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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.

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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.

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The fifth day of the 40th edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Offshore Race has been a bountiful one on the docks of the Royal Malta Yacht Club, as yachts start to finish in numbers and tales of the race are shared. The strong winds to the west of Sicily have, as predicted, begun to affect the contest for the overall prize. Rambler’s near 24-hour tenure at the top was ended by Black Pearl’s arrival early this morning. The turnovers then came thick and fast and, at press time, the ClubSwan 42 BeWild is sitting atop the pile. With 84 yachts on the course, including three yet to round Favignana at the halfway point of the racetrack, there is plenty of racing left.

The Rolex Fastnet Race winners Richard and David Askew, with the Volvo 70 Wizard, were the second yacht to finish, arriving just after midnight on Wednesday morning. Never really in contention for the overall race win after a less than perfect start followed by a difficult opening passage to the Strait of Messina, the American maxi finally asserted her ocean-racing pedigree in the open water after Favignana. On what has been a fetch from Lampedusa, Wizard was able to stretch away from a group formed of R’92 Pendragon (HUN), Wild Joe (HUN), Aegir (GBR) and Aragon (POL), which had been snapping at her heels. These four yachts eventually finished in a 50-minute window between 05:00 and 06:00 CEST. The first three within 8 minutes of each other.

"The strong winds have begun to affect the contest for the overall prize"

When Black Pearl (GER) crossed the line at 08:24 CEST, the crew were clearly elated to have completed the course and to have topped their class (IRC 2) in the process. There was a sense that too many boats were still at sea for any thoughts to turn to greater glory. Theirs had been a hard race, especially the second half. “This boat is built for reaching and downwind more than upwind, so whenever we go upwind it is like a rodeo. You get bounced around, it’s hard to catch a nap and it’s even harder to cook. Boiling water becomes a hazard,” explained owner, Stefan Jentzsch. “It was tough, but every year there is a tough part and that is what we like about the Rolex Middle Sea Race. It was a fun race and we’ll have to see about the result. There are great competitors out there and I am sure they will give us a hard time to the very end. The best boat will win as always.”

Half an hour later, the first of the two Cookson 50s arrived. Franco Niggeler’s Kuka 3 (SUI) beat Brian McMaster’s Riff Raff by 30 minutes on the water. Then, just as the lunch crowd was gathering on the deck of the RMYC, the ICE52 PrimaVista-Lauria, skippered by Italian Olympian and round the world sailor, Pietro D’Ali, and whose crew included Olympian and 49er World Champion, Gabriele Bruni from Sicily, crossed the line. Already winners of the Rolex Middle Sea Coastal Race, PrimaVista-Lauria slipped into the overall lead of the Class 3 and more significantly event by 40 minutes.

“We have a very good crew and we know each other very well, so we were pushing the speed of the boat all the time,” commented D'Ali. “We played the shifts very well and never stopped, especially on the northern part of Sicily, where there were many holes in the wind. It was like inshore racing.” One of many key points on the course was the approach to San Vito Lo Capo. “We went offshore at the right time, just before the big wind hole inshore near Trapani,” advised D’Ali. This was very important, as we knew after rounding Favigana, the south-easterly would fill in.”

PrimaVista-Lauria was followed across the line by two more yachts featuring world sailing stars, this time two short-handed round the world sailors from France. Seb Josse on Frederic Puzin’s Corum-Daguet 2 and Jean-Pierre Dick skippering the The Kid.

The next major arrival was Lee Satariano’s Maltese entry, Artie III, with Christian Ripard in the crew. A two-time winner of the race, Satariano’s latest boat is a step up from previous projects based on production yachts. Artie III is an HH42 and as the crew reached the RMYC dock to the cheers of the assembled crowd, it was clear they had endured, as well as enjoyed, the race.

Satariano, on his 13th race, expressed real satisfaction with the boat, but admitted they have a long way to go to get her up to full speed. He was also very complimentary about his crew, a mix of experience, youth and skill, some of whom were on the race for the first time. “It’s good to be back after a couple of years away. I’m really happy with the boat,” said Satariano. “For a first race with this boat, part of long learning process, we have gained a lot. We can really work on improving her now. The crew have worked really hard, especially young ones and especially when it got really tough in the last part.”

“I can’t really pinpoint any one part of the race that was the hardest tactically, but the first night was very hard,” said tactician Christian Ripard, on his 30th race. “We suffered because we are lacking some of the right sails, but we picked the right moves. And, we were with the big boys to Capo San Vito, when the wind came.”

After a slow start, the race turned into a true test of stamina and determination. “It was truly rough after Pantelleria,” said Ripard. “We didn’t manage any cooking from yesterday morning on. The boat is very fast, but it’s really brutal. Very hard to stay in one’s bunk. It was better sitting on the rail, but then the watch system goes out of whack. Fortunately, we are a lot of good sailors and could rotate.”

At 15:40 CEST, BeWild, the leader in Class 4, crossed the line leapfrogging into first place by just over an hour. “We have sailed this race seven times and the weather has always been different,” commented Renzo Grottesi. “BeWild is a good boat in light air, but it was difficult to decide which way to go. Then, for the last 200 miles, we were in strong winds. The humour on board and working as a team made us strong. It is a long race, with very strong competition, and you only relax when you have finished.”

The twists and turns are far from done. Boats due in later this evening are in with a chance of podium places if the wind holds, particularly between Comino and Marsamxett Harbour where it has been directly on the nose and slow-going for the tired crews.

