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#VOR - Leg 1 winners Vestas 11th Hour Racing weren’t the only Volvo Ocean Race team to have an excruciating finish experience en route to Lisbon yesterday (Saturday 28 October).

When MAPFRE was within 1.5 miles of the line, they too ran out of wind and had to watch Dongfeng Race Team rush into the river behind them. With only a small lead as a buffer, the tension for Spanish fans was rising fast.

But as Vestas did before them, the MAPFRE crew found a little zephyr of wind to finish 15-minutes ahead of the Chinese team at 5.42pm Irish time.

“Very pleased with the result. It’s a solid start, exactly what we wanted. We’re very happy,” said MAPFRE skipper Xabi Fernández immediately after finishing. “We have to say Vestas did very well early on and we didn’t see them again… But then we had a strong 12-hours after Gibraltar and we stepped it up there.”

Dongfeng Racing Team skipper Charles Caudrelier made an excellent recovery on Leg 1 after falling to the back of the fleet on the approach to Gibraltar.

And fight they did, slowly reeling in the fleet and finally recovering to pass Team AkzoNobel with only 220 miles to go, to complete the podium at 5.57pm Irish time.

“The first 24 hours was bad,” Caudrelier said. “After that we sailed very well with good speed and good decisions and finally we managed to pass AkzoNobel to finish in third so it was a good effort by the team.”

The drama didn’t end with the podium places decided. Just over an hour later, Team AzkoNobel were forced to fend off a late charge from Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, who attempted to make the pass by sailing slightly closer to the coast. It nearly worked, too.

But in the end, Simeon Tienpont and his team grabbed fourth (finish at 7:11pm Irish time), with SHK/Scallywag settling for fifth (7:57pm Irish time).

“I’m unbelievably proud of the guys and girls on board,” Tienpont said. “I couldn’t say it enough during the leg to them… We went out with a full ‘street fight’ mentality and my compliments to all the sailors. The team morale was high and we sailed our socks off!”

“I’ve never finished like that before,” said Scallywag skipper David Witt. “We tried to get AkzoNobel by coming down the shore. It was pretty close… then we got stuck on the bottom… we had to swim an anchor out to get us off the rocks so we could drift across the finish line!

“[But] we’re really happy. We were right in there for most of it... We’re on the up. We’re getting better. Look out in a couple of legs time.”

The race for the final two positions was as intense as any that came before. Although it was a battle for sixth and seventh place, both Team Brunel and Turn The Tide on Plastic pushed as hard as possible to earn the extra point.

As with the boats in front, it was a slow-motion dance to the finish line, with Brunel gliding across in the dark, guided by America’s Cup star Peter Burling, to secure sixth place (9:29pm Irish time).

“We’re a bit frustrated,” said Team Brunel skipper Bouwe Bekking. “We weren’t very fast. We never reached out target speeds… but we’ve been fighting hard and it was actually an enjoyable leg … The boys and the girls sailed the boat nicely right to the end.”

That left seventh place for Dee Caffari’s Turn The Tide on Plastic, with Annalise Murphy among the crew, which crossed the line a few minutes later at 9.36pm Irish time.

“I’m gutted, we came last,” Caffari laughed at the dock after the finish, when it was suggested she'd be pleased with the result. “We just had the greatest two-boat testing with Team Brunel for 200 miles, so it was fantastic.”

Leg 1 – Results – Saturday 28 October (Day 7):

  1. Vestas 11th Hour Racing -- FINISHED -- 14:08.45 UTC
  2. MAPFRE -- FINISHED -- 16:42.30 UTC
  3. Dongfeng Race Team -- FINISHED -- 16:57:48 UTC
  4. Team AkzoNobel -- FINISHED -- 18:11:56 UTC
  5. Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag -- FINISHED -- 18:57:44 UTC
  6. Team Brunel -- FINISHED -- 20:29:00 UTC
  7. Turn the Tide on Plastic – FINISHED – 20:36:52 UTC

Volvo Ocean Race – Standings following Leg 1:

  1. Vestas 11th Hour Racing -- FINISHED -- 8 points
  2. MAPFRE -- FINISHED -- 6 points
  3. Dongfeng Race Team -- FINISHED -- 5 points
  4. Team AkzoNobel -- FINISHED -- 4 points
  5. Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag -- FINISHED -- 3 points
  6. Team Brunel – 2 points
  7. Turn the Tide on Plastic – 1 point
Published in Volvo Ocean Race
Tagged under

As Afloat.ie reported, Irish sailor Damian Foxall and the Vestas 11th Hour Racing crossed the finish line in Lisbon at 1408 UTC ahead of their competitors by a few hours earning 8 points and are now the leaders of the Volvo Ocean Race. They led the 7-day race since the first night staying ahead of the other seven boats through the Strait of Gibraltar, around the island of Porto Santo, and north to Lisbon via a virtual waypoint added by the Race Committee mid-leg.

“Can’t argue with the results,” said skipper, Charlie Enright upon finishing in Lisbon. “For us, it has always been the process and improving every day. We prioritized getting the right people and this provides us with a lot of confidence. I can’t say enough about the squad on the boat and the ones on the shore.”

“To kick it off this way is a strong sentiment to the team,” added Team Director and Co-Founder, Mark Towill. “We have a long way to go for sure, and this is a great way to start the event.”

