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30 Knot Winds & Record Times in Prospect in 2021 Malta's Middle Sea Race

23rd October 2021
The Rolex Middle Sea Race fleet ranges in size from 140 feet (42.56 metres) down to some comparatively, ridiculously small 30-footers (nine plus metres).
The Rolex Middle Sea Race fleet ranges in size from 140 feet (42.56 metres) down to some comparatively, ridiculously small 30-footers (nine plus metres) Credit: Kurt Arrigo

With 114 boats scheduled to cross the start line of the 42nd Rolex Middle Sea Race, this morning, Saturday 23 October, offshore yacht racing fans are in for a real treat.

The Royal Malta Yacht Club has once again attracted a diverse and spectacular international fleet for its flagship event (including an Irish entry and Irish sailors as Afloat reported here).

The fleet have the prospect of confronting winds over 30 knots during the race.

The fleet ranges in size from 140 feet (42.56 metres) down to some comparatively, ridiculously small 30-footers (nine plus metres).

While the maxi monohulls and multis could be looking at a sub-two-day passage, those further down the list will be at sea for up to six days, facing the brunt of the depression in yachts that, while seaworthy and ready, will not eat the miles in quite the same way.

The call for entries went out earlier this year, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, lockdowns and travel restrictions. No one expected the sailing world would respond so positively. And, if the weather gurus are to be believed, we really could be on the cusp of something special, with the word from the dock that a new race record is on the cards.

The fleet ranges in size from 140 feet (42.56 metres) down to some comparatively, ridiculously small 30-footers (9 plus metres). Skorpios, the monohull line honours winner at the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race and racing under the leadership of 2008 Tornado Olympic gold medallist, Fernando Echavarri, is the runaway Goliath. The Davids are the Sunfast 3300 Munjek RS (CRO), the J/99s Calypso (MLT) and Space Jockey (RUS), and the Hanse 311 Catina 4 (ITA). In between, a trio of 70ft (21m) trimarans – Maserati Multi70 (ITA), Mana (ITA) and Argo (USA) – and a host of other monohull yachts represent some 25 countries; an impressive achievement for this much-revered race that has delighted the organisers.

Skorpios, the monohull line honours winner at the 2021 Rolex Fastnet RaceSkorpios, the monohull line honours winner at the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race

Will Oxley, the seasoned Australian navigator on the 100ft (30.5m) racing maxi Comanche (CAY), who was last here with Wizard in 2019, believes the record time set by the 90ft (27.4m) Rambler in 2007 – 47 hours, 55 minutes, three seconds - is well within the grasp of the fastest monohulls and multihulls. “It’s looking interesting because there is a low-pressure system developing over North Africa that will move over the racecourse,” he explained. “We should see really quite strong winds, which has been unusual for this race (in recent years). The forecast looks good for us. Our routings show a realistic chance that, if we sail well, we will be under record time. The question is whether there is anyone in front.” Comanche’s racing skipper is Mitch Booth, one of Echavarri’s competitors at the 2008 Games.

The 100ft (30.5m) racing maxi ComancheThe 100ft (30.5m) racing maxi Comanche

This assessment was endorsed by Chris Branning and Silvio Arrivabene, the co-navigators on George David’s current Rambler (USA), the 88ft (26.8m) Juan K flyer – five-time monohull line honours winner at the Rolex Middle Sea Race. For Arrivabene, on his ninth race, this is the fastest forecast he has seen, and he is keen to see how quickly they can get through the Messina Strait to open up the remainder of the 606 nautical mile course. In turn, Branning confirmed the importance of the system moving off North Africa: “It will be the dominant weather feature, leaving us with good gradient throughout the course. There will be two tight transition zones at the Strait and on the western side of Sicily. The leg from Lampedusa also seems quite fluid with uncertainty about the eventual position of the low, and that is probably the biggest variable left to work out.”

The big multihulls are also champing at the bit. Giovanni Soldini, skipper of Maserati Multi70, has taken line honours on three occasions and holds the current multihull race record which, at a touch over 56.5 hours, is surprisingly slower than the monohull time. This year, though, it could all be about to change. “We have known for a few days that this edition will be very windy,” he advised. “The first part of the race to Messina for us will not have strong wind, but from Stromboli to the finish looks very, very good … 20 knots or more. It should be a good year for the record, and with the other multihulls it will be a very interesting race. It will be important to be in the front.”

