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COVID-19With six months to go to the start of the 42nd Rolex Middle Sea Race on Saturday, 23 October, the Mediterranean’s premier 600-mile offshore classic looks well set. Some 47 yachts from 17 countries have entered, currently ranging in size from the mighty 42.56 metres (140 feet) ClubSwan 125 Skorpios down to the 9.14m (29.12 ft) Pogo 30 One & Only. Following last year’s successful running of the race, the Royal Malta Yacht Club is quietly confident that not only will the 2021 edition take place, but it is on track to do so with a sizeable fleet, COVID-19 allowing.

The headline contest looks to be between the soon to be launched Skorpios and the 30.4m (100 ft) racing Maxi Comanche, which will also be making its race debut. On paper, both are more than capable of challenging the elusive monohull race record of 47 hours, 55 minutes and 3 seconds, which has stood firm since 2007. An intriguing tussle should be in store and there will be more on this story in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, the Rolex Middle Sea Race has always been a melting pot of nations, just as the island of Malta itself. A quick look at the Double-Handed Class confirms this. The division has steadily grown over recent years, in keeping with the global offshore racing trend. So far, nine entries have made the commitment. Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom are currently represented, with some creditable teams in the list.

The 42nd edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race will start on Saturday, 23 October 2021.The 42nd edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race will start on Saturday, 23 October 2021. Photo: Rolex Kurt Arrigo

British entrant, Richard Palmer and the JPK10.10 Jangada’s experience of the Rolex Middle Sea Race is less than positive. Forced to retire on Jangada's only previous appearance at the race in 2018, Richard will be hoping for a result more in keeping with his racing efforts in 2020. Last year, Jangada took the overall win under IRC at the RORC Transatlantic Race (racing two-handed), as well as winning the IRC Double-Handed Class at the RORC Caribbean 600 and capped it off by taking home the RORC Yacht of the Year.

Gerald Boess & Jonathan Bordas, crewing Jubilee, the French J/109, have form of their own having won the John Illingworth Trophy for first in the Double Handed Class on corrected time under IRC at the 2020 Rolex Middle Sea Race. “Preparation is very important, especially sailing double-handed,” explain the pair. “Everything from stowing the provisions on the boat to organising a watch system. You also need to be thinking ahead about what is coming. Trust in one another is also very important, so you can have proper sleep during the race!”

Another French yacht with potential to push for the podium is Ludovic Gérard’s Solenn for Pure Ocean. The JPK10.80 has appeared twice before at the Rolex Middle Sea Race, both times racing fully crewed. In, 2018, Solenn finished second in IRC 6, following up this impressive debut by winning IRC 6 in 2019 by four seconds on corrected time. Ludovic has some solid short-handed results to back up this pedigree with a second in the Rolex Giraglia and a third in the Quadra Solo-Duo Méditerranée

Beppe Bisotto with the Fast 42 Atame from Italy have been regular attenders for many years, mostly racing fully crewed to good effect. More recent efforts have been in the Double Handed Class. Beppe’s best result to date is a third in 2015, and for that he should not be discounted. Björn Ambos and Mandalay (GER), Peter Luyckx and Blackfish (BEL), Sergio Mazzoli and Nuova (ITA), Leonardo Fonti and Ultravox (ITA), and, Sergey Pankov and One & Only (ESP) round out the double handed entries for the time being.

Over the years, Maltese crews have consistently punched high above the relative weight of their country, taking on the larger sailing nations and securing some spectacular results on time correction. The first ever race was won by local boat Josian and the past two races have been won by Elusive 2, another yacht representing the island state.

Jonathan Gambin has yet to add his name to the list of overall winners, but it is not for want of effort. Jonathan has raced the course 13 times since his debut in 2008 with his Dufour 44 Ton Ton Laferla. Finishing eleventh overall in his first appearance, he has experienced the highs and lows of the race: ranging from retirements to third overall and first in IRC 5 in 2020.