This is technically back-to-back ocean leg wins for the American duo, Enright and Towill. The pair along with their fellow US sailor, Nick Dana, won the final leg of the last edition onboard Team Alvimedica. This is the first leg win for Vestas, and for a Danish flagged boat in the history of the Volvo Ocean Race.

The team is now in Lisbon for one week participating in outreach events with the local community, an In-Port Race, Pro-Am racing, and preparing for the 7000-mile leg to Cape Town, South Africa that starts on November 6th.

vestas tagusAfter frustration by light airs and an ebbing tide, Vestas 11th Hour Racing finally gets the power to carry her to the finish line at Lisbon, and victory in Leg 1. Photo: John Duggan

The Race to Win
Vestas 11th Hour Racing led for the majority of the 1650 nm course that took the seven teams from Alicante, Spain to Lisbon, Portugal.

"We had a good leg. And that’s due to the strong shore team preparation with Chris Bedford, our meteorologist, Anderson Reggio for navigation support, and Vestas’ meteorology team. We had a plan and could be proactive instead of reactive," said Simon Fisher (SiFi), winner of the last Volvo Ocean Race as navigator.

The first night the crew took a risk by sailing close to the shoreline of southern Spain hoping for wind coming off the mountains not seen on weather forecasts. The gamble paid off as they were the first in and out of the Strait of Gibraltar, an area known for high winds, shipping traffic, and a narrow path for maneuvers.

According to SiFi, "we then got fired out of Gibraltar at 30 knots. We saw as high as 35 knots and we gybed back and forth quite a few times to stay in the pressure which is definitely exhausting for the team."

By Day 2, the sailors extended their lead 25 miles from the second place boat, but it was short-lived as it shrank to 6 miles in just a few hours, as they were the first to sail into a lighter pressure system.

"We had good scheds and bad scheds," said Charlie Enright, referring the position reports delivered to the team every six hours. "It's frustrating to see the others take a bite out of your lead."

The vexations started to wane as the crew rounded the island of Porto Santo still in the lead, and a downwind drag race ensued north to a virtual mark 250nm away. The race committee added the mark after Day 2 to extend the course to align with the intention of a 7-day leg.

After turning the virtual mark, the team continued to extend attributing their speed to the sail choice and crew work. While all the teams have the same sails onboard, it is up to the individual crews to decide which of the seven headsails are the optimal combination for varying conditions.

"We are fortunate enough to have a well-rounded crew who can jump into any position on the boat, whether that is driving, grinding, or trimming," said Team Director, Mark Towill. "That allows everyone to stay fresh and execute our navigation plan." 

"We are not talking about the finish onboard yet," said young Australian sailor, Tom Johnson just 24 hours before the finish. "No one is taking a back seat, we are just all doing our job."

The last 24 hours were tough as the crew faced shifting light winds, a traffic separation scheme that limited their navigation, and 4 miles of upwind sailing in a narrow river to the finish, but in the end the crew recognizes this is only beginning of a longer race that will take them around the world over the next 9 months.

Vestas lisbonTeam Vestas celebrate leg one victory, Damian Foxall is fourth from right Photo: Jesus Renedo/Volvo Ocean Race

Life Onboard
The first leg of the race was an exhausting all-out sprint for the team. Executing multiple maneuvers in the initial 36 hours means there little sleep for the crew. Then in the light air, the monotony of waiting for wind is a mental game the teams must push through to be ready for the next situation.

When not keeping the boat going fast, preparing food, washing dishes, and maintenance are tasks the sailors share onboard. Fresh food only lasts for the first few days; then they switch to freeze-dried meals. The crew partook in Meatless Monday, an international campaign to reduce the impact the meat industry has on the environment on the first day out at sea. "We are enjoying Mediterranean veggie pasta," said Mark Towill, "it is one simple way of lowering our carbon footprint and is part of our commitment to sustainability."

The boat also had to overcome a few systems failures onboard during the leg. A broken water pump the first day left the crew without fresh water until boat captain, Nick Dana, was able to fix the issue. He explains, "it's not like we can go out and get a new one, everything must be fixed onboard, but that's the Volvo Ocean Race." Repair and reuse is another key element of sustainable living.

Then on the evening of Day 4, skipper Charlie Enright, felt the performance of the boat "just wasn't right" so he went below only to discover a disconnected water ballast hose filled the yacht with 800 liters of water. The crew bailed the water and repaired the hose, luckily, not losing too much speed in the process.

It’s not all work onboard a Volvo Ocean 65. On the morning of Day 6, race rookie and British sailor, Hannah Diamond took a moment to soak it all in: "It's been a really nice sunrise and had a couple of pods of dolphins come past, so couldn't ask for more really."

Published in Volvo Ocean Race

Royal Cork's Mark Mansfield, the four time Olympic helmsman, dropped in on Tom Dolan in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria ahead of today's prologue in the second leg of the Mini Transat.

Regular readers will know that solo sailor Dolan, who led the first leg of the race before discovering he had made a course error, has given a sincere account of his first leg trials to Afloat.ie readers here.

Full–time sailor Mansfield, who featured on Afloat.ie recently, says 'Tom's in good form and raring to get back out there and show what he can do'. 

The race itself restarts on Wednesday with the transatlantic leg.

