In one of the most superb high speed offshore racing competitions, three of the world’s largest and fastest racing maxis arrived back in Valletta on 25 October, and were the first monohulls home in the Rolex Middle Sea Race, the first event of the International Maxi Association’s 2021-22 Mediterranean Maxi Offshore Challenge. They covered the race’s 600 mile anti-clockwise lap of Sicily at record pace.
In 2007, American George David and his original Rambler 90 had established the benchmark Rolex Middle Sea Race record time of 47 hours, 55 minutes and 3 seconds. Despite numerous attempts in his subsequent Rambler 100 and Rambler 88, the tenacious David never managed to improve upon his time in the intervening years.
Since the Royal Malta Yacht Club’s classic 600 miler started on Saturday there has been a prolonged battle for the monohull lead between the line honours favourites, the tried and tested, now Russian-owned, VPLP-Verdier 100 Comanche and Dmitry Rybolovlev’s ClubSwan 125 Skorpios, only launched at Nautor’s yard in Finland late this spring. After a close race, it was Comanche that prevailed, crossing the finish line at the entrance to Malta’s Marsamxett Harbour at 04:27:50 this morning in an elapsed time of 40 hours, 17 minutes and 50 seconds. This represented a monumental improvement over the previous record of 7 hours 37 minutes and 13 seconds or 16%.
Skorpios finished 1 hour 26 minutes astern while Rambler 88, outgunned by the sheer waterline length advantage of her rivals, finished mid-morning. With an elapsed time of 46 hours 20 minutes and 25 seconds, David bettered his 2007 time and, under IRC Rambler 88’s elapsed time, corrected out to 3 hours 20 minutes ahead of Skorpios, but short of Comanche.
As Neal McDonald, former Volvo Ocean Race skipper and part of Fernando Echavarri’s crew on Skorpios, put it: “The chances of going downwind across the top [of Sicily] and then downwind across the bottom again is zero.” Mitch Booth, skipper of Comanche agreed: “It’ll be a tough one. I don’t think we could have got a better weather window than that. It was pretty close to perfect.”
Modern day high performance monohulls typically don’t go upwind well. Fortunately in this race there was perhaps just an hour of upwind for frontrunners when they tacked to get around Capo Passero at the southeastern-most tip of Sicily on Saturday afternoon.
Often competitors get held up passing through the Strait of Messina which narrows to just 2 miles between Sicily and the Calabrian coast. Not so this time, McDonald explained: “We shot out like you wouldn’t believe – at 20 knots in flat, flat water in the middle of the night. These boats are wind creators: You don’t need much to generate so much speed with the massive rig. It was multihull speeds in a monohull - phenomenal.”
Both boats experienced issues at the Strait – Comanche blew up a spinnaker entering the Strait, while Skorpios came to a grinding halt suffering furler problems exiting the Strait. “When you have a furling problem on a boat that size, you are in the hands of the weather gods. You are thinking about how much runway you’ve got,” said McDonald. The net result, plus Comanche assisted by the tacticial and navigation cunning of Tom Slingsby and Will Oxley respectively, was that the two were neck and neck up to the northeast turning mark at the volcanic island of Stromboli with Rambler 88 slowly losing ground on her bigger rivals.
Passing north, Sicily was the windiest part of the race when they saw at times 25 knots. “It was full-on, downwind, pedal to the metal- just marvelous,” continued McDonald. “It wasn’t wavy, so you’re not really surfing, but still doing 20-25 knots. I thought that would be the time when they [Comanche] hammer us, but when were next to them, they were higher and faster and we were lower but clearly our VMG was better, because we were slowly drawing ahead.”
The ride was exhilarating but wet on Comanche, which hit 32 knots. “It is good fun - a lot of spray, a good ride, but very wet. The amount of water that comes over the boat is mind-blowing, especially with our boat being so low,” recounted Booth.
This was compounded by further sail issues for Comanche. “A couple of hours after Stromboli it started building and building. Then we broached and blew up another spinnaker,” described Booth. “It is not an easy boat to broach! We were pushing so hard, doing 30 knots of boat speed, on the edge and it just spun out and [the kite] flogged and blew it up. But that’s racing - you push to the limits. We were lucky we had a third that we could put up and continue on.”
Passing Trapani, Skorpios was again leading until disaster struck, this time of Mother Nature’s making. Even before the start the forecast showed the area between Trapani and Pantelleria as volatile. So it proved as Skorpios got stuck in the windless hole created by a rain cloud. Remarkably, the fastest monohull in the world, the most highly rated ever under IRC, stopped dead. “That cost us 30 miles,” said McDonald. “We went in there 12 miles ahead and came out 7-8 miles behind, which rapidly turned into 20. It was mortifying. We were flapping around, stopped. I saw 0.01 knots…”
Comanche was able to pass to the east of the parked up ClubSwan 125. “The breeze went a bit squirrelly and we snuck by them,” said Booth. “We thought we had better keep covering from there, but as the breeze filled we started to extend again.”
Remarkably for Comanche’s owner, this was his first ever offshore race. Booth observed: “He loved it. There was no better way to start an offshore experience than that race. It was just brilliant. It was a good way to show him that offshore racing is an endurance, equipment-based sport.”
Behind the lead trio this evening a second wave of maxis were having a harder time of it, past Lampedusa and on the home straight back to Malta, but in headwinds. This group included the Gašper Vinčec-skippered 100ft Way of Life and several VO70s and VO65s led by the Grzegorz Baranowski skippered VO70 I Love Poland (ex-Puma). Marton Jozsa’s Reichel/Pugh 60 Wild Joe was just past Lampedusa.
The 2021-22 IMA Mediterranean Maxi Offshore Challenge continues next year with the Regata dei Tre Golfi, 151 Miglia-Trofio Cetilar, Rolex Giraglia and the Palermo-Montecarlo.
Image credits: Rolex/Kurt Arrigo