18:00 CEST IRC Class Analysis
Based on Provisional Results/Tracker Positions

IRC 1 (distances where stated are from finish)
George David Maxi Rambler (USA)
Fabio Cannavale Baltic 78 Lupa of the Sea (ITA)
Przemyslaw Tarnacki Marten 72 Aragon (POL)

IRC 2
Stefan Jentzsch Carkeek 47 Black Pearl (GER)
Eric de Turckheim NMYD54 Teasing Machine (FRA)
Gerard Logel IRC52 Arobas² (FRA)

IRC 3
Pietro D'Ali ICE52 PrimaVista-Lauria (ITA)
Frederic Puzin Mylius 15 Corum Daguet2 (FRA)
Daniel Adrián Sydney 43GTS Adrian Hoteles Macaronesia (ESP) 5nm

IRC 4
Podesta Family First 45 Elusive 2 (MLT) 7nm
Renzo Grottesi ClubSwan 42 BeWild (ITA)
Arto Linnervuo Xp-44 Xtra Staerk (FIN) 15nm

IRC 5
Géry Trentesaux JPK 11.80 Courrier Recommandé (FRA) 12nm
Tom Kneen JPK 11.80 Sunrise (GBR) 30nm
Peter Gustafsson J/111 Blur (SWE) 36nm

IRC 6
Jaques Pelletier Milon 41 L'Ange de Milon (FRA) 61nm
Ludovic Gerard JPK 10.80 Solenn (FRA) 116nm
Timofey Zhbankov JPK 10.80 Rossko (RUS) 114nm

IRC DH
Daniel Martín Figaro II Inteman (ESP) 149nm
Martin Hartl/Harald Wolf J/109 2Hard (AUT) 201nm
Fabiijan Roic Akilara 40 Crazy (CRO) 126nm

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Rambler crossed the finish line of the 40th edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Offshore Race at 08:13:00 CEST on Tuesday, 22 October, completing the 606nm course in a time of 2 days 19 hours 43 minutes

The Rambler Crew were: George David, Brad Butterworth, Andrea Visintini, Rodney Ardern, Will McCarthy, Dean Phipps, Stuart Wilson, Mark Newbrook, Jan Dekker, Brian Giorgio, Scott Beavis, Simon Daubney, Peter van Niekerk, Joca Signorini, Curtis Blewett, Antonio Cuervas Mons, Jerry Kirby, Anthony Nossiter.

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The 40th Edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race is doing its best to leave a mark on the history of the famous 606nm offshore race. For the moment, that mark appears somewhat black. While George David’s American maxi Rambler powers south towards Lampedusa, the rest of the fleet have been left contemplating another night of slow progress. If the first 24 hours were frustrating for the majority of the fleet, the following 24 have been equally as painful.

Rambler is the only yacht to so far have escaped the clutches of the great Sicilian wind shadow, formed off the northern coast. Rounding Favignana this morning at around 09:30 CEST, the crew switched on the afterburners, relatively speaking, and sped to Pantelleria at 15 knots passing the island at 15:10 CEST. Rambler is now marching on to the southernmost corner of the racecourse and has taken the overall lead of the race under IRC. Behind Rambler, the competitive juices still flow strong despite the struggle, all competing yachts are through the Strait of Messina and more than half the fleet have rounded Stromboli.

Jackhammer william despardNational Yacht Club sailor William Despard on the Welsh J121 Jackhammer passing Stromboli in this week's slow going Middle Sea Race
Monte Monaco, overlooking San Vito Lo Capo is a favourite with hikers and climbers. It offers a spectacular view over the gulf of Castellammare to the east and, on a clear day, a glimpse of the island of Ustica to the northeast. For most of today, there have been yachts spreading back from an imaginary line running north from Bagheria, 10km east of Palermo, all the way to beyond the Aeolian Islands. Anyone looking northeast today may well have been mistaken for thinking there was a gathering invasion fleet on the horizon. Throughout the day, a growing second row of frontrunners has been struggling against a virtual barrier.

Just like a marathon runner running out of steam and hitting the wall, the minds of the crews have been willing, the fighting spirit intact, but the legs or, in this case the sails, have simply not obliged. There is wind on the course. Without question at Favignana, where a strong southerly is filling the channel between Sicily and North Africa, and seemingly so between Stromboli and the invisible wall. Yachts that appeared out of the running yesterday have closed the gap on, and in some cases joined, the leading group. Stefan Jentzsch’s Carkeek 47 Black Pearl (GER), Erik de Turkheim’s NMYD 54 Teasing Machine (FRA), Gaudenz Troesch’s Marten 49 Ginger (SUI) are three yachts to have taken advantage of the early leaders’ suffering. Any elation would be short-lived as the lack of wind sucked the life out of their efforts.

Yachts are beginning to move, and hope is in sight. At press time, Marton Jozsa’s RP60 Wild Joe (HUN), the second-placed monohull on the water, is recording 6.5 knots and Gerard Logel’s IRC 52 Arobas2 (FRA), just to the south, is at 6 knots. David and Peter Askew’s Rolex Fastnet winning Volvo 70 Wizard (USA), which has also joined the group, is clocking similar speeds. Renzo Grottesi’s ClubSwan 42 BeWild (ITA) is still in this pack, now lying second overall in the IRC standings, according to the tracker. The 42-footer has also, finally been overhauled on the water by Lee Satariano’s HH42 Artie III, the leading Maltese yacht. With some 65nm to go to the corner at Favignana, there are still some 10 hours before these yachts reach Nirvana and fresher winds.

Spirits remain high among the crews, particularly those at the back of the fleet, the furthest from the finish. In IRC 6, two JPK 10.80s have renewed their rivalry from last year. In 2018, Timofey Zhbankov's Rossko (RUS) won the class with Ludovic Gérard's Solenn (FRA) taking second place. This year, after 200nm of racing the two teams are within sight of each other. “We are one mile behind Rossko and chasing them for first in our class ranking,” commented Gérard, as the French team approached Stromboli. “Our navigator Pierre Quiroga is struggling to design our strategy north of Sicily with a very large area of calm winds.” After Stromboli, Solenn looked to have chosen to stay close to the rhumb-line while Rossko gybed south.

Goran Vlahovic's Elan 450 Adio Pameti (CRO) exited the Strait of Messina almost exactly 48 hours after starting. The Croatian team have over 400nm to go to complete the Rolex Middle Sea Race and lie 108th on the water. The mood on board is still good. “It is really hard to manage this unbelievably calm sea, but we are all very pleased to enjoy this wonderful race,” commented Vlahovic. The spirit on board is really great. We hope to finish the regatta in time and that will be our great victory.”

In the Double-handed Class, Daniel Martin’s Figaro II Inteman (ESP) rounded Stromboli at just about noon. The only other double-hander to have rounded the volcanic island is Fabiijan Roic’s Akilara 40, Crazy (CRO), about an hour earlier in the day. Inteman, though, is leading the IRC class according to the tracker. “We are having a very good race. We are both well and very happy,” advised Martin. “We have a really nice view of Stromboli for the moment. There’s lots to see, but not a lot of wind. We don’t expect much for many hours to come, but we’re strong!”

