The Rolex Middle Sea Race is often called the world’s most beautiful yacht race. The circular course evokes strong emotions within every sailor who experiences its charms. Imagery and stories abound of the scenery, wildlife and conditions encountered.
The 37th edition which started on Saturday, 22 October proved no exception, and added yet another epic adventure to the legend of the race.
The ramparts of Valletta were awash with colour as thousands lined the ramparts of the fortified city to witness the start. The magnificent back drop of Grand Harbour provides one of the most iconic settings in world sailing. The cannons of the Saluting Battery, high above the water, added to the pageantry afloat as flame, smoke and noise signalled the beginning of the race for 107 teams representing 25 different nations.
The 2016 race will be remembered as a race of multiple dimensions, with the only consistency being the inconsistency in the wind. Generally light for the first 24 hours, what ensued was as wide in its variety as it was complex to master. The 608 nautical miles will be recalled more for testing mental strength than physical prowess over.
Recipient of the Rolex Chronometer and Rolex Middle Sea Race trophy as Overall Winner was Vincenzo Onorato’s Italian Cookson 50 Mascalzone Latino. Sweet success having lost out by just nine seconds the year before. George David’s Rambler 88 from the United States took Monohull Line Honours for the second year in a row and Giovanni Soldini’s Italian Multi70 Maserati won the Multihull class setting a new race record in this category.
Mascalzone Latino’s overall win was impressive for the team’s ability to keep the boat going in light airs. Smart tactics, superlative boat handling and exemplary leadership from skipper Marco Savelli gave the team a fighting chance.
The defining moment of the race came at Favignana when Mascalzone Latino spotted an opportunity to wriggle clear of the wind trap threatening to engulf the fleet. It was an example of supreme race management. The crew had done everything they could to keep themselves in contention during the early stop-start period. Seizing their one opportunity to gain an advantage, they did so with verve.
Vincenzo Onorato, the owner of Mascalzone Latino expressed his delight with the result. Despite being unable to participate this year, he was thrilled with his team’s performance: “I am really very happy for this victory. We have quite the same crew for many, many years. We won together six Worlds titles, I can’t remember how many Europeans and many of the most important major regattas in the world. The Rolex Middle Sea Race is the pinnacle of offshore racing in the Med. We were looking to win for a long time and finally we have proudly succeeded.”
In the Multihull Class all eyes were on the contest between Lloyd Thornburg’s American MOD70 Phaedo^3 and Maserati. Maserati arrived in Malta with structural damage and could not use its full foiling package. The crew also had little in the way of trimaran racing miles under its belt. Phaedo^3 appeared to hold an advantage and confirmed this by taking the lead right from the start as Maserati took a more conservative approach to exiting Grand Harbour.
Phaedo^3 appeared unassailable as the two powerhouses escaped the clutches of the windless north coast of Sicily and sped south towards Lampedusa. It was just after Pantelleria that the rule “to finish first, first you have to finish” reared its head – ugly or handsome depended which boat you were on. Phaedo^3 were on track to win their class and seemed set to not just smash the existing multihull race record but probably the outright one. Then came one of those moments. Brian Thompson described it as an “own goal”; the only words to emerge from the boat about what appears to have been a simple, but catastrophic error in navigation.
After passing Pantelleria, Phaedo^3 took a huge hitch to the east of the rhumb line. Those following on the tracker assumed it was to gain a better wind angle for the approach to Lampedusa. When the American multihull then turned north-east at Linosa it became apparent that it was rounding the wrong island. In having to retrace its steps to correct the error, Phaedo^3 turned an 11-mile advantage into a 65-mile deficit, and left Maserati clear to snatch the glory.
Giovanni Soldini showed signs of bemusement after the finish: “A race is never over until you finish. Anything can happen. When I saw that Phaedo had tacked, I thought they had broken something. I wondered if maybe I should call them on the radio to ask if they have some problem.” A good lesson in making your own luck and why it pays never to give up however the odds appear stacked.
Rambler 88 was the clear Monohull Line Honours favourite. The Juan K design is a powerful beast. With the long range forecast indicating the monohull record would be unattainable, and unlikely to be challenged at the head of the fleet, Rambler’s pre-race strategy was to do whatever could be done to lower their rating to open the door to an overall win should the weather favour her.
The race began well, despite the 82-ft Aegir chartered by Clark Murphy owning the start with an audacious manoeuvre. Once astride Sicily, Rambler’s quest appeared to unravel as a pack of chasing yachts threatened its lead. Several yachts even took advantage of the tricky conditions to get past the mighty Americans. The highly experienced team held their nerve and were finally able to stamp their authority on the race once out of the glue-like conditions off Stromboli. After Favignana, Rambler extended to take the gun by nearly five hours from Danish Volvo 70 Trifork.