On Riccardo Pavoncelli’s Mana, which was beaten across line by Maserati last year, but won on corrected time, Jeff Mearing the boat captain confirmed the expectation of strong winds. “The boat is sound, all prepped up and ready to go,” said Mearing. “It’s going to be a fruity race; the forecast has been changing every six hours as the low pressure moves around. Right now, we are trying to get everyone goggled up, ready for the waves coming over the deck. She’s going to be a blasting machine for this one.” Mearing is celebrating his 40th birthday on start day and is thrilled to be doing so on Mana in the company of French ocean-racing legend Loick Peyron.

Elsewhere in the fleet, the forecast is casting a shadow, with a tough race ahead for the smaller slower boats. They have the prospect of confronting winds over 30 knots during the race. While the maxi monohulls and multis could be looking at a sub-two-day passage, those further down the list will be at sea for up to six days, facing the brunt of the depression in yachts that, while seaworthy and ready, will not eat the miles in quite the same way.

German sailor Johannes Polgar from Hamburg, who coincidentally raced against Echavarri and Booth at the Beijing Olympics, is competing on Rafale, the German canting keeled Elliot 52. The 2021 Rolex Middle Sea Race is his first experience of the Mediterranean’s best regarded offshore course, and in fact any race of this length. “This is my first ever offshore challenge, the legends around this race are strong and I am looking forward to a great adventure,” advised Polgar. Robin Zinkmann, navigator on Rafale, agrees it will be fast race, but not straightforward: “It is always hard to model the winds at Messina, and we might get stuck there longer than predicted. Also, we will see a lot of wind in the middle of the race, and I am not sure how close we will be able to sail at 100%. My guess, at the moment, is two and half days.”

The Rolex Middle Sea Race is the Mediterranean’s best regarded offshore courseThe Rolex Middle Sea Race is the Mediterranean’s best regarded offshore course

James Neville, Commodore of the Royal Ocean Racing Club and skipper of the HH42 Ino XXX (GBR) (second overall at the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race), is another on his first Rolex Middle Sea Race. “We are lucky to have the same crew as the Fastnet, so we are fully up for this,” enthused Neville. “It looks quite looks light off the start, with a drag race across to Sicily and up to Messina. It is crucial to get there early before any shutdown. After the Strait it looks windy and fast.” Neville is excited to be competing against a number of the yachts that were in the top ten of this summer’s Rolex Fastnet, including Sunrise (GBR) the eventual overall winner under IRC. He also picked out another HH42 Artie (MLT), led by local legends Lee Satariano and Christian Ripard, a two-time race-winning combination in a previous iteration of Artie. “They are quite a different set up to us,”Neville explained. “We are more powerful with twin rudders, whereas I think they have a slightly deeper keel. Their knowledge of the course, though, could be important.”

First 45 Elusive 2First 45 Elusive 2

Many Maltese eyes will be on the Podesta siblings racing the First 45 Elusive 2 (MLT), winner of the past two editions of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. They will have their work cut out to achieve a three-peat of this already stellar success story in such a big fleet. This year sees one of the largest Maltese representations in recent editions, with 13 entries. Andrew Agius Delicata and Matthew Gabriele are taking on the inimitable challenge double-handed in the Reflex 38 Vivace. “The Rolex Middle Sea Race is a very big challenge just doing it fully crewed. This is the second time we are doing it double-handed,” advised Delicata. “We came fourth last time, but are hoping for a podium position this year. We expect the race to take five to six days, so we will focus on preserving energy over the first couple. We may not be as fast as the crewed yachts, but we will be trimming as hard as we can.”

Whether big, small, one hull or three, the 2021 Rolex Middle Sea Race has all the hallmarks of a classic in the making. The combination of a formidable weather forecast, formidable fleet and formidable course is a mouth-watering prospect.

Published in Middle Sea Race
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About The Middle Sea Race

The Rolex Middle Sea Race is a highly rated offshore classic, often mentioned in the same breath as the Rolex Fastnet, The Rolex Sydney–Hobart and Newport-Bermuda as a 'must do' race. The Royal Malta Yacht Club and the Royal Ocean Racing Club co-founded the race in 1968 and 2007 was the 28th Edition. Save for a break between 1984 and 1995 the event has been run annually attracting 25–30 yachts. In recent years, the number of entries has rissen sharply to 68 boats thanks to a new Organising Committee who managed to bring Rolex on board as title sponsor for the Middle Sea Race.

The race is a true challenge to skippers and crews who have to be at their very best to cope with the often changeable and demanding conditions. Equally, the race is blessed with unsurpassed scenery with its course, taking competitors close to a number of islands, which form marks of the course. Ted Turner described the MSR as "the most beautiful race course in the world".