Published in Solo Sailing

The favourable east to southeast winds which carried the seven Volvo Ocean Race 2017-2018 contenders so positively through the Straits of Gibralter and into the Atlantic are already a fading memory writes W M Nixon.

The leaders – with Vestas 11th Hour Racing still the pathfinder, and Damian Foxall in a senior crew role - are dealing this morning with the here-and-now of light headwinds, and a large area of calm which is threateningly near to their track southwestwards to the first turn at the island of Porto Santo in the Madeira group.

After that, they can head northeast to the finish of Leg 1 at Lisbon, by which time 1,450 miles will seem much longer than most crew had anticipated. Vestas’ closest challenger is the pre-race favourite Mapfre, but her challenge comes from far away as she tacks westward some distance to the northwest, with the boat actually closest on the water to the leader being AkzoNobel.

The other four boats, including Turn the Tide on Plastic with Annalise Murphy on board, are in a closely-backed group northeast of Vestas, all making between 9.5 and 10.5 knots. In her weekly diary in the Irish Times this morning, Annalise reports on her relief in finding she hasn’t been affected by seasickness, her joy in achieving even two hours of uninterrupted sleep, and the fascination of racing so closely with the other three boats nearby, thereby greatly speeding her growing awareness of what gives a Volvo Ocean 65 an extra knot or two of vital speed.

And of course she alludes to that crazy start sequence on Sunday which we featured here on Afloat.ie, when a fleet of racing boats which have cost tens of millions of Euros to build, tune and crew, found themselves making their start through a spectator fleet of mini-liners which seemed determined to risk everything by closing vital gaps in order to give their paying passengers an even more intimate view of the proceedings.

Race tracker here

Published in Volvo Ocean Race

There has been a touch of déjà vu for Round Ireland Race aficionados in watching the unfolding results of the current Rolex Middle Sea Race writes W M Nixon. As the middle part of the very depleted offshore fleet approached Valetta today, still sailing fast in a harsh nor’west wind, the names which were coming up towards the head of the leaderboard at the main markers of the course such as Pantellaria and then Lampedusa included Eric de Turkheim’s NMYD 54 Teasing Machine III, and the Ker 46 Tonnerre de Glen.

We all remember Tonnere de Glen as Piet Vroon’s Tonnerre de Breskens in Wicklow, while Teasing Machine II was one of the stars of the 2016 Wicklow show. But now the new Teasing Machine III (which we previewed as one to watch on Saturday) has leapt to fame, for although the Cookson 50 Kuka 3 was in front of her coming into Valetta, the 4ft longer Teasing Machine somehow rates only 1.327 to the 1.373 of the Cookson.

kuka three2The Cookson 50 Kuka 3 (Franco Niggeler) was ahead of Teasing Machine II coming into the finish, but with her higher rating, she is now back on second overall. Kurt Arrigo

Canting keels - such as they have on Kuka 3 - should of course cause an adverse effect on rating. But Teasing Machine seems to have the rating edge on just about everything comparable. Messrs Nivelt and Muratet clearly know their stuff, for this is some new boat, to have come through what even the toughies have described as a “seriously gnarly race”, and now she’s sitting this evening on a 36 minute overall lead.

Boats still at sea could yet topple her, including the 2012 Swan 53 Music from South Africa and the X44p XP-ACT aboard which Barry Hurley and Shane Diviney are sailing fast for the finish. But with night now well down in Malta, things are looking quite good for the popular Baron de Turkheim’s new boat.

Meanwhile, Dominique Tien’s Tonnerre de Glen shows up on the tracker as being snug in Valetta too. But her name doesn’t appear anywhere - not anywhere at all - on the current results list. That’s something for the morning.

leopard maxi3“A seriously gnarly race” – if it was like this for the hundred foot Leopard, it boggles the mind to imagine the situation for the smallest boats. Photo: Kurt Arrigo

Published in Offshore

Tom Dolan has had a good rest and recharge after ten and a half tough days at sea during the first stage of the 2017 Mini–Transat. Here he gives a short rundown of how things went with some video from his onboard camera too.

I'm still a bit guilt ridden about making such a stupid mistake at the beginning. Some of you may be wondering exactly what happened: They set up a gate for us to sail through before heading out to sea just to regroup the fleet one last time for photo's, sponsors etc. As the weather for the start was forecast to be foggy they moved the gate at the last minute. They did not tell us in the briefing but simply added it to the amendment to the racing instructions and in the rush of the start and my head being elsewhere I never noticed the line about the start gate.

An hour after the start my buddy Pierre called me on the vhf to say I hadn't passed the gate. This threw me into a daze of confusion as the GPS was telling me that the gate was another 2 miles ahead. As there was very thick fog I hadn't seen the two black buoys that everyone had passed. I knew I was very far left, but had planned it to catch the outgoing tide around Ile d'Oileron, so I actually thought I was doing very well. Once I rushed below and pulled out the amendment to the race instructions I read the line stating it had been moved and my stomach sank.

After two years of preparing for this, the months spent working on the boat, the hours spent on trains to Paris and planes to Dublin, the miles of deliveries between Lorient and Concarneau and the long nights spent squinting in front of the computer screen preparing presentations and proposals and it only took me one hour and one line on a piece of paper to mess it all up.

