Today, in the ancient fortress city of Valletta, the former 16th century « Sacra Infermeria » of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, was host to the prize giving for the 31st edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. Close to eight hundred guests – skippers, crews, family and friends – were on hand to collect trophies and awards for the Royal Malta Yacht Club’s premier offshore race.
The former 16th century hospital, located adjacent to Fort St Elmo and overlooking an historically accurate restoration in the late 1970s, which earned it numerous design awards. In a city rich in history, the Sacra Infermeria is an impressive edifice, and was considered to be one of the best hospitals in Europe, one that could accommodate over 900 patients in an emergency.
The main hall, measuring 155 metres in length, was at that time, one of the largest in Europe and was described as « one of the grandest interiors in the world. » Surviving four direct hits during the bombardment of WWII, the building was repaired and later served all sorts of uses: as a command hall, an entertainment centre, a children’s theatre, a school, and finally in the late 1970s, a modern conference center.
Seventy-six boats started the race, and 60 finished, one of the highest numbers of finishers in recent years. The fleet included boats from 17 nations, a veritable United Nations of competitors and certainly along the quay at Grand Harbour Marina, boats from Hungary, Italy, UK, US, Spain, and Slovenia, among others, bore this out.
At the prize giving, Royal Malta Yacht Club Commodore, Georges Bonello DuPuis thanked the competitors, event organizing committee, the international jury, yacht club staff and volunteers, and race sponsor Rolex. The Commodore was clearly pleased and he said, « I was asked how I would summarise this year’s event and the first word that came to mind was « epic », as I’m sure many of you who competed would agree. »
The race started last Saturday, in Grand Harbour, Valletta, on a day full of bright sunshine and blue skies. With the start signals from the Saluting Battery cannon at the Upper Barrakka Garden, Principal Race Officer Peter Dimech got the five classes away in an easterly breeze of eight knots – enough to get the race fleet out of the harbour, and on their way towards Sicily.
The fleet experienced light wind and a rhumb line filled with wind holes, so there was a lot of starting and stopping, with the back markers compressing at times to level up again. The trick was to get through the Messina Strait with a fair tide, one of a couple of tidal gates on the course, that would come into play. The 100-foot maxi Esimit Europa 2(SLO) led from the start and was able to keep their distance on their chief rival, the 100 foot ICAP Leopard (GBR). In fact, once around Stromboli, Esimit legged out and never looked back from there. When the two maxis reached the northwest corner off Trapani, the northwesterly mistral came in on schedule, though never built to the higher ranges that had been forecasted by some weather models.
Meanwhile the 50-70 footers, including Alegre (GBR), the Volvo 70 E1 (RUS), and particularly the TP52s Pace (GBR) and Lucky (USA), the R/P60 Wild Joe (HUN) and the Cookson 50, Cantankerous (ITA) were seemingly bound together pretty much all along the course. At the finish, these last four would finish within 30 minutes of each other.
Lucky‘s crew did a fine job strategically and physically – racing a TP52 around a 600+ mile course requires lots of fitness and stamina – of getting through the light spots and holding on through the bigger breeze, essentially sailing a nearly flawless race.
Once Lucky finished and assumed the overall lead on corrected time, the only real threats to her title were from what some might consider unlikely boats for an offshore race with a reputation for physically challenging conditions that are often the norm. The two boats in question might be unlikely, unless you know something about the depth of the local Maltese fleet. The J/122 Artie co-skippered by Lee Satariano and John Ripard has a great racing record, as well as having a crack crew of mostly family and friends. Likewise the J/133 Jaru, co-skippered by Andrew Calascione and Christian Ripard, is a top competitor in the local racing fleet.
So, with the clock ticking over the next 18 hours, the two J boats put the pedal down – photos taken onboard Artie during the race confirm that the boat was unleashed in a bid to get to the finish line pronto. In the end, despite a mistral that was producing 30+ knots in that area of the race course, and with average boat speeds on Artie of 9+ knots, and maximum speed in the high teens, between Pantelleria and Lampedusa, and then through the Comino channel, it was not to be. First Jaru fell off the pace nearing Malta, and then entering Marsamxett Harbour, the wind went light and Artie struggled to reach the finish line off the Royal Malta Yacht Club, missing the overall win by only 26 minutes. Still, a phenomenal effort for boat and crew and Artie finished 2nd overall in IRC and 1st in Class 4, while Jaru finished 1st in IRC Class 3, 1st in ORC Class 3 and 1stoverall in ORC.