Apart from Turner, famous competitors have included Eric Tabarly, Cino Ricci, Herbert von Karajan, Jim Dolan, Sir Chay Blyth and Sir Francis Chichester (fresh from his round the world adventure). High profile boats from the world's top designers take part, most in pursuit of line honours and the record – competing yachts include the extreme Open 60s, Riviera di Rimini and Shining; the maxis, Mistress Quickly, Zephyrus IV and Sagamore; and the pocket rockets such as the 41-foot J-125 Strait Dealer and the DK46, Fidessa Fastwave.

In 2006, Mike Sanderson and Seb Josse on board ABN Amro, winner of the Volvo Ocean Race, the super Maxis; Alfa Romeo and Maximus and the 2006 Rolex Middle Sea Race overall winner, Hasso Platner on board his MaxZ86, Morning Glory.

George David on board Rambler (ex-Alfa Romeo) managed a new course record in 2007 and in 2008, Thierry Bouchard on Spirit of Ad Hoc won the Rolex Middle Sea Race on board a Beneteau 40.7

The largest number of entries was 78 established in 2008.

Middle Sea Race History

IN THE BEGINNING

The Middle Sea Race was conceived as the result of sporting rivalry between great friends, Paul and John Ripard and an Englishman residing in Malta called Jimmy White, all members of the Royal Malta Yacht Club. In the early fifties, it was mainly British servicemen stationed in Malta who competitively raced. Even the boats had a military connection, since they were old German training boats captured by the British during the war. At the time, the RMYC only had a few Maltese members, amongst who were Paul and John Ripard.

So it was in the early sixties that Paul and Jimmy, together with a mutual friend, Alan Green (later to become the Race Director of the Royal Ocean Racing Club), set out to map a course designed to offer an exciting race in different conditions to those prevailing in Maltese coastal waters. They also decided the course would be slightly longer than the RORC's longest race, the Fastnet. The resulting course is the same as used today.

Ted Turner, CEO of Turner Communications (CNN) has written that the Middle Sea Race "must be the most beautiful race course in the world. What other event has an active volcano as a mark of the course?"

In all of its editions since it was first run in 1968 – won by Paul Ripard's brother John, the Rolex Middle Sea Race has attracted many prestigious names in yachting. Some of these have gone on to greater things in life and have actually left their imprint on the world at large. Amongst these one finds the late Raul Gardini who won line honours in 1979 on Rumegal, and who spearheaded the 1992 Italian Challenge for the America's Cup with Moro di Venezia.

Another former line honours winner (1971) who has passed away since was Frenchman Eric Tabarly winner of round the world and transatlantic races on Penduik. Before his death, he was in Malta again for the novel Around Europe Open UAP Race involving monohulls, catamarans and trimarans. The guest list for the Middle Sea Race has included VIP's of the likes of Sir Francis Chichester, who in 1966 was the first man to sail around the world single-handedly, making only one stop.

The list of top yachting names includes many Italians. It is, after all a premier race around their largest island. These include Navy Admiral Tino Straulino, Olympic gold medallist in the star class and Cino Ricci, well known yachting TV commentator. And it is also an Italian who in 1999 finally beat the course record set by Mistress Quickly in 1978. Top racing skipper Andrea Scarabelli beat it so resoundingly, he knocked off over six hours from the time that had stood unbeaten for 20 years.

World famous round the world race winners with a Middle Sea Race connection include yachting journalist Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Les Williams, both from the UK.

The Maxi Class has long had a long and loving relationship with the Middle Sea Race. Right from the early days personalities such as Germany's Herbert Von Karajan, famous orchestra conductor and artistic director of the Berliner Philarmoniker, competing with his maxi Helisara IV. Later came Marvin Greene Jr, CEO of Reeves Communications Corporation and owner of the well known Nirvana (line honours in 1982) and Jim Dolan, CEO of Cablevision, whose Sagamore was back in 1999 to try and emulate the line honours she won in 1997.

THE COURSE RECORD

The course record was held by the San Francisco based, Robert McNeil on board his Maxi Turbo Sled Zephyrus IV when in 2000, he smashed the Course record which now stands at 64 hrs 49 mins 57 secs. Zephyrus IV is a Rechiel-Pugh design. In recent years, various maxis such as Alfa Romeo, Nokia, Maximus and Morning Glory have all tried to break this course record, but the wind Gods have never played along. Even the VOR winner, ABN AMro tried, but all failed in 2006.

However, George David came along on board Rambler in 2007 and demolished the course record established by Zephyrus IV in 2000. This now stands at 1 day, 23 hours, 55 minutes and 3 seconds.

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