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For a second year in a row, the first 36 hours of the Rolex Middle Sea Offshore Race have proved extremely challenging, testing the patience and commitment of the 113 crews participating. Yesterday’s light wind start, was followed by a light wind passage north to Sicily. Overnight, most boats maintained momentum before the wind shut down for much of the fleet around day-break. A leading group of yachts have managed to capitalise on what wind was available and are breaking through into the Tyrrhenian Sea, while the vast majority are yet to reach Etna.

George David’s Rambler (USA) exited the Messina Strait just before midday and double-headed reached towards Stromboli in a predominantly easterly wind. Rounding shortly after 17:00 CEST, Rambler has virtually matched her performance of 2018. At press time, eleven yachts, including the leading multihull Ad Maiora (ITA), were on the leg to the active volcanic island

In terms of fleet position, the American 88-footer benefited from passing through the strait just before the tide turned foul and stretched her advantage as those behind struggled. While 12 hours off the 2007 record pace, the crew will be encouraged by their improving position and the prospect of securing a fifth consecutive line honours title.

Behind, the picture has been evolving constantly. At sunrise, the maxi had a lead of 10nm over Marton Jozsa’s RP60 Wild Joe (HUN). Two hours later the gap had stretched to 15nm and Wild Joe, on her own when the sun came up, found herself being rapidly caught by a group of yachts including Aragon (POL), Lupa of the Sea (ITA), R92 Pendragon (HUN) and, impressively, the French 52-footer Arobas2. Three hours later, as Rambler started the leg to Stromboli, the gap was 20nm, roughly the length of the infamous strait.

Having rounded Stromboli, the northernmost point on the course, Rambler is now on her way to Palermo. Wild Joe, Arobas2 and Kuka 3 (SUI) passed through the narrow channel separating Sicily from the mainland three hours in arrears, with Wizard (USA) next to follow. The gap to the leader is holding for the moment and whether it extends will depend greatly on the conditions encountered post-Stromboli.

The forecast shows predominantly light easterly winds for the passage across the north of Sicily. A localised area of higher wind pressure looks possible between Alicudi and Palermo, and this could benefit Rambler. Around Palermo, the southerly influence looks likely to increase, with the wind clocking to the southeast. There may then be a zone of very little wind to negotiate. That all said, the models are not consistent and the overall picture remains as uncertain today as it did before the race.

Further back in the fleet, it has been a strange story. After everyone made slow, painful and dogged progress to Capo Passero overnight, at a point around 08:00 CEST, the wind gods appear to have played a mean trick just abeam of Siracusa. A number of boats closer to the land picked up some breeze and started moving steadily north gaining separation on those further offshore and to the south. Yachts of quite different sizes benefited. The 82-foot Aegir (FRA) and 70-foot Wizard found themselves just ahead of the 42-foot yachts, the ClubSwan 42 BeWild (ITA) and Artie III (MLT). As the favoured yachts continued to progress, the rest came to a virtual standstill. BeWild, currently leading overall under IRC according to the tracker, confirmed this potentially significant development in the race.

Navigator, Manuel Polo, spoke to the media centre this afternoon. “It has been very difficult. None of the weather models have been correct and we concentrated on finding thermal winds yesterday evening,” explained Polo. “We went to the right on the approach to Sicily. Then we came back in at Capo Passero. At Capo Porco (near Siracusa) we were very, very lucky and could reach the same pressure as the bigger boats. We then had a straight-line sail to Reggio di Calabria, where we are now.”

Polo’s biggest concern is the next major passage. “We are really enjoying the race,” he said. “But we are finding it very difficult to understand the winds on top of Sicily. We think it will be very light from Stromboli to Palermo and we are not yet sure whether to go inshore or offshore.”

BeWild’s position relative to her immediate competitors shows the immensity of the advantage gained in that one moment this morning. As the Italian crew look forward to exiting the strait before sunset this evening, only three other boats are in the narrow stretch of water – Corum Daguet (FRA), Prima Vista-Lauria (ITA) and Artie III. The next boat in BeWild’s class IRC 4 is Albator (FRA), some 35nm behind BeWild.

Of the 11 Maltese boats in the race, Lee Satariano's HH42 Artie III currently enjoys a substantial lead on the water, 30nm ahead of Sean Borg's Xp-44 Xpresso, which is having a great battle with Timmy Camilleri and Richard Schultheis’ Xp44 Xp-act. Both teams are racing under spinnaker within sight of each other and leading the chasing pack of Maltese boats.

The Podesta family, racing First 45 Elusive 2, has made a move towards the Sicilian coast, which may have cost some northing but, strategically, should offer a better angle to enter the strait. Jonathan & Gerald Gambin's Ton Ton Laferla Insurance has followed the line of Elusive 2, 10nm astern. Jamie Sammut's Solaris 42 Unica is tussling with Ramon Sant Hill & Melle Boersma's Farr45 Comanche Raider III. The two Jarhead Young Sailors Foundation J/109s are enjoying a close battle. Andrea Azzopardi's JYS Jarhead is just ahead of the all-female team racing JYS Jan skippered by Gabriella Mifsud.

18:00 CEST Class Analysis Based on Tracker Positions

The light air conditions throughout the day have played havoc with the fleet standings. With light airs forecast to persist on the eastern seaboard of Sicily, those on the leg to Stromboli or at the very least in the Messina Strait should expect to increase any advantage gained to date.

The overall winner of the Rolex Middle Sea Race is decided by the best corrected time under the IRC Rating Rule. Renzo Grottesi's Be Wild continues to be in pole position for the moment with the IRC52 Arobas2 skippered by Gerard Logel in second and Franco Niggeler’s Cookson 50, Kuka 3 in third.

IRC 1
The smallest yacht in the big boat class, Marton Jozsa's Wild Joe is 12nm from Stromboli and leads from Fabio Cannavale's Baltic 78 Lupa of the Sea and Przemek Tarnacki's Marten 72 Aragon.

IRC 2
Arobas² is 15nm from Stromboli and leads the Cookson 50 pair of Kuka 3 and
Brian McMaster's Riff Raff. Milan Tomek, who finished second overall in 2018 on Bohemia Praha, and is on board Jean Pierre Dick's The Kid, called in just as the team were passing Mount Etna. “Today was a hard day for us because The Kid is a boat that needs much stronger wind. We did our best, we must have changed sails 'one million times'! We really enjoyed the view of Etna, because the sun was shining. We hope to get more wind over the next few days.”

