make sure they arrive safe and stay safe. Registration, briefings, berthing, scrutineering and social occasions have all been reviewed. We are rethinking, rearranging and, in some cases, simply cancelling.”

In terms of the current entry list, highlights include the presence of the 100-ft Maxi Comanche, a stand-out favourite for monohull line honours and eager to challenge the sub-48 hour race record set in 2007. In terms of multihull line honours Maserati, Ultim’ Emotion and PowerPlay provide a potentially fascinating three-way head-to-head. Last year’s overall race winner, Maltese yacht Elusive 2 has also registered.

For the moment, the RMYC encourages crews to remain positive. “As long as competitors can be flexible, accept the challenges of a shifting scenario and make it to Malta, our aim is to put on a race,” says Dimech, adding: “Assuming it is allowed!”

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While there were no Irish entries in the Middle Sea Race in this fortieth edition that concluded on Friday there was a smattering of a half a dozen or more Irish offshore crew across the 100-boat fleet, achieving some notable results in IRC overall.

The Maltese owned Xp44 Xpresso, in Class IV, skippered by Sean Borg, had some prominent Dublin based sailors onboard when it recorded fifth overall. Reports say Dublin Bay sailors Cian Guilfoyle, a 2015 winning all Ireland crewman, and Rick Johnston were both on board. Also on the X-yacht was Irish Finn Class Sailor Oisin McClelland from Donaghadee in County Down. 

Elsewhere in class four, as previously reported, the National Yacht Club's Willie Despard and Ger Cronin were on board Andrew Hall's Welsh J121 Jackhammer finishing 59th on IRC overall and 16th in class 

Stefan Jentzsch's Class two Careeek 47 Black Pearl was 15th overall with Dublin pro-James Carroll onboard. As regular Afloat readers will know, offshore specialist Carroll was boat captain on Niall Dowling's 2018 Round Ireland winner

Race regular Barry Hurley, the 2009 Ostar winner, took a change of tack and was not sailing onboard his usual X yacht, XpAct. Instead for his 15th edition of the race, he was on the multihull ‘Apollo', a Dazcat 1495 in the MOCRA class. Cork Harbour's Hurley was sailing with owner/skipper Nigel Passmore but did not finish the race according to results

Overall, Maltese yacht Elusive 2, skippered by the Podesta family, and the American Maxi Rambler, owned by the record-breaking George David, took the plaudits in an edition that required steadfast persistence and patience in conditions that veered from the mentally sapping benign to the physically punishing malign. Organised by the Royal Malta Yacht Club (RMYC), the Rolex Middle Sea Race is a captivating platform which demonstrates the appeal and demands of offshore sailing, a discipline with which Rolex has been proudly associated throughout the past five decades.

AN ELUSIVE TRIUMPH

The Podesta family have been part of the fabric of the race since its beginnings in 1968. Arthur Podesta was one of the sailors on Josian, winner of the very first edition. As a crew member, Podesta would again experience success in 1970 and 1983, before becoming Commodore of the RMYC in the 1990s. When he passed away in 2015, Podesta had competed in all 35 races held to that point.

Embarking on race campaigns as skipper of his own yacht from 2002, he made the point of including his then teenage children – Maya, Aaron and Christoph – in the crew. All three have inherited their father’s passion and maintain the tradition of a Podesta always being on the start line of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. The trio have honed their skills and experiences year on year, frequently winning their class, often claiming top ten finishes, but never quite reaching the top, until this year.

“Preparations for next year always start immediately after the present race has finished,” admits Christoph Podesta who, despite the crew’s detailed and rigorous preparation, was pessimistic ahead of this year’s race. “The first half was going to be downwind and light which doesn’t suit us. Our goal was to keep ourselves in the right position until we rounded Favignana.” This they did with aplomb. Once the wind strength intensified at the northwest corner of Sicily, Elusive 2 made the most of the upwind sailing to the finish, prevailing in the face of a seriously testing and uncomfortable sea state. Confirmation that the Podestas and their crew fully deserved their success is evident throughout, but perhaps the need to overcome defending champion Courrier Recommandé, which finished second overall, is the clearest affirmation. “The name Elusive has been associated with the race for 18 years and it is an unbelievable achievement to win against the best,” remarked Aaron Podesta.

