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.
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.
Aragon leads Wild Joe with Fabio Cannavale's Baltic 78 Lupa of the Sea (ITA) in third.
Arobas² leads Black Pearl with Franco Niggeler's Cookson 50 Kuka 3 in third, just ahead of sistership, Brian McMaster's Riff Raff.
PrimaVista-Lauria leads from Artie III with Frederic Puzin's Corum – Daguet2 (FRA), with ocean racer Seb Josse aboard, in third.
BeWild leads from Albator and Arto Linnervuo's Xp 44 Xtra Staerk (FIN) in third
Courrier Recommandé leads Gianrocco Catalano's First 40 Mon Ile (ITA) with Peter Gustafsson's J/111 Blur in third
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.