IRC 3
The ICE 52 PrimaVista-Lauria (ITA), skippered by Gabriele Bruni, is at Punta del Faro at the northern mouth to the Messina Strait and leads Frederic Puzin's Corum – Daguet 2 and Lee Satariano's Artie III

IRC 4
BeWild is approaching Punto del Faro, with the next two in class, Arto Linnervuo's Xp 44 Xtra Staerk (FIN) and Xpresso, yet to enter the strait

IRC 5
Tom Kneen's JPK 11.80 Sunrise (GBR) is offshore just passing Mount Etna, leading Daniel Martan's Figaro II Inteman (ESP) and Peter Gustafsson's J/111 Blur (SWE) on handicap.

IRC 6
The Sun Fast 3200, Desperado (FRA), leads the JPK 10.30 Jeanne (FRA) and Timofey Zhbankov’s JPK 10.80 Rossko (RUS).

IRC DH
Inteman holds the lead over Igor Rytov’s JPK 10.80 Bogatyr (RUS) and the J/122 Linea Rossa – Shaker (TUR)

Multihull/MOCRA
Ad Maiora on the final approach to Stromboli is leading Nigel Passmore’s Dazcat 1495, Apollo, and the Christiaan Durrant skippered XS35 Blackwater (AUS).

Yacht Tracker here.

Published in Offshore
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19th October 2019

40th Middle Sea Race Underway

The 2019 Rolex Middle Sea Race, the 40th edition of the 606nm classic offshore, set off from Grand Harbour today with Irish crews among its number.

A fleet of 113 yachts, separated into seven starts, were wafted on their way by a very gentle northerly breeze that sent cat’s paws across the harbour, and left plenty of traps for the unsuspecting. No matter, for the competitors – both professional and Corinthian – the start is just the beginning of a challenge that is not meant to be easy.

By 17:00 CEST, the fleet was making slow progress en route towards Capo Passero and the southernmost point of Sicily. On the water, Italian trimaran, Ad Maiora has a slim lead over the leading monohull, Rambler (USA), with the 34-foot catamaran Blackwater (AUS) just behind. Yachts are hugging the rhumb-line and the wind is a light southwesterly of around 8 knots.

William Despard SailingThe National Yacht Club sailor William Despard on the deck of Andrew Hall's Jackhammer from Pwllheli before the start of the Middle Sea Race

Grand Harbour, Valletta, is a majestic environment on any day. For the start of an offshore race it is exceptional. Overlooked by the fortified city of Valletta, to the west, and The Three Cities, to the east, with a narrow exit through the breakwaters, it is a rare sight filled with yachts. Thousands of well-wishers gathered on the shoreline and on the water add to the festive air.

With very little wind to speak of at 11:00 CEST, when the first warning signal was fired by the cannons of the Saluting Battery, there was some concern that the multihulls would struggle to get away, when their class gun was due 10 minutes later. As it was, the best starts were achieved by the four-man crew of the tiny Blackwater, skippered by Christiaan Durrant, and the more luxuriously appointed Apollo (GBR), skippered by Nigel Passmore. Bruno Cardile and the ORMA 60, Ad Maiora, took their time to wind up and cross the line. Once in motion, they quickly overhauled the two early leaders and were first out of the harbour, followed by Blackwater. Meanwhile, the Outremer 55, Asia (ITA), was having a nightmare, struggling to get across the line and taking some 40 minutes to reach the breakwater. Given the slow progress, Peter Dimech and the Royal Malta Yacht Club Race Committee wisely delayed the next start.

Class 6, the biggest in the fleet with 27 boats, eventually set off 20 minutes later than scheduled. Comprising some of the smallest boats, and including a number of double-handers, it was congested and close fought. Exiting the harbour first has little impact on the overall race result, but it is a big fillip for the crew that achieves the feat. The Sun Fast 3600 Bellino (GBR) absolutely nailed the start and the crew kept their wits to win this first battle. Behind, Timofey Zhbankov’s JPK 10.80 Rossko (RUS), winners of IRC 6 in 2018, JYS Jan (MLT), the all-female-crewed J/109 skippered by Gabriella Mifsud with Clipper Race star Nikki Henderson, and Gerard Ludovic’s JPK 10.80 Solenn (FRA), second in IRC 6 last year, were line abreast having worked their way clear of the pack.

There were 21 yachts on the line in Class 5. Given this group contained the 2018 Rolex Middle Sea Race winner, Géry Trentesaux’s JPK 11.80 Courrier Recommandé (FRA) and the JPK 11.80 Sunrise (GBR) with John Jr and Tom Ripard in the crew, it was a surprise to see Andrey Arbuzov’s Beneteau 44.7 Courrier de Coeur (RUS) making the running with the J/111 Blur (SWE) and the Comet 41S O’Guerriero (ITA) in hot pursuit. Despite the wind resisting the temptation to fill in, there was enough to keep the boats moving if their crews kept a close eye on the puffs.

The Podesta family’s First 45 Elusive 2 (MLT) made a strong start in middle of the 24 boat Class 4, but was quickly overhauled by Philippe Frantz’s NM43 Albator (FRA), and Laurentiu Gaitan’s X-Treme 37 Africana (ROU). BeWild (ITA), the ClubSwan 42 also made the best of the shimmering breeze and was among the front-runners. The Timmy Camilleri/Richard Schultheis co-skippered Xp44 Xp-act (MLT) seemed to make hard work of the start and were trailing their sister ship Xtra Staerk (FIN) for much of the harbour beat. The combination of Camilleri’s experience and the 14-year-old Schultheis’ skill, was enough to get them out of the harbour eventually just behind BeWild and ahead of their direct competitors.

Prima Vista-Lauria (ITA), winner of the 2019 Rolex Middle Sea Coastal Race, continued to perform well, with a good start in the 14-boat Class 3. The Marten 49 Ginger (SUI) was close by, while Lee Satariano’s HH42 Artie III (MLT), with Christian Ripard on the helm, lifted off from the Fort St. Angelo (pin end) of the line with Frogfoot (RUS) in close company. Taking a rhumb-line route from the harbour, Frogfoot and Prima Vista-Lauria appeared to have the edge on Artie, which headed in to the Valletta shore much to the delight of the crowds in the Lower Barrakka Gardens, enjoying the hospitality of the Royal Malta Yacht Club’s reception. The two-time winning crew on the Maltese boat will not be too disturbed to have been behind at this point.