The 606-nautical mile race is the focus of the all-Corinthian, predominantly Maltese crew’s annual yacht racing calendar. The victory was born of intricate knowledge of a complex racecourse, built over many years. It also reflects the legacy of the Podesta children's father, who introduced them to the sport and passed on his enthusiasm. “Deep down it means a lot more than we may ever realise,” said Maya. “What we have done is thanks to him.”

FIVE IN A ROW FOR RAMBLER

Line honours victor in all six of his Rolex Middle Sea Races – including in every one since 2015 – George David’s Rambler, at 27m (88-ft) the largest yacht in the fleet, was the emphatic favourite to finish first. The more tantalising ambition was to beat the race record David had set in 2007 with one of his previous boats.

Rambler had undergone significant optimisation over the past winter to improve performance in lighter wind conditions. The attention to detail was vindicated, when her exceptional crew secured line honours wins at this year’s Rolex Giraglia and Rolex Fastnet Race. The credentials for a record run were in place, if the weather gods were gracious.

They were not. The first half of the race, north towards the notorious Strait of Messina, on to the volcanic island of Stromboli and, then, to Favignana on the north-west corner of Sicily, was painfully slow. The Rambler crew performed admirably, avoiding wind holes and always moving. Despite a Herculean effort and unrelenting persistence, they were unable to better the race record of 47 hours, 55 minutes and three seconds which stands for another year. “This is a great race,” said David. “It is challenging to keep it all together and we take huge satisfaction in taking line honours for the fifth consecutive time”.

At the final prizegiving, the Podesta siblings and the Elusive 2 crew were awarded the Rolex Middle Sea Race Trophy in acknowledgement of their remarkable achievement. The pursuit of excellence and the perpetual passion for sailing, this great race in particular, makes Elusive 2 a worthy winner.

Results are here.

Published in Middle Sea Race
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The 40th edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Offshore Race has continued to provide plenty of twists and turns. For many yachts the race is over; they are tied up to the dock, enjoying the hospitality of the Royal Malta Yacht Club or the historic city of Valletta. Some 54 yachts have completed the course to date. With 17 yachts officially retired, a further 42 are still out on the course. The wind in the Sicily channel finally started abating today and a transition zone is moving eastwards from the western Mediterranean. Later tonight (Thursday, 24 October) a north-westerly flow will start to dominate.

The standings in all classes are beginning to take shape and the overall picture is now in sharp focus. This afternoon, at 16:30 CEST, the Maltese First 45 Elusive 2 was announced as the overall winner of the 2019 Rolex Middle Sea Race.

Late last night it had looked likely that 2018 race winner, Géry Trentesaux’s Courrier Recommandé (FRA), might be the first yacht to win the race back-to-back since Nita IV won three in a row between 1978 and 1980. As it was, the Blackwater incident on Day 4 (Tuesday), which saw a number of yachts standing by to lend assistance to the dismasted catamaran, ended up influencing the results. The Jury had to sit for several hours today hearing requests for redress from the crews involved. At the end of the final hearing the results were recalculated. Elusive 2 had moved into the lead with a margin of 15 minutes.

For the Podesta siblings - Aaron, Christoph and Maya - racing the yacht and, indeed, their mother Christine ashore – this is a massive moment. The three have raced together every Rolex Middle Sea Race since 2002, except 2014 the year of Aaron’s marriage. When they first started racing as a trio, it was with their father, Arthur, who in turn had taken part in every race since 1968 until his untimely death in 2015. For the Podesta children to continue the family legacy is a commitment of effort and emotion.