“I love this race!” enthuses Jonathan. “Often, it marks my first “days-off” after a gruelling summer of work. I am fortunate to race with a good crew. They are all amateurs, mainly work colleagues and friends, but proven sailors. What they lack in experience with this type of race they make up for with attitude even when the going gets difficult. ”

“My favourite part of the race is the leg from Favignana to Pantelleria,” continues Jonathan. “It is usually a fast fetch in rough seas. As well as my crew, I am lucky to have a very supportive sponsor in Laferla. This year we will have a complete suit of sails for the first time. This will stand us in good stead and hopefully help us to an even better result than last year.”

Can Malta make it three wins in three year? The 42nd edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race will start on Saturday, 23 October 2021.

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All being well, the 42nd Rolex Middle Sea Race will start on Saturday, 23 October 2021. The Notice of Race is available online and yachts may already register to participate. Given the ongoing global pandemic causing so much disruption, there is a long way to go before the starting cannons fire in Grand Harbour. However, the Royal Malta Yacht Club is one of the few organisations to have successfully hosted a blue riband offshore race in 2020. There is, therefore, considerable hope that the club will be able to repeat that success.

Some 50 yachts made it to Malta last year and took on the famous 606 nautical mile race that features two active volcanoes, a myriad of islands and, uniquely, a start and finish in the same location.

The 2020 Rolex Middle Sea Race attracted the usual array of international entries, with 14 nationalities representedThe 2020 Rolex Middle Sea Race attracted the usual array of international entries, with 14 nationalities represented Photo: Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

“We are thrilled to have pulled off such an achievement,” said Commodore David Cremona. “It was a real buzz after so many months of difficulty to welcome the fleet and put on the race. Everyone involved did the Rolex Middle Sea Race proud. We are under no illusion that it will be any more straight-forward this year, but we know it can be done and we will do our very best once again.”

The 2020 Rolex Middle Sea Race attracted the usual array of international entries, with 14 nationalities represented. Having witnessed the first ever Russian success in an offshore race, with Bogatyr in 2017, last year it was time for Poland to shine. The young crew of I Love Poland took Monohull Line Honours by a mere three minutes after a titanic struggle over the final few miles with their countrymen on E1.

Maserati Multi70Maserati Multi70 Photo: Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

The battle in the multihull fleet was arguably even more intense, with the two Italian trimarans, Maserati Multi70 and Mana, locked together for virtually the entire duration of the race. Maserati finally managed to establish a lead at Lampedusa and held on to win Multihull Line Honours by 15 minutes. Mana took the overall win under MOCRA Rating.

The true fairy-tale in 2020 was the overall monohull victory of Elusive II under IRC RatingThe true fairy-tale in 2020 was the overall monohull victory of Elusive II under IRC Rating

Aside from overcoming the issues presented by COVID-19, the true fairy-tale in 2020 was the overall monohull victory of Elusive II under IRC Rating. For the second time in two years, the young, but experienced and thoroughly determined, Maltese crew held their nerve to win a light wind race that tested their patience as much as their skill. Elusive II’s repeat victory was the first since Nita IV in 1980. Such an achievement is rare in yachting. It has not been accomplished at the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race since 1965 and only once since 1957 at the Rolex Fastnet Race. Yet, who’s to say Elusive II will not make it three in a row?

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1700 CEST: It is the year that just keeps on giving. By midnight on Wednesday, 15 of the 50-boat fleet had completed the course. Ten of those were competing under IRC for the overall Rolex Middle Sea Race Trophy and the French yacht, Tonnerre de Glen, was the ‘clubhouse leader’, facing a tense wait to see if their corrected time could be overhauled. With more than 30 boats still on the course, there were plenty with the opportunity, if conditions conspired in their favour. At 0350 CEST, this morning (Thursday), it was all over for Dominique Tian’s Tonnerre. The Maltese yacht, Elusive 2, slipped across the line in a fading breeze to take the lead by just over one and a half hours. The burden of waiting had transferred.