Stepping ashore at the Royal Malta Yacht Club in Marsamxett Harbour, David was in a buoyant but reflective mood: “The Rolex Middle Sea Race is always fun. This is the most beautiful racecourse in the world. I would say this race was more frustrating than our previous ones. I’ve rarely seen compression as we had it those two times east of Messina and off Stromboli.”
According to David, overcoming the obstacles set by the early part of the race came down to belief: belief in the boat and, more importantly, the crew: “Racing offshore is an endless effort. I am fortunate to have an outstanding crew that is ready for anything, enjoys racing a fast boat and facing the challenges presented. We work well together and there is a lot of camaraderie and teamwork.”
Host nation Malta has long punched above its nautical weight at the Rolex Middle Sea Race. Maltese crews have won the race overall some seven times. In the early stages of this year’s race, there seemed a real possibility of another success for the island state, certainly until San Vito Lo Capo. By Lampedusa, although still holding a podium position, it was clear the last Maltese hope, Artie, was clinging on by its fingertips. The wind gods were not smiling.
Dr. Timmy Camilleri was the first Maltese skipper to finish the race, his twenty-third, supported by an international crew racing XP-PACT. Sean Borg’s Xpresso was the first boat home with a majority Maltese crew to win the Transport Malta Trophy. Two-time winners, Lee Satariano’s Artie, were unable to make it three wins in the fading winds. They can be proud of winning their class, as well as the Arthur Podesta Trophy for best Maltese boat under IRC. Jamie Sammut, owner of Unica, was taking part in his fourth race and took on the challenge Double Handed. Racing with John Cachia the pair beat nine other crews to win at their first attempt. They are the first Maltese entry to win this class for six years.
A beaming Sammut described the experience: “We had everything from no wind for hours to 28 knots of wind on the nose. John was the perfect sailing partner, he never let me down, he was pushing all the time, sometimes more than me. Racing two handed means that for most of the time you are alone on deck while the other person is sleeping. There is massive respect for and trust in your partner. It has been an amazing experience.”
With so many nations taking part, the race was a truly international affair. Many teams from Russia have taken part in recent years and this year they provided the second largest contingent after Italy. Nikolay Drozdov, owner of Rosatom Sailing Team, was taking part in his second race: “The two main lessons you can learn from a race like this are that you make no compromise on safety during preparation for this race, it is not a game. Secondly, 70 – 80% of your success is related to your preparation of the boat, crew, and equipment”. Rosatom would finish a respectable 11th in class and Drozdov was convinced they would be back next year.
Tony Guiu from Spain is a two-time participant in professional round the world races. Highly experienced, this was still a first attempt at the Rolex Middle Sea Race. Skipper of the Spanish TP52 Audax Energia, Guiu remarked beforehand: “I am really impressed by the level and diversity of the fleet. From what I hear the key is understanding the weather and adapting your tactics accordingly. This is not easy.” On returning he was wearing a huge grin. The race had been as difficult as expected but hugely rewarding. Audax came third in class and eighth overall. Guiu was sure he would be back.
Winner of the Rolex Fastnet Race in 2011 and 11 time Figaro sailor Alexis Loisin from France was another highly qualified sailor taking part in the race for the first time. In Loisin’s case it was on Noel Racine’s JPK 10.10 Foggy Dew, which finished an impressive third overall in a race that clearly favoured the big boats. According to Loisin: “This is a good race and a strong one. It is never easy, there is a lot of opportunity for gaining and losing. A good spirit is essential, especially at the end when people are tired, if you want a good result.” Foggy Dew’s podium place was evidence enough that the right attitude had been maintained throughout the race.
The 2016 Rolex Middle Sea Race came to a close with the traditional prize giving ceremony at the magnificent Mediterranean Conference Centre – formerly the Sacra Infermeria built by the Knights of St John in the 16th century.
Welcoming those present the Royal Malta Yacht Club Commodore Godwin Zammit was quick to recognise the part played by the crews in building the reputation of the race. Specifically, he drew attention to the number of teams and the variety of nations: “The race has shown again its universal appeal with an extremely varied fleet from 25 countries. The same high level of entries that other offshore races enjoy was once again maintained”. Commodore Zammit went on to thank the Maltese authorities including Transport Malta, Malta Tourism Authority, Armed Forces of Malta and Yachting Malta for their support. He also acknowledged the important ongoing partnership with Rolex which has enabled the Middle Sea Race to grow in stature over the years.
The 38th Rolex Middle Sea Race will start on the 21 October 2017.