I then had to sail back towards La Rochelle under spinnaker while the others where en route towards Cape Finistere. Once I had rounded the way-point of where the gate had been (the gate wasn't even there any more!) there were 10 miles between me and the lead group. For the next two days I struggled to sleep due to the guilt mixed with the urge to catch up to the lead group, with whom I have battled all season.,

I thought a lot about everyone who has helped me with this project and about all of those who had made the trip to La Rochelle just for me, how I had let them down and how I wanted to do well for them. The intensity of these first days allowed me to work quickly back up the fleet, but also threw my routine completely off. The important part of this leg was to arrive at Cape Finistere fresh and rested, I had made a good comeback but at a price.

By the time the wind and sea picked up and we passed the TSS, the lack of sleep meant I was completely "In the red" as we say, I didn't know where I was and I started seeing things, I usually manage my sleep very well, but this had thrown it completely off kilter. The fatigue resulted in me taking my foot off the throttle, I struggled to make decisions and it cost me miles.

The first sleep came after the Traffic Separation Scheme, in about 25 + knots screaming down waves at up to 15 knots, I think it was the relief of being away from the coast, clear of the TSS and on flatter sea which allowed me sleep. The boat screamed along as I snored in symphony! Once I woke things started to go better, I had created a massive lateral split taking quite a risk but it paid off, the wind shifted 20° to the right to NE and as I was the furthest west it was Christmas!

The middle part of the race went quite well. We enjoyed typical trade wind sailing, without the squalls and I had managed to work myself from last place up to the top ten. I was back in the match and it was fun, I aimed for a western route as the forecasts were telling us that there would be more wind in the west, as we would round a weak low pressure system over Portugal and have a good angle for the weak NE winds forecast over the Canaries, generated by a Low pressure system over the West African continent.

However the weather for the final part of the race wasn't to be so simple. Two huge but very weak areas of low pressure descended over the Canaries and it was a lottery about who they let through. I found myself in the lead of a group of 5 or 6 boats and things looked good for finishing at least in the top ten, and perhaps not too far from the podium. Two nights in a row we played lottery in the flukey winds and two nights in a row I lost.

The first of these nights I sailed into a hole with no wind, and the following boats just sailed around me (they could see on the AIS that I was stopped.) That night I lost 4 places. Then the next night was the most heart breaking. The same group who had managed to pass me and were just 3 miles to the west of me sailed off at 4 knots while I was stuck at zero, drifting with the current for 6 hours. That night cost me 15 miles. If everyone is stuck in a whole it's okay but when your the only one stuck and your competitors gently sail away it becomes unbearable.

The western route that we had taken meant that we had more ground to cover in what we have named the "Mistoufle", the newly created maritime word for a windless lottery. In the end those who played the eastern card won the gamble.

This is an intense sport, we deal with more highs and more lows, more moments of desolation and elation in three days at sea than we would in a year on land. We must assume our mistakes in their entirety without having anyone to turn to, anyone but ourselves to blame. We all live around a motto to which we turn to in the most difficult of times, "ne rien lacher", or "never give up". It may sound cringey and to be honest it is but the simple fact is that you are on your own, in the middle of the ocean and you have no choice but to continue. And when the time comes that things turn in your favor it is all the more rewarding, and this is the beauty of this sport.

So now it is time to put my brain into goldfish mode, like tennis players do, and to think only of the second leg. To think of it as a new start, a new race and hopefully at the end I will manage to scrape back enough time on the others to achieve the correct result that I hope so much for and I owe to so many of you,

Thank you so much again for the support, I am back in county Meath for a few days rest then back to the Canaries on the 25th.

Published in Solo Sailing

Having Saturday’s Rolex Middle Sea Race start from Malta without the presence of 2016 winner Mascalzone Latino, the Cookson 50 owned by Vincenzo Onorato and navigated by Ian Moore, is a bit like staging Hamlet without the Prince writes W M Nixon.

But the reigning champion – which has also been ORC World Champion in recent years - is already well into a completely new campaign towards the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race 2017, and it has been confirmed this afternoon that the Mascalzone team have seen their wide-ranging programme towards Sydney off to a flying start with a mighty win in the 673-mile Hong Kong to Vietnam Race, their qualifier to take part in the often rugged sprint to Hobart.

Admittedly there were just 13 boats in the Vietnam race. But as one of them was significant sister-ship Ubox, the Cookson 50 that finished third overall in IRC and first in ORC in the Sydney-Hobart 2016, the Mascalzone crew had a useful marker to speed them towards Vietnam in a swift and rugged race. It was something like 95% offwind. and initially warm and wet with spray and then hot and wet as they closed in on the finish, after 2 days 5 hours and 25 minutes.

They were third on line honours and soon confirmed as first overall on IRC. And they did a horizon job on Ubox. After the Reichel Pugh 63 Lucky was navigated by Ian Moore to an exceptional win in the 2015 Transatlantic Race, the crew said that having “Soapy” Moore calling the shots was as good as knocking at least 150 miles off the distance to be race. Well, in the much shorter Hong Kong to Vietnam Race, Ubox was all of 120 miles astern as Mascalzone Latino finished……

mascalzone latino5Night finish. The winning crew at Nha Trang in Vietnam, Ian Moore in middle of second row

The winning crew were Vincenzo Onorato, Adrian Stead, Ian Moore, Lorenzo Bressani, Flavio Favini, Leonardo Chiarugi, Matteo Savelli, Gaetano Figlia di Granara, Stefano Ciampalini, Pietro Manunta, Davide Scarpa and Justin Clougher. 