The 10-boat Class 2 featured a number of the big guns. Anxious to get a good start and a clean lane, the TP52 Anafesto (NED) appeared to jump the start early and had to return. This left Gerard Logel’s IRC 52 Arobas² (FRA) free to make good headway towards the harbour entrance. The crew of Stefan Jentzsch’s Carkeek 47 Black Pearl (GER) quietly went about their business, overhauled Arobas²2 and had established clear air between them and a chasing pack comprising Teasing Machine (FRA), Kuka 3 (SUI) and Riff Raff (GBR) on exiting Grand Harbour.

The final start at 12:30 CEST was reserved for the largest monohulls. The Rogers 82 Aegir (GBR), chartered by American Clarke Murphy with Ian Budgen on tactics and Mike Broughton navigating made a cracking start, and not for the first time at the Rolex Middle Sea Race. The RP60 Wild Joe (HUN), skippered by Marton Josza with ocean race veteran Stu Bannatyne in the crew and the smallest yacht in the group, also made an excellent fist of it, as did the Marten 72 Aragon, crewed by a group of Polish sailors led by Przemek Tarnacki, whose father Bronislaw Tarnacki took part in the very first Whitbread Race in 1973.

In what looked decidedly like the second row, the light airs were causing some consternation as the larger, ocean racers took their time to get up to speed. It took half the harbour for line honours favourite Rambler to assert her authority and escape the attentions of her smaller rivals. Telefonica Black had the honour of being last boat to leave Grand Harbour.

17:00 CEST Class Analysis Based on Tracker Positions
The light air conditions continued after the start with the fleet experiencing about 8 knots of gradient breeze from the southwest. George David's Maxi Rambler is leading the monohull fleet having covered 26 nm. A pack of five boats is four miles astern, Pendragon (HUN), Arobas², Wild Joe, Wizard (USA), and Aragon. In the MOCRA Class, Bruno Cardile's Ad Maiora has the honour of not only leading the multihull fleet, but is also two miles ahead of Rambler. The Dazcat 1495 Apollo looks to be leading the MOCRA Class after time correction.

The overall winner of the Rolex Middle Sea Race is decided by the best corrected time under the IRC Rating Rule. Renzo Grottesi's BeWild appears to be in pole position, with the ICE52 PrimaVista-Lauria skippered by Pietro D'Ali in second and Philippe Frantz's in third, just ahead of Courrier Recommandé.

IRC 1
Aragon leads Wild Joe with Fabio Cannavale's Baltic 78 Lupa of the Sea (ITA) in third.

IRC 2
Arobas² leads Black Pearl with Franco Niggeler's Cookson 50 Kuka 3 in third, just ahead of sistership, Brian McMaster's Riff Raff.

IRC 3
PrimaVista-Lauria leads from Artie III with Frederic Puzin's Corum – Daguet2 (FRA), with ocean racer Seb Josse aboard, in third.

IRC 4
BeWild leads from Albator and Arto Linnervuo's Xp 44 Xtra Staerk (FIN) in third

IRC 5
Courrier Recommandé leads Gianrocco Catalano's First 40 Mon Ile (ITA) with Peter Gustafsson's J/111 Blur in third

IRC 6
Igor Rytov's JPK 10.80 Bogatyr (RUS) leads from Leonardo Petti's J/109 Chestress (ITA) with JYS Jan in third.

IRC Double Handed
Bogatyr leads Marco Paolucci's Comet 45 Libertine (ITA) in second and Rob Craigie's Bellino (GBR) in third.

Published in Offshore
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Solo sailor Joan Mulloy of Mayo has teamed up as co-skipper with France’s Alexia Barrier on the latter’s veteran IMOCA 60 4Myplanet to become the only all-female crew in the 30-strong IMOCA 60 Class in the 12,000 mile Transat Jacques Vabre, which starts next weekend from Le Havre, headed for a finish in Bahia in Brazil.

In all, there’ll be 67 boats on the line at Le Havre in three classes in an event which last month brought aboard an additional sponsorship partner in the Normandy Region. This reflects the increasingly positive corporate approach of French regional administrations to major sailing events, where the pace has been set by the Vendee Region with their pillar event, the four-yearly Vendee Globe non-stop solo round the world race, which has succeeded in raising the profile of the relatively little-known Vendee to a new international awareness.

alexia barrier2Alexia Barrier, tired but happy after completing another solo challenge. Her finish in last year’s Transatlantic Route de Rhum has already qualified her for next year’s Vendee Globe Solojoan mulloy3Joan Mulloy where she is happiest – in open water with the boat going well
In France, the regions are in competition with each other and internationally to attract such events. The Port of Brest, in one example, has taken over the historic OSTAR. But in smaller countries, it’s a case of the entire nation wheeling in support, as is being seen this morning in Malta where a major offshore race – once of interest to only a select few on the island – is now high on the priority list of the government’s promotion department.

Today, in the almost absurdly picturesque and distinctly crowded history-laden Grand Harbour of Valetta in Malta, it will take seven different starts to get the total fleet of 112 boats in the 40th Edition of the 606-mile Rolex Middle Sea Race cleanly away. From this inevitably tense and crowded start to a multi-island-rounding course in the Mediterranean, they’ll have the finishers back in port and the results declared by the time the Transat Jacques Vabre comes top of the agenda on Sunday October 27th.

middle sea start4Classic start for a classic race – the Rolex Middle Sea race tacking out of Grand Harbour Valetta in close formation. Photo Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

For devoted inshore sailing enthusiasts who think that night-time is when you should be comfortably ashore in bed after a good day’s sailing in pleasant coastal surroundings, both of these major international events are simply seen as being lumped under the general heading of “Offshore & Ocean Racing”. And their overall response is “Thanks but no thanks…..”

Yet for aficionados, not only are they long hauls which will be avidly followed throughout with total dedication, but the very different types of offshore racing which they exemplify are all part of the fascination.

For the Rolex Middle Sea Race is one contemporary version of the classic Royal Ocean Racing Club “long one”. These are the well-established events such as the Fastnet Race itself, the Sydney-Hobart, the RORC Caribbean 600 and the Newport-Bermuda, all of which fall within the 600-650 mile distance range. Also generally included is the Round Ireland, even though it clocks up 704 miles. And all – when they were founded – were regarded in their day as marathons, a title which most participants continue to happily support.

middle sea race course5The Middle Sea Race course – anyone who thinks it’s a walk in the park is often brutally surprised
But with the international ocean racing bar now being set very high by the Vendee Globe with its off-the-wall IMOCA 60s, public perception may have become more muted in response to the more traditional events. Yet the fact that the biennial Fastnet Race’s basic entry limit for 350 boats is hit within minutes of the online acceptance opening for business tells us that the mystique of these classics is strong, and for recreational sailors of competitive offshore interest, they are very much something they want to have in their CV.