That wait was close to 12 hours but, at 1500 CEST, the Royal Malta Yacht Club were satisfied no one out on the course could surpass Elusive 2. As winners of last year’s Rolex Middle Sea Race, by winning the 41st edition, the crew of the Beneteau First 45, jointly skippered by Maya, Christoph and Aaron Podesta, had achieved something no boat had managed since 1980 - winning back to back races. The Podesta family chapter in the legend of the race, began by father Arthur back in 1968, continues to grow.

The Elusive crew are an impressively tight knit group. The preparation of their boat is detailed and exemplary. It was made more complicated this year by the need to consider social distancing and maintain family bubbles. It is a real team, each member bringing something special to the mix. So closely bound are the four main protagonists, the three Podesta siblings and the navigator, David Anastasi, that they even considered not racing at all had one of them fallen ill before the start.

“It is a huge achievement to have won this race in back to back years,” enthused Christoph, clearly grappling with the enormity of their success. “It is really hard to win the race at the best of times, so winning it twice in a row is massive and something we are all going to be very proud of for a long time to come. We are sailing with our family boat, with a family team and I am struggling to find words to describe the feeling!”

“It is quite surreal that we have managed to tick all the boxes to top the podium again,” confirmed Maya. “The race means a lot to us. We worked really hard preparing the boat, just as if it was any other year. We were juggling so much between work and family though, we almost did not have time to think properly about the race. Nothing comes easily and we worked very hard for it pushing, pushing, pushing.”

For Aaron, too, the size of accomplishment is taking time to dawn, perhaps reflecting the exhaustion etched in his face as he stepped ashore after nearly five days at sea: “Generally, a Rolex Middle Sea Race is a mix of physical and mental toughness. Last year was a good mixture of the two. This year, the light conditions made it mentally very challenging.”

“Physically it was pretty straight-forward,” continued Aaron. “There was no battling with oilskins while the boat pounds and heels, or getting in and out of a wet bunk. Mentally, though, it was super-draining. You could not relax for one minute. There were wind holes everywhere, every corner of the race had a park up. We had to really plan how we were going to get out of the holes as quick as possible.”

David Anastasi commented: “This year was really interesting tactically and navigationally because of the relatively small size of the fleet and our class. Some of our usual competition did not make it, so we lacked boats to gauge ourselves against. Last year we could see our gains. So we sailed our race, were confident in our decisions, making them based upon where we were on the course rather than looking at other boats.”

Despite the fatigue from the cerebral test, they clearly relished the challenge. Christoph, who was completing his 19th race, enjoys each opportunity to learn more about the course: “Every year, I keep adding new tricks and pieces of the puzzle to the notebook of the race. Hopefully, I will use them in the future to make sure we do not get stuck or lose valuable time for silly mistakes.”

Like his brother and sister, Christoph was delighted that they and the crew had adapted well to the circumstances of this year. “We normally have a really heavy weather piece of the race that takes it out of us,” he continued. “This year, I think all that energy was channelled into patience and calmness, keeping the boat going fast, trying to understand the weather patterns and strategic positioning on the course.”

As well as being first overall in the IRC fleet, Elusive secured the veritable ‘cherry on the cake’ according to Aaron, by being first Maltese boat home on the water. Something they really had not expected at all, but being fiercely proud of their national heritage, a scalp that is valued highly.

Are the Elusive crew looking ahead to next year? “We are clearly quite addicted to the race,” admits Christoph. “I have no doubt we will start joking between us about modifications and improvements, picking up upon weaknesses we found with the boat and ourselves. I’m sure we‘ll keep on building on all the hard work.”

It has taken 40 years for a boat to repeat success in consecutive years.

Who would bet against next year being a three-peat?

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At 15:00 CEST today (Thursday, 22 October 2020) the winner of the 41st edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race was announced as the Maltese First 45 Elusive 2, skippered by Aaron, Christoph and Maya Podesta.