Some you’ll know, some you won’t, but of particular interest is that last name, Justin Clougher. His family may well be from Tyrone way back, but he’s from Tasmania and is a full-time racing sailor now based in Newport, RI with enormous offshore experience including many Sydney-Hobarts. That he is included in Mascalzone’s crew in their buildup towards Sydney is indicative of the care that is going into planning and implementing this impressive campaign.

Published in Offshore
Tagged under

There is a time and a season to all things, and in some years, that time comes earlier than others. Ireland has been getting away with it in remarkable style in recent weeks, putting through 2017’s Autumn sailing fixtures in between some bouts of very extreme weather. But this weekend, it looks as though we have to accept that you can’t beat the system all the time. The big winds of winter are here. The likelihood of sailing anywhere, and particularly in today’s Freshwater Keelboat Regatta on Lough Derg for Squibs, Dragons, SB20s and Flying Fifteens and the Autumn League final day at Howth Yacht Club, will probably have been discounted in the face of Storm Brian. W M Nixon looks south for sunshine and sailing.

If asked to rank the international sailing events of which come centre stage this weekend for their public interest, the lineup would be top place for the Volvo Ocean Race starting from Alicante tomorrow, the 608-mile Middle Sea Race which starts today from Valetta in Malta would be in second, third would be the 37th Annual Student Yachting Worlds among the Frioul Islands off Marseilles, which conclude tomorrow after five days of racing, while the biennial 690-mile Hong Kong to Vietnam Race which is currently finishing would come fourth.

The Volvo Ocean Race’s pre-eminence is inevitable. It’s a big razmatazz-filled long-running event which will carry us right through the winter and on into June 2018, when the seven contenders will have girdled the world by both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. They will fetch up to finish at The Hague in The Netherlands, right in the economic and political heart of the new Europe which may by then be emerging as Brexit takes shape, and the Volvo Ocean Race will make its own statement as representing a premier European brand of global status with dynamic Chinese connections.

However, before the proper show gets in the road tomorrow after the In-Harbour race this week, there have been the usual high dramas of a big-money event, with a relatively new Event CEO taking an early departure after his longterm plans proved to be a little too ambitious for the parent company, while one of the seven skippers was replaced in the week before the race because of a dispute about a budget over-run.

damian foxall2Damian Foxall – a significant presence in any major international sailing event

As for Irish interest, we’ve learned through Afloat.ie of our people involved at many levels in both the overall administration and within the teams. But now that it’s down to the real thing, with the first leg getting under way tomorrow from Alicante in Spain round the Iberian peninsula and north to Lisbon in Portugal – a very interesting 1450 miles for racing – the focus is inevitably on the gladiators, the sailors on the Volvo 65 One-Designs, and especially on Ireland’s stars, Damian Foxall aboard Team Vestas and Annalise Murphy aboard Turn the Tide on Plastic.

Damian Foxall we know as part of world sailing’s essential structure. The boy from Derrynane has carved out an international role at the upper end of the really tough global events. We could spend the rest of this blog outlining his sailing achievements, and his increasing prominence in the environmental movement, but will content ourselves by saying that until Damian Foxall is somewhere in the lineup, any major ocean racing event lacks a certain credibility.

Annalise Murphy signs-up for Dee Caffari’s Turn the Tide on Plastic campaign? Well, that was sensational. The campaign is backed by a Portuguese-based foundation which at one stage owned the formerly-Irish Volvo Racer Green Dragon as the organisation developed its profile. But that became information which was only by-the-way as the full implication was realized of the new direction which had been taken in the life-path of Ireland’s winner of the Silver Medal in the 2016 Sailing Olympiad.

turn the tide3The Volvo Ocean 65 Turn the Tide on Plastic - a very different sailing proposition to a Laser Radial or a foiling Moth, but Annalise Murphy is game for the challengeThose who devote themselves to the Olympic route to the exclusion of everything else inevitably seem a bit one-dimensional. But early in the season of 2017, Annalise, had already emphasised an interesting extra dimension by becoming the Women’s International Foiling Moth World Champion in the mega-fleet Moth Regatta in Lake Garda. And then when the big signing for Turn the Tide on Plastics was confirmed, we’d clearly moved on from a tunnel-vision Olympian to an all-rounder whose capacity as a very highly-trained athlete is uniquely allied with true sailing talent.

It’s something which will certainly be tested to extremes in the weeks and months ahead, but for now the Volvo Ocean Race has seen much the most consistent build-up put in by the Spanish boat Mapfre, skippered by Xabi Fernandez. His CV includes an Olympic Gold Medal in the 49er and America’s Cup campaigns. While the Mapfre team were fourth in the previous Volvo, they showed real promise, and in 2017 they’ve been fastest out of the box, winning the very first encounter, their decidedly breezy race round the Isle of Wight in the midst of Cowes Week at the beginning of August.

mapfre dongfeng1The Volvo Ocean 65 Mapfre on her way to winning the race off Alicante in perfect conditions, with Donfeng chasing on port tack

Their longtime lead in the Fastnet Race was snatched away at the last moment, but they’ve always been in the frame, and in this week’s In Harbour race – obligingly sponsored by their parent firm – it was Mapfre which took the bullet.