Because there’s a real continuity to these events - with a shared sponsor in Rolex - part of the interest is in discerning special patterns. So although George David’s great round Ireland record-holding Rambler 88 will be seeing can she better the Middle Sea Race’s 47 hours 55 minutes and 3 seconds record he set with Rambler 90 in 2007 (a decidedly tense-making four minutes and 57 seconds inside the magic 48-hours barrier), there’ll be every bit as much interest in how things go for Wizard, the Askew brothers’ former Volvo 70 from America.

Originally Groupama 4 and designed by Juan Kouyoumdjian for the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race - which she won for France skippered by Franck Cammas - this splendid “old” warhorse has by no means gone gently into the sweet night of retirement.

On the contrary, she reappeared under New Zealand ownership for the 2016 Rolex Sydney Hobart re-named Giacomo, owned and skippered by wine magnate Jim Delegat, who had several of his family in the crew, including the youngest race participant, 18-year-old James Delegat Jnr, as Australian rules preclude anyone under 18 doing this race. Conditions suited a Volvo 70 almost to perfection and they managed second on line honours among much larger craft, and this in time converted into the overall win.

Thus Giacomo was arguably the first of the former Volvo 70s – they initially appeared in 2005 - to make a significant input outside the Volvo Ocean Race bubble. But the former Groupama 4 was only getting going. Having won outright in what was only his third Sydney-Hobart, Jim Delegat decided to get out while still on top, and soon he sold Giacomo on to Peter and Dave Askew from America, who lavished much TLC on a craft renamed again. She became Wizard, and she lived up to her new name from the get go.

wizard at speed6The former Volvo 70 Wizard making knots. One of the world’s most successful offshore racers, since 2012 under three different names she has won the Volvo Ocean Race, the Sydney-Hobart, the RORC Caribbean 600, the Transatlantic, and the Fastnet. Photo: Rolex
Skippered for the brothers by Charlie Enright, Wizard has continued as a real life-enhancer on the international offshore scene, and with the Volvo Ocean Race and the Rolex Sydney-Hobart trophies already in the collection, she hit the 2019 programme in style, taking line honours in February’s big-fleet RORC Caribbean 600, and then correcting into the overall win.

Next outing was the RORC/NYYC Transatlantic Race with the weather in the North Atlantic in an increasingly obtuse mood, with calms later plaguing the smaller boats. But it was by no means a cakewalk for the biggies either, yet Wizard called it just right, and took the overall win.

Then up came the Rolex RORC Fastnet Race on 3rd August 2019, and in the livestream at the start, as the camera panned past Wizard somebody in the commentary box let slip a remark to the effect that this was “an old Volvo 70, not really suited to this race”, or words to that effect.

wizard at fastnet7Having made a brilliant job of the tricky outward stages to reach the Fastnet Rock, Wizard did even better on he final stage to Plymouth to win overall. Photo: RolexNow that was some hostage to fortune….not only did Wizard make such a perfect job of getting through the sticky calm-plagued patch between Start Point and the Lizard that we assumed the great Ian Moore must be the navigator on board (he wasn’t), but then when Wizard’s group arrived at the Fastnet itself, a complex frontal system was going through to baffle many. Yet Charlie Enright called the sail changes to precise perfection, they piled on the miles to a challenging position, and swept into Plymouth to correct into such a strong time that soon Wizard was declared the overall winner.

charlie enright8Charlie Enright of Wizard, a skipper of genius
david and peter askew9Sporting owners – David and Peter Askew in Antigua, February 2019, after Wizard had been declared overall winner of the RORC Caribbbean 600
By this time Wizard was so cheerfully the ambassador for American offshore racing that it was natural to overlook the fact that her take-everything victory was in fact yet another corner-stone in the French domination of the Rolex Fastnet Race 2019. But while she may have been French in her origins, it’s only right and proper to credit that David & Peter Askew and Charlie Enright, plus Jim Delegat before them, have put their stamp firmly on a record of unrivalled and varied success which extends directly back to Franck Cammas in 2012.

So with the Volvo Ocean, Sydney-Hobart, RORC Caribbean 600, Transatlantic 2019 and Fastnet Race securely under her belt, Magic is surely the boat to watch as the fleet set about exiting Grand Harbour Valetta this morning for a challenge whose name suggests balmy Mediterranean sailing, yet experience has shown that the Middle Sea Race in October plumb in the midst of Mare Nostrum can be tough and then some.

dazcat 1495 steady10Ireland’s Barry Hurley will be racing a Dazcat 195 catamaran in the Middle Sea Race today – this is how she looks in steady going……..

dazcat 1495 at speed11……and this is the Dazcat 1495 in a bit of a breeze
Ireland’s most experienced participants in it is Barry Hurley, with something like 14 tilts already logged for this circuit of islands which include - for something a little different - the active volcano of Stromboli. Former OSTAR Class winner Hurley has been well in the frame in mono-hulls in the Middle Sea Race several times, but this year he’s trying a new approach in a multi-hull, in this case the DazCat 1495 Apollo.

It requires very special skills and nerves of steel to race a catamaran flat out along a course which takes in coasting along steep mountains and through areas notorious for sudden squalls, but if the chips fall the right way the rewards are immense.