As Afloat reported earlier, none of the remaining yachts at sea are able to better their corrected time.

Elusive 2 becomes the first boat to win back to back races since Nita IV, which won three times between 1978 and 1980.

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A strengthening breeze from the southeast has brought the key middle group of top handicap win contenders in the 41st Rolex Middle Sea Race from Lampedusa through the night and the early hours of this morning to the finish at Malta. And though the wind drew more from the east to head them as they neared Valetta, the leading home team of the Podesta family in the First 45 Elusive 2 retained the first place on handicap in which they'd clearly emerged at the Lamepdusa turn, and took what now looks like an unassailable overall win in the 41st Rolex Middle Sea Race.

Once she'd found the breeze, Elusive's performance improved even further, and she lengthened her corrected overall lead to almost exactly two hours ahead of Dominique Tian's Ker 46 Tonnere de Glen (originally Piet Vroon's Tonnere de Breskens, and no stranger to the Round Ireland Course).

The top eight places as currently finished have underlined the exceptionally international nature of this race, which attracted entries from 21 countries, and saw 15 nations represented at the start – with crew from many more - even after pandemic restrictions reduced the boat numbers.

Third place saw a return to the frame by the Belgian Swa 50 Baltahasar (Louis Balcaen), 4th was the TP52 Freccia Rossa from Russia, 5th was the Aquila 45 Katsu from Germany, 6th was Teasing Machine from France, 7th was Hagar V from Italy and 8th was Aragon from The Netherlands with Nin O'Leary on board, which was first on IRC of the boats above 70ft and winner of Class 1.

Middle_sea_race_course

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After an excellent Pantellaria to Lampedusa leg, Middle Sea Race defending champion Elusive 2 (Podesta family, Royal Malta YC) has just corrected into the overall lead, and up ahead the Volvo 70 I Love Poland (Konrad Lipski) has finally made the finish to take the monohull line honours, as Afloat reported here.

While Elusive 2 has always been in touch, and led on Corrected Time now and again, more recently the focus has been on boats around the 50 to 55ft mark as favourites to win in a demanding race in flukey winds, with some of the more austerely-provisioned now getting low on food.

The Aquila 45 Katsu, formerly owned by RUYC member Alan Hannon and now owned by Carl-Peter Forster of GermanyThe Aquila 45 Katsu, formerly owned by RUYC member Alan Hannon and now owned by Carl-Peter Forster of Germany, is currently third overall in the Middle Sea Race. Photo courtesy RMYC.

But well-fed or not, for the last three turns of this 606-mile race - at Favignana, Pantelleria and Lampedusa - the top IRC placings have been shuffled between around eight boats, and at Lampedusa it was Elusive's turn to correct into 50 minutes ahead of the French-owned Ker 46 Tonnere de Glen, with another similarly similarly-sized boat, the Aquila 45 Katsu (once owned by Donegal-based Royal Ulster YC member Alan Hannon) in third, while the Marten 72 Aragon, with Crosshaven's Nin O'Leary in the afterguard, is staying in the picture at 8th.

Middle_sea_race_courseSaving the best till last – some excellent sailing between Pantelleria and Lampedusa has done the business for Elusive 2

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I Love Poland (POL), skippered by Grzegorz Baranowski crossed the finish line of the 2020 Rolex Middle Sea Race at the Royal Malta Yacht Club to take Monohull Line Honours at 11:58:05 CEST today (Wednesday 21st October) in an elapsed time of 3 days, 23 hours 58 minutes 5 seconds.

Baranowski, claimed a dramatic line honours title following the closest finish in recent race history. She arrived a little over three minutes ahead of rival entry E1, also from Poland and another VO70. The two crews enjoyed a memorable duel over the final ten miles, effectively match racing towards the finish line.

The race record remains the time of one day, 23 hours, 55 minutes and three seconds set by the American yacht Rambler in 2007.

