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Rolex Middle Sea Race: Simple Course, Complex Race

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The Rolex Middle Sea Race has a simple course, yet it is an incredibly complex race that appeals to professional and Corinthian sailors alike.  The combination of a myriad land features, with varied winds and sea states creates one of the most complex puzzles for navigators.

For a team to perform to the best of their ability requires extensive preparation and precise execution. Preparation is fundamental, yet the ability to interpret the changing conditions while racing and adapt accordingly ultimately delivers success.

The 36 edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race started on the 17th October, featuring a fleet of 111 yachts, from 22 nations with yachts ranging from 9 to 25 metres in length. There is no race with a more dramatic start under cannon fire from the bastions of Grand Harbour, as the fleet set off on a great adventure.

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The first to return were the Americans.  Lloyd Thornburg’s MOD 70 trimaran Phaedo3 christened the finish line just after midnight on Tuesday, 20 October. Closely followed by George David’s canting keel maxi Rambler 88 who claimed monohull line honours.  An impressive feat for the course record holders, who had hoped for a weather forecast that would enable them to better their time with their new Juan Kouyoumidjian design.

“We broke the course record in 2007 but that has not been broken this year. So it is nice to keep that one intact,” commented George David. “This was a slow race, although we did have incredibly varied conditions, we saw zero to 23 knots of wind speed and everything in between and every cardinal point of the compass for wind direction and wind transitions of up to 90 degrees. In respect of the record, the first half of the race killed any chance and in the second half we had 160 miles dead up wind from Trapani to Lampedusa."

The overall victory was one of the closest in living memory, won by just seconds deciding the outcome. With precision, teamwork and experience two Italian teams battled for the Rolex Middle Sea Race Trophy. Vincenzo Onorato’s Cookson 50 Mascalzone Latino and TP52 B2, owned by Michele Galli, the overall winner of the 2013 Rolex Middle Sea Race. 

B2 (ITA) crossed the finish line just before midnight, to take first position in the overall rankings but there was a nervous look about the crew. They scanned the darkness outside Marsamxett Harbour, looking for the masthead light of Vincenzo Onorato's, Cookson 50 Mascalzone Latino (ITA). As their Italian rivals came into view, the tension was obvious onboard B2. Mascalzone Latino crossed the finish line minutes later and stopped the clock. After three and half days at sea, B2 corrected out to beat Mascalzone Latino by a mere nine seconds.  An incredible feat, having sailed 649 nautical miles.

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Thinking back on the race, Spanish navigator Nacho Postigo commented; “Crossing the finish line with an advantage of nine seconds in corrected time was a big surprise, but even if we had lost to Mascalzone Latino we would have been happy, because we know both teams raced a great race and we both would be fair winners.”

“For me this was a typical Middle Sea Race: you struggle to find the wind, and when you find it, it happens to be in excess. This time it was more about light than about strong winds. I think it is one of the most challenging races in the world.  There is a strong association between land and sea, and this drives you to take many important decisions along the way; sometimes, mistakes are really expensive here.”

“We have a great team on B2. Francesco De Angelis is a very motivating person, always pushing. Michele is a fantastic owner, very competitive, and he really loves these offshore races. And then the rest of the crew: I don’t know the number of (spinnaker) peels we’ve did in these three days and a half, but they were all simply perfect.”

Over the course of six days, it was to become clear that this year’s edition was a race favouring the larger boats.  Those who could keep up with the favourable wind conditions, while the smaller boats fell prey to the light airs only to be whisked up on late Wednesday when a mistral came through, producing feisty conditions with short confused seas and gale force winds.

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Setting the pace in the fleet from the outset was Dieter Schoen’s Maxi 72 MOMO (GER), who beat out rival Rambler 88 on corrected time to claim the victory in IRC 1.  MOMO hardly let the American Maxi out of their sight during the three days and on corrected time would be the class winner, and finish third overall in the 2015 Rolex Middle Sea Race.

There was high drama in the early hours of sixth day, with five Maltese boats all finishing the race in sight of each other at the Royal Malta Yacht Club. Lee Satariano & Christian Ripard's Artie, was the first Maltese yacht to cross the line, quickly followed by Timmy Camilleri & Josef Schulteis' Xp-act Bank Sails, Elusive II BOV, skippered by Christoph Podesta was next but there was more to come.  Jamie Sammut's Unica and David Anastasi & Sonke Stein's Oiltanking Juno completed the scene.

Racing in IRC 5, Lee Satariano and Christian Ripard’s J/122 Artie were overall winners of the 2014 edition and were back to defend their title. The Maltese team sailed well to win their class but the light conditions for their type of boat made a repeat victory almost impossible.

Lee Satariano commented after the race: “Mentally that was a very tough race and at times very frustrating, overall I don't think there was anything more we could have done to achieve a better result. At many stages of the race, if we could have found more wind, we would have done, but there is an element of luck to that and this year, we were not so lucky but tactically we sailed pretty well and amongst the crew, we agree that we probably sailed the boat better this year than we have ever done. We set out to win our class and we are very happy that we have achieved that.”

Christian Ripard spoke about the seven Maltese yachts taking part: “I think that the fact that so many Maltese boats finished so close together shows that we are very competitive people. The level of sailing amongst the Maltese teams has definitely gone up, we have all improved, because the standard starts somewhere and someone takes that on and so we drive each other to new levels. Maltese sailors are also taking part in more racing internationally and this race is getting bigger and the Maltese sailors are taking it more seriously.”

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At the Prize Giving Ceremony at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Godwin Zammit, Commodore of the Royal Malta Yacht Club, welcomed the honoured guests, sailors and friends of the Rolex Middle Sea Race and reserved a special mention for Arthur Podesta who had passed away just weeks before the start and had competed in every edition of the race since 1968.

“Arthur was ready to sail this race once again but sadly it was not to be.” commented Godwin Zammit. “Arthur was a prominent and respected member of the Club, a past Commodore, a veteran sailor and a friend. His absence will be felt at a long time at the Royal Malta Yacht Club. The race goes on and as Arthur had wished, his family have kept their annual appointment with the race this time in the capable hands of his children; Aaron, Maya and Christoph and Elusive put up a very credible performance coming second in class.”

The Royal Malta Yacht Club is built upon the strong link between Malta and the sea.  As the organisers of this historic race prepared for the official prize giving, held where the Knights of Malta ran one of the first hospitals in Europe for more than 200 years, Commodore Godwin Zammit commented; “It’s been an interesting fleet with some high profile, big exciting multihulls - is a change from previous years. The variety is a good thing.  We have many different kinds of boats from the big, professionally crewed boats to the family owned yachts.  We are already looking forward to and planning for the next edition.”

The 37th edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race will start on 22 October 2016. 

*Photo Credit: Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

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