A more orthodox entry with Irish interest is ISORA Pwllheli-based skipper Andrew Hall with his J/121 JackHammer, a much roomier proposition than the vintage ultra-slim J/125 JackKnife which he raced – usually in the frame - in the Irish Sea during the 2019 season.

stromboli volcano12 How’s this four a mark of the course? There’s no guarantee that the Stromboli volcano won’t be erupting as the Middle Sea Race fleet rounds it. Photo: Rolex

His crew includes NYC sailor Willie Despard, so we have direct interest in at least two boats, and doubtless, other Irish participants will emerge as this intriguing race progresses. But anyone with an interest in the general wellbeing of world offshore racing cannot help but feel involved in the continuing extraordinary progress of Wizard. This is one well-sailed and classy boat which has given many people an immense amount of sporting satisfaction, and though it's grossly unfair to be heaping so much expectation on her prospects in the Middle Sea Race, but that’s the way it is. And we can be consoled by her string of established successes if things don’t work out to perfection this time round in a complex race in which the defending champion is France’s very special Gery Trentesaux in his JPK 11.80 Courier Recommande.

gery trentesaux13Defending champion: France’s veteran superstar Gery Trentesaux (centre) is defending title-holder in today’s Middle Sea Race
As to how things will be shaping up in a week’s time in the final countdown to the Jacques Vabre start off Le Havre, Alexia Barrier and Joan Mulloy don’t pretend that their 1998-built oldie 4myplanet – a pioneering Marc Lombard design in her day - is anything other than a sporting entry when set against the likes of Alex Thomson and Neal McDonald in the former’s latest addition to the Huge Boss line, and much is also expected of other fresh-out of-the-wrappings IMOCA 60s like Clarice Cremer and Armel le Cleach in Banque Populaire.

After all, with the basic budget of €5 million which created the new Hugo Boss, you could buy a dozen vintage IMOCA 60s…….

banque populairex14The latest – Banque Populaire X continues a long line of financial services sponsorship in French ocean racing 
new hugo boss15Ultimate racing machine? The new Hugo Boss will be using the Transat Jacques Vabre 2019 as a debut event.

Published in Vendee Globe

Most of Ireland will have its thoughts on another far away stadium tomorrow at 11am but there is also Irish interest in the 2019 Rolex Middle Sea Offshore Race that starts at the same time as Ireland v All Blacks in Japan.

Irish sailors competing this year is reduced but those that are racing are listed here.

A fleet of 113 yachts expected to depart from Grand Harbour Malta. In a setting worthy of a Hollywood film, the guns of the Valletta Saluting Battery will mark each of the seven anticipated starts. The crowds lining the bastions of the fortified city, cheering the yachts on their way, will add to the highly-charged atmosphere. Every participating crew is looking forward to taking on one the world’s great 600 mile classic offshore races.

Figuring out which size of yacht might be favoured by the conditions remains a minefield. Yesterday’s forecast has been super-ceded by today’s, and tomorrow will probably bring more change. For those with ambitions for the overall prize the first objective is to win their class. After that, even with the handicap system levelling the playing field, the development of the weather across the course area will play a significant part in determining the outcome.

The person responsible for overseeing the start procedure is Royal Malta Yacht Club Principal Race Officer, Peter Dimech. Reflecting the heightened anticipation within the organisation, Dimech is excited by the prospects for the race. “Once again, we have a strong, diverse and international fleet reflecting the respect and enthusiasm for this race,” said Dimech. “Tomorrow morning is intense for the team running the start, but we are all looking forward to the moment. It is one of the great sporting spectacles. This year has the makings of another great chapter in the history of this race.”

IRC Class 1 (11 yachts)
IRC 1 boasts 11 of the biggest boats racing and is very likely to produce the monohull line honours winner.

George David's Rambler (USA) has taken that prize for the last four years, but the race record set by David's 90ft Rambler in 2007 (47 hours, 55 minutes and 3 seconds) has remained intact for 12 years. It is the longest standing monohull race record of all the famous 600 mile offshore races. This year the predicted conditions look tantalising close to record pace, the answer will be revealed shortly after midday on Monday, 21 October. Peter & David Askew's Volvo 70 Wizard (USA) has enjoyed phenomenal success this year, as the overall winner of the RORC Caribbean 600 and the Rolex Fastnet Race. Success in the 2019 Rolex Middle Sea Race would deliver a 'triple crown', a feat never previously achieved. The smallest yacht racing in the big boat class is Marton Jozsa's Wild Joe (HUN), whilst Wild Joe is unlikely to take line honours, a class win is a reasonable goal.

Wild Joe's strategist is Stu Bannatyne, the only sailor to have won four editions of the Whitbread and Volvo Ocean Race. “The Rolex Middle Sea Race has been won by a vast variety of boats, and that is because of a huge range of wind conditions and wind directions on a circular course,” said Bannatyne. “This year we are expecting a light air start and potentially strong upwind and reaching conditions towards the end. The two keys to success will be chipping away in the light, and reliability when the going gets tough.”

IRC Class 2 (8 yachts)
The penultimate race start is filled with powerful looking yachts mostly around 50-feet in length. The two Cookson 50s, Riff Raff and Kuka 3 (SUI) will look to the victory of Mascalzone Latino in 2016 as inspiration. Franco Niggeler has done the race eight times and is clear about his crew’s goal. “You have to be best in your own class to have a chance. After that it is the weather,” said the Swiss skipper of Kuka 3. “I really like the course because it is such a mixture of conditions and marvellous scenery. You can have everything from very rough to no wind all in the same race.”

IRC/TP52s have an excellent record in the race, with victories in 2010 (Lucky, USA), 2013 and 2015 (both B2, ITA). This will give encouragement to Anafesto (NED) and Arobas (FRA). Teasing Machine (FRA), Erik de Turckheim’s impressive NMYD 54, featuring Laurent Pages among the crew had the misfortune to retire last year, but has pedigree in the Rolex Middle Sea Race with a win in class and third overall in 2017. Stefan Jentzsch’s Carkeek 47 Black Pearl (GER) is another polished crew. Despite retiring in last year’s tough conditions, Black Pearl has plenty of experience offshore, including the RORC Caribbean 600.

IRC Class 3 (13 yachts)
This is another class bursting with talent and some famous names firmly linked with the 50-year history of the race. Best known, perhaps, following two wins in 2011 and 2014 are Lee Satariano and the Artie team, featuring the Maltese legend Christian Ripard on the crew roster. Satariano is back this year with a new yacht, the HH42 Artie III. “It will be one of the first races we are doing with the boat,” explained Satariano. “This is a much bigger project than my previous ones with production boats, but we are really looking forward to the acceleration and sailing as fast as we can. This is all about challenge and having some fun.”

Despite his apparent relaxed approach, Satariano has been keeping an eye on the weather. “The first couple of days look quite light,” he advised. “The eastern coast of Sicily will be a critical part of the race, particularly under Etna. Once through the Messina Strait, we have some doubts about the best positioning relative to Stromboli. Thereafter, I would hope to be at Favignana by Monday, because the south-easterly looks to be strengthening after that.”