So we go into tomorrow’s Leg 1 with Mapfre already the boat to beat. But with a course which includes all the vagaries of the western Mediterranean, all the problems of the Straits of Gibraltar, and the decidedly intriguing passage from the Straits to Lisbon, we’re going to know a lot more about the Volvo Seven within a few days.

Meanwhile, in the almost ludicrously picturesque Grand Harbour in Valetta, tension is humming in the buildup to the start at 11:00 hrs CEST of the 39th Rolex Middle Sea Race this morning, at 608 miles one of the world’s 600-plus offshore classics. And it’s as tricky a course as you’ll find in many year’s racing, going from Malta anti-clockwise round various islands of which Sicily is the largest, and then back to Valetta.

Along the way you’ve to deal with obstacles such as the Straits of Messina while becoming accustomed to seeing active volcanoes as part of the view. And as for the winds, they can be all over the place, and sometimes astonishingly savage.

endlessgame coastal5The Cookson 50 Endlessgame glides along off Valetta, on her way to winning Wednesday’s coastal race from 33 of the Rolex Middle Sea Race’s 110 contenders.

Irish Sea connections go all the way back to the first race of 1968, when Solly Parker, who based his hefty Sparkman & Stephens 40ft sloop Deb in Holyhead, was persuaded by offshore racing stalwarts such as Dickie Richardson and Alan Stead that this new race was a must-do - Deb should be in it for the honour of the Irish Sea.

sunstone in slings6Tom & Vicky Jackson’s famous Sunstone reveals herself. New-built by McGruer of Scotland as Deb in 1965, she was one of Sparkman & Stephens first fin-and-skeg designs, and sailed in the first Middle Sea race of 1968. Throughout the 1970s, she was a regular ISORA participant under the name of Dai Mouse III

The logistics of getting her there and back scarcely bear thinking about, and her showing was only very middling. For although Deb could maintain a very good average speed in steady conditions – she is now Tom & Vicky Jackson’s Sunstone, arguably the most famous wooden cruising yacht in the word – the Middle Sea Race tends to favour boats which can accelerate quickly, and attain colossal speeds when conditions are right.

Since the Great Deb Expedition, the Rolex Middle Sea Race has always been of interest to Irish and Irish Sea sailors, and we’re on a roll with it these days, as Ian Moore navigated the 2016 overall winner, the Cookson 50 Mascalzone Latino, while in 2015 father-and-son crew Dermot and Paddy Cronin from Malahide won the two-handed division with their First 40.7 Encore, which was simply a sensational performance - there’s no other word for it.

paddy dermot cronin7Sensational! Paddy & Dermot Cronin of Malahide after winning the two-Handed Division in the 2015 Rolex Middle Sea Race.

The 110-strong fleet this year is as usual very eclectic, and exceptionally international with entries from Australia, New Zealand, the US, Chile, Lithuania and just about everywhere else you care to name, including countries which the rest of the world might think of as being involved in low key wars with each other, such as Russia and the Ukraine.

But then when you remember that ISORA was never more active than when the Troubles were at their height in the 1970s, then maybe offshore racing’s role in preserving civilised values in times of turmoil is something deserving of deeper examination. For although the competition may be fierce, there’s no greater symbol of peace than a racing yacht going about her harmless business.

With such a fleet, prediction is a real gamble, particularly as it’s expected to be light winds at first, with a fresher nor’wester spreading in on Monday. That looks to favour smaller craft, but as suggested, this is a race which is good for boats which accelerate rapidly and are capable of exceptional speeds, so the fact that George David’s Round Ireland Record-holding Rambler 88 is on the starting blocks is worthy of note.

sean arrigo and brian flahive8Among the favourites for the Two-Handed Division are Sean Arrigo of Malta and Brian Flahive of Wicklow

2016 champion Mascalzone Latino is away doing the Hong Kong to Vietnam Race with Ian Moore as navigator in the buildup to the Sydney-Hobart 2017 in December, and at time of writing she was leading IRC overall, so back in Malta it may well be that our best hope is in the two-handed division, where the hugely-experienced and successful Brian Flahive of Wicklow has teamed up with Sean Arrigo to race the J/122 Otra Vez. She’s a boat regularly in the frame in the Middle Sea race, and is the two-handed favourite.

In terms of glamour attention, the focus is on the IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss, with Alex Thomson and Nin O’Leary of Cork co-skippering. Mixed messages have been circulating about her crewing arrangements, and the best word we have is she’ll be doing it with four, as the two boyos will be joined by Will Jackson and Jack Trigger. There’ll be just those two extra, as there simply isn’t room for any more in that very focused little cockpit.

In a vid interview with The Times of Malta earlier this week, you gained the impression that Alex was doing the Middle Sea Race single-handed, but this more recent posting tells us Nin is definitely there:

Getting the very purpose-designed Vendee Globe racer Hugo Boss out of the narrow waters of Grand Harbour is going to be a bit of a challenge in itself. And as for competing in the quirky and often restricting Middle Sea Race in a vehicle which is at her magnificent best tearing along off the wind in the wide open spaces of the Great Southern Ocean, well, under any Horses for Courses Protocol, the Middle Sea Race might well come under Cruelty to Animals regulations……..

xp act9Wolf in sheep’s clothing…..the Xp44 Xp-Act has a strong Irish presence, and a successful race record

But we’ll be delighted to be proven very wrong. In another area of the fleet entirely, we have the reliable solidity of Barry Hurley, doing his fourteenth Middle Sea Race, and building on past successes by staying with the surprisingly quick “performance cruiser” Xp44 Xp-Act, owned by Joseff Schultels who co-skippers with Timmy Camilleri. They’ve lined up formidable talent with a strong Irish flavour, as it includes Barry Hurley (originally of Cobh) and Shane Diviney (Howth) as well as the exceptional international talent of Jochem Visser of Fastnet 2007 fame, and there’s a link to Round Irelands too, as Carlo Vroon of Tonnerre is on Xp-Act’s strength, while the former Round Ireland star, the Ker 46 Tonnerre de Breskens, is in this race, now known as Tonnere de Glen, and French-owned.