Arthur won the race, himself, as crew on three occasions with Josian in 1968, Tikka in 1970 and Saudade in 1983. The only minor blemish on his otherwise impressive record was that he never won the race as skipper of his own yacht; something he tried very hard to do. Significantly, though, his knowledge, experience and, above all, passion for the race have been passed onto his children. All three are exceptional sailors in their own right. This win is a tremendous confirmation of their talent and determination. It is equally affirmation of the lessons learnt with their father.

“Our father was with us on the boat and everything that we have managed is down to him and for him,” said an emotional Maya. “The race itself has meant a lot to us for a long time and this result is 18 years in the making. We started racing because my dad wanted us to join him. We quickly picked up the bug, and we have always wanted to climb up the ladder, and now we have done it.”

“A huge portion of this race is preparation, as soon as we finished last year's race we started preparing for this year,” advised Christoph. “The boat was fantastic, it did not fail us in any way and that was a big part of our success. Winning this race is a massive achievement for us, the whole crew is family and friends.”

“This win hasn't sunk in yet. All of our sailing is planned around this race, it affects our family plans, but the whole family realise how important it is to us,” explained Aaron. “Their support gives us the possibility of putting in so much preparation. This is the top, the name Elusive has been associated with the race for 18 years and it is an unbelievable achievement to win against the best.”

Elusive’s arrival at 19:31 last night was the beginning of 24 more hours of activity at the finish as 26 more yachts filed in, a number helping to complete class podiums. The stories from the boats were primarily focused upon the extraordinary upwind conditions encountered on the leg from Pantelleria. For most, the wind had not been the problem. It was the waves that posed the greatest danger. Short, steep and increasing in size as the wind built, yachts were subjected to jarring and slamming as they punched through to Lampedusa. On the following leg to Comino, the angle was a little easier, but it was still an upwind fetch.

Elusive was not the only yacht to receive a time deduction from the Jury. Four Xp 44s, that enjoyed a colossal scrap throughout the race were all awarded time for lending their support. In the end, it was Sean Borg’s Xpresso that won through, beating their Maltese sistership Xp-act, co-skippered by 14-year-old Richard Schultheis on his first race and Timmy Camilleri on his 26th race, by 30 minutes on corrected time.

In IRC 6, Ludovic Gérard's JPK 10.80 Solenn (FRA) has provisionally won IRC 6. This is the French team’s second race. In 2018, they lost out to Timofey Zhbankov's JPK 10.80 Rossko (RUS) in class by just 30 minutes on corrected time. This year, racing in the largest class of 25 crews, Solenn and Rossko engaged in a 606nm match race. Arriving this morning, half an hour apart, Solenn won by just four seconds on corrected time in a dramatic finish at the Royal Malta Yacht Club.

“Can you imagine how intense that was? Winning by just four seconds is peanuts, it is just one bad tack,” commented Ludovic Gérard. “The first two or three days were difficult, we had very little wind and at Messina for example we struggled with the current.” As for the competition presented by Rossko, Gérard was full of admiration. “We were rarely apart for the whole race,” he continued. “At Lampedusa, we did make a break from them. We thought that the wind would change direction, so we went south while they went to the west. We ended up two miles behind.” It was on the final short leg from Comino to the finish, that Solenn made the decisive move, heading inshore.

The smallest boat in this year's Rolex Middle Sea Race is Pegasus (ITA), the Akilaria 950. Just 9.5m (31ft) and raced double-handed by Francesco Conforto and Roberto Rovito, at sunset on the fifth day of the race (Wednesday 23 October), Pegasus was approaching Pantelleria. Conforto and Rovito decided to pull in to assess the weather conditions for the final 200 miles of the race. “We made the difficult decision to retire,” commented Conforto. “There was too much wind and the waves were sometimes over four metres high. The wind is due to turn northwest, which will mean the sea will be even more agitated. We felt that it was not safe for Pegasus to continue.”

The Pegasus crew has every intention of making the prize giving in Malta this Saturday. They will not be disappointed. A Maltese win, and perhaps especially this one, will be cause for an even bigger celebration than usual.

Published in Middle Sea Race
Tagged under
Page 2 of 9

William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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