The name Comanche Raider III (MLT) is another that brings back memories. A previous iteration was one of a handful to complete the storm-ridden 2007 race. Skippered by Ramon Sant Hill, the Maltese entry will have eyes on local bragging rights as well as the class.

Russian yachts have been gaining more and more attention each year. The win by Bogatyr, in 2017, marked the first ever offshore classic victory by a yacht from the Federation. This year, there are plenty to pay attention to, including Sergey Bryuzga’s Ker 40 Frogfoot. After a class podium finish in 2016, the last two years have been disappointing with a rig loss in 2017 and then a retirement in the face of atrocious conditions in 2018. “I’ve done the race six or so times,” said Bryuzga. “I just love sailing and I just love this race. We have prepared a lot this year, with new sails and other modifications. We hope the weather will suit us.”

IRC Class 4 (23 yachts)
The second biggest class, brimming with some super-strong crews. Winning this class will be a formidable test, and should the winner come out on top overall it will be a deserved victory. It is hard to look much further than Xp-Act (MLT) for a likely contender. Co-skippered by Timmy Camilleri and Richard Schultheis, the Maltese yacht has been a feature at the top of standings in class and overall in recent years.

Camilleri is a four-time winner as crew and this is his 26th race. “I have a strong tie to the race. My father used to do it and I started as a young child, so it’s in my blood. It’s such an interesting course, different every year and the competition keeps increasing,” said Camilleri, explaining why he keeps coming back. “It’s the type of race where it is not just the racecourse you have to manage. You have to manage yourself for the four days and the boat. My experience in winning and over the years, has given me an understanding of the approach needed to do well.”

Riccardo Genghini, skipper of the Swan 651 Lunz Am Meer, is representative of the core of the fleet. Intensely competitive, he recognises the limitations of his boat, but understands the race is more than just about competition. “It’s my seventh Rolex Middle Sea Race. The reason we keep coming back is the kind of sailors, the boats it attracts and the flawless organisation by the Royal Malta Yacht Club…it is all very sailor-like with a very sportive atmosphere,” he said, continuing: “It’s really something that pushes you to your limits and it also creates very strong bonds among the people on the boat. It is one of the best experiences I could imagine for improving yourself, learning and having an adventure.”

The class also features the smallest yacht in the race, the Akilara 950, Pegasus (ITA), skippered by Francesco Conforto.

IRC Class 5 (18 yachts)
Last year, IRC 5 produced the overall winner of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. Géry Trentesaux's JPK 11.80 Courrier Recommandé (FRA) is back, and the Breton Grandmaster has said this will be the last time for the team after 20 years of spectacular success. The Courrier Recommandé crew once again includes Rolex Fastnet winner Alexis Loison.

Compared to Trentesaux’s two decades of offshore prowess, British skipper Tom Kneen has just started the journey with his JPK 11.80 Sunrise. “There may be a hundred boats racing, but for us there are only two. This is a match race between Sunrise and Courrier Recommandé,” commented Tom Kneen. The Sunrise crew has been reinforced for the race by the inclusion of two Maltese specialists, who have both won the race - father John Jr. and son Tom Ripard - as well as Kiwi round the world sailor, Dave Swete.

Class 6 (25 yachts)
With 25 entries, IRC 6 is the largest class in the Rolex Middle Sea Race and close battles abound. Timofey Zhbankov's JPK 10.80 Rossko is back to defend their class win from last year, as is last year's IRC 5 runner up, Gerard Ludovic's Solenn (FRA). The 2017 overall race winner and 2018 Double Handed champion, Bogatyr (RUS) skippered by Igor Rytov is back for a third race. Rob Craigie's Bellino (GBR) and Trevor Middleton's Black Sheep (GBR) are the leading two boats in the RORC Season's Points Championship and this race will decide the overall champion. Jarhead Young Sailors Foundation Malta has two J/109s racing in the class, JYS Jan will be skippered by Gabriella Mifsud, with an all-women team, and JYS Jarhead will be skippered by Andrea Azzopardi.

Other Classes

The remaining monohull yachts are racing solely under ORC. There is also a small contingent of multihulls and, for the 40th edition of the race, the fastest is Bruno Cardile’s ORMA 60 Ad Maiora. The 1988 Nigel Irens design, was originally Fleury Michon IX and has been totally renovated. “I’m very happy to be here with this legendary boat, and am proud to be putting the trimaran back racing. The team is seven guys, and most have good ocean racing experience, including my best friend Attilio Gatti, with whom I crossed the Pacific,” commented Cardile.

By sharp contrast to the stripped-out racing Ad Maiora, Nigel Passmore's Dazcat 1495 Apollo is luxurious with a fully fitted interior. The smallest multihull is Christiaan Durrant's Blackwater with an overall length of 10.57m (34' 6”).

The 40th edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race starts tomorrow, Saturday 19, October. The first warning signal is at 11.00 CEST and the first start at 11.10 CEST.

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Irish interest in the Middle Sea Race continues this weekend but is reduced with just a few Irish crew lining up for Saturday's 40th race start at the Royal Malta Yacht Club.

Race regular Barry Hurley, the 2009 Ostar winner, is taking a change of tack and is not sailing onboard his usual X yacht, XpAct. Instead for his 15th edition of the race, he will be on the multihull ‘Apollo', a Dazcat 1495 in the MOCRA class. Cork Harbour's Hurley will be joining owner/skipper Nigel Passmore and his very experienced crew who also did the Fastnet earlier this year. "They obviously know the boat really well, and I have experience with the racecourse, so hopefully we will do well in class", he told Afloat.

Dazcat ApolloBarry Hurley is racing the Dazcat 1495 Apollo

The 40th edition of the race is previewed here. Race entries are here.

Meanwhile, Irish Sea interests can follow the exploits of Willie Despard, the National Yacht Club J109 sailor who has also been racing offshore this year on the Welsh, J125 Jackknife that so nearly won ISORA's overall honours under Pwllheli skipper Andrew Hall in September as Afloat reported here.

Despard is racing with Hall again on Saturday in Hall's J121 Jackhammer in the IRC four-division. Despard has already been out on the Middle Sea race track this week with a skeleton warm-up crew for sail testing. Also on board is Hall's son Sam, Ger Cronin from Malahide, the ISORA Hon Sec Stephen Tudor and his Thomas.

Unfortunately, Dun Laoghaire's Kenny Rumball who had been slated to race on the Ker 40 Keronimo will not now be competing due to the 'premature' end to that campaign.

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