Also French-owned, but of special interest to Irish offshore aficionados, is the new Teasing Machine III for the ever-enthusiastic Eric de Turckheim of La Rochelle. A Nivelt-Muratet 54, she was launched from builders King Marine in Spain on July 6th, but seemingly there just wasn’t the time to get her completely race-ready for the Fastnet in August, so this morning will see her debut on the big stage.

teasing machine10The new Teasing Machine III, a Nivelt Murat 54, was launched in July

As for that remarkable wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, the Xp44, we’ve additional interest here as ISORA’s Andrew Hall has chartered another of them, X-Prime. Indeed, charter is a strong theme this year, as Conor Doyle of Kinsale is into the fray with a Kinsale YC crew and the chartered DK 46 Hydra, a Mark Mills design of 2004 vintage.

hydra mark mills11Conor Doyle of Kinsale has chartered the Mark Mills-designed DK46 Hydra

For Irish crews chartering, it’s a very accessible event just when you need a dose of sunshine to face the winter. But the Middle Sea Race has an almost mythical appeal which draws them in from all round the world, with Australia represented by Ludde Ingvall’s extraordinary hyper-skinny maxi CQS, which is so narrow that she has to carry her shrouds on a modern version of the channels required by the old “plank-on-edge” gaff cutters. In fact, CQS looks for all the world like one hull of a catamaran with an enormous keel under it, and for the life of me I just can’t see the concept working.

cqs ingvall12The 100ft CQS – she looks for all the world like one hull of a catamaran with an enormous keel attached

More conservative yet capable of real speed at the top of the fleet is the 100ft Leopard, entered by Pascal Oddo of France, whose main purpose will be to finish ahead of Rambler. Rambler in turn may find herself nibbled at by some Maxi 72s, notably Dieter Schon’s Momo from Germany and George Sakellaris’s Proteus from the US.

With Cookson 50s still giving everyone a hard time, the presence of two of them will always have to be considered, and one of them – Endlessgame (Pietro Moschini) – has already put up a marker by winning the coastal race on Wednesday against 33 other boats.

crusader nz13She looks like a lot of fun – the Elliott 35 Crusader from New Zealand burning it off

As for the far travellers, New Zealand’s representative is the sporty 2012-built Elliott 35 Crusader, which looks like a lot of fun and is being skippered by Brett Elliott for owner Anthony Leigh. The Chilean entry Anita (Nicola Ibanez Scott) is a J/122 whose home club is listed as Puerto Williams YC. Puerto Williams is often the final port of call before departing for Antarctica. It’s not often you see an RORC entry list with PWYC named as home club, so we’ll keep a specially benign eye on Anita’s progress.

But as to the overall winner, it’s all wonderfully open. Maybe as much as a quarter of the fleet are in with a good chance. Now that really is sport.

anita chile14Shades of Shackleton - the J/122 Anita from Chile gives her home club as Puerto Williams YC

Moving on to Item 3 on our Agenda of Interest, the islands of he Frioul Archipelago off Marseilles where the Student Yachting Worlds are entering their finals stages are about as different in atmosphere as possible from Puerto Williams. But sailing is sailing the world over.

And after all, it was in the Student Yachting Worlds of 2008 that one Nicholas O’Leary of Cork Institute of Technology won this championship overall by 0.9 points and had his first taste of international fame. So maybe the current UCD team of all the talents skippered by Jack Higgins can continue their progress up the leaderboard and provide us all with good news tomorrow.

Finally, it looks as though Ian Moore and Mascalzone Latino have it in the bag for the IRC overall win in the Hong Kong to Vietnam Race. So what’s the big deal in a race with only 13 boats, even if it does entitle ML’s crew to go in the Sydney-Hobart? Well the fact that an offshore race is finishing in a country that seemed a hopelessly war-torn zone no so very long ago is important. But equally, China – Napoleon’s “sleeping giant” – is very much awake. And sailing, like everything else, will be hearing a lot more about China.

Published in W M Nixon

Barry Hurley will compete in his fourteenth Rolex Middle Sea offshore Race in a row tomorrow sailing XpAct, a Maltese Xp44. He is one of a handful of Irish crews competing in the 39th race that forecasters say is going to be a heavy weather affair.

Royal Irish's Hurley will sail with mostly the same crew as the last few years. Hurley is helmsman and Irish connections on onboard XpAct are strengthened with Howth Yacht Club's Shane Diviney on board as a trimmer.

Royal Cork's Nicholas 'Nin' O'Leary will be building up his offshore hours in advance of the 2020 Vendee Globe as part of Alex Thomson's four man crew on Hugo Boss. See O'Leary's Facebook vid below.