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If you know it's going to be a light airs Middle Sea offshore race, you'd reckon a stripped out and race-proven TP52 would be a good all-round bet, with her ability to comfortably outsail anything smaller, yet with an uncanny capacity to stay within shouting distance of much larger craft.

It's something which is being demonstrated very clearly at the moment as the mono-hull leaders struggle slowly over the leg from Pantelleria to Lampedusa. For although the Volvo 70 I Love Poland continues to lead on the water in the light southeast winds, having finally put Lampedusa astern, back at the previous turning point of Pantellaria the corrected time leader was Russian skipper Vadim Yakimento's TP52 Freccia Rossa, which was just 22 minutes on the water astern of Eric de Turcheim's NMYD 54 Teasing Machine from France, but The Machine's higher rating mans that, not for the first time, it's a Russian boat leading the Mediterranean's premier event.

Russian-owned TP 52 Freccia RossaA reliable thoroughbred – the Russian-owned TP 52 Freccia Rossa currently leads the Rolex Middle Sea Race

The conditions make it particularly demanding to get a competitive performance out of a well-appointed cruiser-racer such as the Marten R-P 72 Aragon from The Netherlands, but aboard her Nin O'Leary and his shipmate have shown they've the patience and persistence required, as Aragon is currently lying fifth overall.

Middle_sea_courseThe 606-mile course uses turning marks which are directly drawn down from an episode of Inspector Montalbano……

As for the defending champion, the First 45 Elusive 2 raced by the Podesta family of Malta, they are currently first in Class 4, but at Favignana were lying sixth overall, one place behind Aragon.

Ferguson celebrates in Valetta

Meanwhile, in Valetta there's socially-distanced celebrating with the crews of the big trimarans Maserati and Mana, as Maserati took line honours, but Mana – with round Ireland record 1993 veteran Brian Thompson and Mikey Ferguson of Belfast Lough on the strength – pipped her by four minutes for the corrected time multihull win.

The celebrations are both socially-distanced and decidedly muted, as the crews, having flown in from a mainland Europe already starting to close down even further, are now wondering if they're going to have a longer stay than planned in Malta's warm Autumn sunshine.

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Maserati Multi70 (ITA), skippered by Giovanni Soldini, crossed the finish line of the 2020 Rolex Middle Sea Race at the Royal Malta Yacht Club to take Multihull Line Honours at 20:41:31 CEST on Monday 19th October in an elapsed time of 2 days, 08 hours 31 minutes 31 seconds.

Mana (ITA), owned by Riccardo Pavoncelli, and with Belfast Lough sailor Mikey Ferguson onboard, finished fifteen minutes behind after a closely fought battle around the course.

Ferguson's handicap win

Ferguson & Brian Thompson (Lakota round Ireland record 1993) on Mana have won the Middle Sea Race Mocrra Division on corrected time by 4 minutes 23 seconds.

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Nice one, Nin. With a sailing rockstar recruited into your crew, it's reasonable to expect a 22-carat gold rockstar introduction to the on-stage performance. And Crosshaven super-helm Nin O'Leary certainly came up with the goods at the start of the Rolex Middle Sea Race in Malta yesterday, when he sliced out of the harbour in one single uninterrupted port tack with the Dutch-owned R-P/Marteen 72 Aragon, getting clear first into open water when others further down the line in the classes coming along later saw some time-consuming experiences of zig-zagging in the in-harbour flukey winds.

Although the organisers were still looking at 71 starters from 21 countries a week ago, as the start approached and the COVID-19 shutters came down with increasing severity in Europe, there were drop-outs. These included the famous Lombard 45 Pata Negra on charter to Andrew Hall of ISORA and Pwllheli, and in the end the Royal Malta YC did well to get just under 50 boats from 15 countries heading away on the 606-mile course anti-clockwise round Sicily and assorted islands.