Commodore Bonello DuPuis, said, « I must say that I feel extremely proud of our achievements as a Club, but even more so of the results of the Maltese fleet, especially those of Artie, Jaru, and Commanche Raider who gave it their best and literally put Malta on the map. Well done, boys! You made us proud. »
The main event at the prize giving was the overall winner in IRC, and for this the Rolex Middle Sea Race Trophy and a Rolex Yacht-Master timepiece were presented by Georges Bonello DuPuis and Mr. Malcolm Lowell, of Edward Lowell’s to Bryon Ehrhart, and the TP52, Lucky (USA).
Ehrhart, from Chicago, Illinois, USA, is a member of the New York Yacht Club and Chicago Yacht Clubs, and this past year he’s actively campaigned his boat on this side of ‘the pond’. Although this was Ehrhart and Lucky’s first time at the Rolex Middle Sea Race, it was clearly not beginner’s luck, as a lot of prior planning and race practice – last year’s Rolex Fastnet Race for one – ensured Lucky would get to Malta battle ready. The majority of Lucky‘s 13 crew members have been sailing on the boat since 2006, a mix of Americans, Brits, Welsh, Irish, Kiwis, and Aussies – more than a few of them fellow Etchells competitors.
Crew member Rodney Hagebols from Australia and several crew members, accepted the award on behalf of Ehrhart, who had to return to the US. Hagebols said, « This was our first time here in Malta and it was above and beyond everything we could have hoped for. Thanks to Bryon, he’s an inspiration to us all; to the other competitors, who made the race very interesting. I mean the race was three days and we couldn’t relax for a second. We pushed probably harder than we ever did before, and it was gratifying to have a great result…and thanks to Malta, for making us feel welcome – it’s been a fabulous experience. »
On Wednesday, when the overall win had been secured, Ehrhart said, « Certainly, we didn’t come expecting to win anything like this. We came expecting to work hard and put our best in. The Rolex Middle Sea Race is a classic and, in my mind, it will remain a classic. I would encourage everyone to come here to Malta to challenge. »
The Malta Tourism Authority Trophy for first foreign boat home, the RLR Line Honours Trophy for first boat home, and a Rolex Yacht-Master timepiece was presented to Igor Simcic, and his Slovenian maxi, Esimit Europa 2.
Anna Rossi, president of the Malta Sailing Federation and Godwin Zammit, Rolex Middle Sea Race Committee Chairman presented the IRC and ORC handicap class prizes:
IRC class winners were Class 1, Igor Simcic, Esimit Europa 2; Class 2, Bryon Ehrhart, Lucky; Class 3, Andrew Calascione, Jaru; Class 4, Lee Satariano, Artie.
ORC class winners were Class 1, Vladimir Prosikhin, E1; Class 2, Jens Kellinghusa, Varuna; Class 3, Andrew Calascione, Jaru; Class 4, Tomas Dolezal, Three Sisters
The youngest participating crewmember, Maltese Thomas Zammit Tabona, 16 years old, who sailed on Elusive 2 Medbank, was presented with the Youth Cup. His Excellency Efisio Luigi Marras presented owner/skipper Gerado Sigler with the Italian Ambassador’s Trophy for performing an outstanding act of seamanship onboard his 75-foot yacht Buccaneer.
The John Illingworth Trophy for first boat on corrected time in Double Handed Class went to the Maltese double handers, Anthony Camilleri and Gilbert Azzopardi, on the 34-foot BOV Plain Sailing. Given the severe conditions that developed for the last boats home, it was a feat to even have finished.
The Transport Malta Trophy for first boat across the line having a Maltese Skipper and a majority of Maltese crew members, went to Andrew Calascione, Jaru. Onboard Jaru, almost all of the crew were related in some way to co-skippers Andrew Calascione and his brother-in-law, John Ripard. Calascione said, « Everybody jelled, we all had different skills, different roles, we got on very well together and I think it was one of the greatest races I have done. »
Starboard Trophy for first Maltese boat overall on handicap under IRC and ORC went to Lee Satariano, on Artie (IRC), and to Andrew Calascione, on Jaru (ORC). The Nations Cup for best-combined score on corrected time under IRC by three boats from the same nation went to Artie, Jaru, Comanche Raider, all from Malta.