Hurley, a former solo transatlantic race winner, told Afloat.ie, 'We’re ready for the race, having competed in the coastal race yesterday and finished first in class and third overall. Everything seems to be in full working order and the boat is fully ready after many weeks of preparation. It’s looking like a windier race this year than in recent years so it looks like it will be a bigger challenge for boats and crew than many are used to'.

Now Malta–based Brian Flahive, originally from Wicklow Sailing Club, is sailing double-handed this year on a J122. Flahive is a 2014 RORC Round Britain and Ireland Double-handed Race winner.

A full ISORA entry in the shape of a chartered XP44 X-Prime comes to the line thanks to Welsh skipper Andrew Hall, an Irish Sea regular in his J125, Jackknife.

Conor Doyle and an all Kinsale Yacht Club members crew have chartered a Mills DK46 ‘Hydra to add to the Irish ranks. (Thanks to Finbarr O'Regan via Facebook below)

XpACT Barry Hurley Barry Hurley's XpACT at the light airs Grand Harbour start of yesterday's coastal race

After the high level of Irish interest in the race in former years, there is a drop–off of Irish boats and sailors participating this year. As Irish offshore chief Peter Ryan explains 'the interest is there. The logisitical problems and past chartering problems may have put people off'.

The Royal Malta Yacht Club is a hive of activity , as the 110-boat international fleet taking part in the 38th Rolex Middle Sea Race, continue their preparations ahead of the start on Saturday. Light winds are expected for the first part of the race, with a significant northwesterly arriving by the third day.

According to the latest weather forecasts, the start is forecast to have a moderate easterly breeze, which is due to fade on the first night. Light winds should then affect the majority of the fleet throughout Sunday. By dawn on Monday, a fresh Mistral is expected to arrive in the vicinity of Favignana and these strong winds from the northwest are forecast across the race course for around 48 hours.

Fourteen teams from Russia will be taking part this year, including Yuri Fadeev's Reflex 38 Kabestan Intuition, which has only one non-Russian in the crew, Patrice Ernandez from France. “We are out practising today, and especially looking at our downwind trim.” commented Fadeev. “The boat is provisioned, and we are ready to race. It looks like we might have light winds for the first couple of days, then we are expecting a lot more wind, and we are hoping to get past Stromboli before it arrives, or it could turn into a tough beat to round the famous volcano.”

Ross Applebey, skipper of British First 45 Scarlet Sailplane, knows all too well how the weather can change in the Rolex Middle Sea Race. “Racing Scarlet Oyster in 2014, we experienced a full-blown gale, and we snapped our rudder, and retired from the race.” explained Applebey. “I think it is important to reduce sail early if you are expecting bad weather, and make sure everyone has had a good meal before it arrives. In 2014, the skies became very overcast, and a mist descended before the front arrived, so I would say that would be a good sign to look for!”

The northwesterly wind, known as the Mistral or majjistral in Maltese, emanates from the Rhone Valley. After a period of settled weather, there is change afoot in the Alps with snow forecast. The cooler air flow down the mountains will funnel through the valley and out onto the warm waters of the Mediterranean, where the winds will be energized produce high speeds as far south as Malta.

The 38th Rolex Middle Sea Race starts from Grand Harbour, Valletta at 11.00 CEST on Saturday, 21 October.

This article has been updated to mention additional Irish crews at 1100 on Friday, 20th October.

WM Nixon will be giving further coverage to the Irish in the Middle Sea Race in tomorrow's blog here.

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Ian Moore, originally of Carrickfergus, and Afloat.ie “Sailor of the Month” in October 2016 after navigating the Italian Cookson 50 Mascalzone Latino to overall victory in the Rolex Middle Sea Race last year, is not defending his Middle Sea title this time round writes W M Nixon. When the 2017 edition gets under way from Malta in Grand Harbour, Valetta on Saturday, Moore will be in the Far Eastern waters in Vietnam, for this morning he started in the biennial 690-mile Hong Kong to Vietnam Race.

For this one, he’s again navigating Mascalzone Latino, but with a new owner. The Middle Sea Race winning owner was listed as Vincenzo Onorato, but in the current race the boat sails under the colours of Matteo Savelli.

The fleet is modest – just 13 competitors after more than 40 took part in the recent regatta series in Hong Kong - and Mascalzone is racing in a group of ten, as the three lowest-rated boats were sent on their way yesterday. However, there are some notable contenders, and doing the race is part of the buildup in the bigger plan, as it counts as qualifier for the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race 2017 on December 26th.

mascalzone latino2The Cookson 50 Mascalzone Latino, navigated by Ian Moore, on her way to overall victory in the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2016. The boat – navigated again by Moore – is currently contesting the Hong Kong to Vietnam Race as part of a buildup to the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race 2017 on December 26th

In that, there’ll be several Cookson 50s to sharpen up Mascalzone Latino’s performance to an even higher level. When we remember that the preliminary outlines of the Cookson 50 concept were first aired by Mike Cookson to Farr Yacht Design something like 14 years ago, and that one of them – Ron O’Hanley’s Privateer – was a close second in last year’s Fastnet while Ger O’Rourke’s sister-ship Chieftain was overall winner in 2007, then clearly “Flash in the Pan” simply wouldn’t do as the name for a Cookson 50.

Race tracker here

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