Rolex Middle Sea Race CourseThe Rolex Middle Sea Race Course has everything except – for the moment – record-making wind strengths

They are doing it in a weather pattern of lightish winds which has already ruled out any possibility of a new record, but has nevertheless given the small but select Irish representation at the front of the fleet their time in the limelight. For in addition to the O'Leary talent on Aragon, the MOD 70 trimaran Mano, with Mikey Ferguson of Belfast Lough on board, was leading the multi-hulls.

It was a frustrating business getting along Sicily's East Coast and through the Straits of Messina, and out ahead among the multis the leader after putting Stromboli astern was Maserati with Mano third, while in IRC the Volvo 70 I Love Poland was the front runner.

The Belgian Swan 50 Balthasar was overall leader at MessinaThe Belgian Swan 50 Balthasar was overall leader at Messina

However, on corrected time at Messina, the IRC leader was the Swan 50 Balthasar (Louis Balcaen, Belgium), but the Podesta family of Malta's defending champion, the First 45 Elusive 2, was well in touch in third, just 20 minutes being the Belgian boat on CT.

And of the biggies, Aragon was doing best - she was sixth overall, on Corrected Time, close behind two boats with strong Round Ireland Race links, Eric de Turckheim's Teasing Machine and Tonnere de Glen, the former Piet Vroon Ker 46 Tonnere de Breskens

There's no "ocean racing" course quite like the Middle Sea, and in the current weather setup, there'll be plenty of frustration and placing upsets before they finish. But at least this very special race is up and running, and taking part in it is just about the healthiest thing that those involved could be doing.

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The Half Ton Class was created by the Offshore Racing Council for boats within the racing band not exceeding 22'-0". The ORC decided that the rule should "....permit the development of seaworthy offshore racing yachts...The Council will endeavour to protect the majority of the existing IOR fleet from rapid obsolescence caused by ....developments which produce increased performance without corresponding changes in ratings..."

When first introduced the IOR rule was perfectly adequate for rating boats in existence at that time. However yacht designers naturally examined the rule to seize upon any advantage they could find, the most noticeable of which has been a reduction in displacement and a return to fractional rigs.

After 1993, when the IOR Mk.III rule reached it termination due to lack of people building new boats, the rule was replaced by the CHS (Channel) Handicap system which in turn developed into the IRC system now used.

The IRC handicap system operates by a secret formula which tries to develop boats which are 'Cruising type' of relatively heavy boats with good internal accommodation. It tends to penalise boats with excessive stability or excessive sail area.

Competitions

The most significant events for the Half Ton Class has been the annual Half Ton Cup which was sailed under the IOR rules until 1993. More recently this has been replaced with the Half Ton Classics Cup. The venue of the event moved from continent to continent with over-representation on French or British ports. In later years the event is held biennially. Initially, it was proposed to hold events in Ireland, Britain and France by rotation. However, it was the Belgians who took the ball and ran with it. The Class is now managed from Belgium. 

At A Glance – Half Ton Classics Cup Winners

  • 2017 – Kinsale – Swuzzlebubble – Phil Plumtree – Farr 1977
  • 2016 – Falmouth – Swuzzlebubble – Greg Peck – Farr 1977
  • 2015 – Nieuwport – Checkmate XV – David Cullen – Humphreys 1985
  • 2014 – St Quay Portrieux – Swuzzlebubble – Peter Morton – Farr 1977
  • 2013 – Boulogne – Checkmate XV – Nigel Biggs – Humphreys 1985
  • 2011 – Cowes – Chimp – Michael Kershaw – Berret 1978
  • 2009 – Nieuwpoort – Général Tapioca – Philippe Pilate – Berret 1978
  • 2007 – Dun Laoghaire – Henri-Lloyd Harmony – Nigel Biggs – Humphreys 1980~
  • 2005 – Dinard – Gingko – Patrick Lobrichon – Mauric 1968
  • 2003 – Nieuwpoort – Général Tapioca – Philippe Pilate – Berret 1978

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