October 21, 2009

Without doubt the most productive finish line watch duty at this year’s Rolex Middle Sea Race was from 11.30 to 15.30 on Wednesday. Royal Malta Yacht Club watchkeepers, Clive and Mary Chipperfield, witnessed eleven yachts complete the course, equalling the number that arrived over the whole of Monday and Tuesday. The total number of finishers by 17.30 was thirty-seven, with one more through the Comino Channel and on the home stretch. An exciting day which saw Andy Soriano’s Alegre (GBR) confirmed as Overall Winner of the 30th Rolex Middle Sea Race and David Franks’ Strait Dealer, skippered by David Anastasi, taking the trophy for first Maltese boat home on the water. A number of class trophies were decided, but with eight yachts still to finish there are one or two still in the balance.

Malta woke to a windless, clear sky with some mild humidity. A nice start to the day for a tourist, but not a good situation if you are clawing your way along the northern coast of Malta rather hoping to wrap a class victory with a fast finish. Klaus Diederich’s and Grant Gordon’s Swan 45 Fever (GBR) found itself in just this situation at sunrise this morning. The international crew including notables such as Andy Beadsworth, Gary Barron, Wouter Verbraak and Tony Rey really had to work to squeeze their steed over the line. In the end, the effort was not enough and currently Arthur Podesta and Elusive II Medbank (MLT) sit atop Class 3.

Co-owners Gordon and Diederich had enjoyed the race, as Diederich remarked, « the reach up to Messina was a fantastic experience. We were absolutely flying, touching 22 knots, it is the fastest we have ever been in the boat. » Gordon was in full agreement, « there are few Swan 45s that venture offshore but we love it. You get a totally different atmosphere to short course racing. The scenery for this race is also spectacular which adds to a great experience. »

After rounding Stromboli, Fever had encountered severe weather conditions as Olympic medalist and America’s Cup skipper, Andy Beadsworth explained, « the sail plan of a Swan 45 is not really designed for offshore racing, let alone 40 knots of wind, and we were forced to drop the main and deploy the storm try-sail. During the race, we used every sail on the boat, except for the storm jib. »

‘We built up a significant lead around the top of Sicily, » commented Volvo Ocean Race navigator, Wouter Verbraak. « But we completely ran out of breeze at Pantelleria and could only watch as the competition came from behind. However, after passing Lampedusa, we made a move to the left of the course and probably made a gain bigger than the loss at Pantelleria. »

The big noise of the morning, after the name of Alegre was stamped on the Rolex Middle Sea Race trophy, was the arrival of Strait Dealer. Another epic adventure that ended with a patience-sapping finish. One that was worth it though for owner David Franks, who was probably on his last lap of the racecourse. Franks was delighted to be back and to secure the prize of first Maltese boat home on the water, despite enduring some difficult times, « we had a good crew and I enjoyed the race very much.. There were some very tough points, but we didn’t break too many things and we didn’t lose too many things. We got tangled up in a lobster pot and went through an ice storm. I’ve never had such a cold Rolex Middle Sea Race and this is my seventh. »

« The crew held up very well, David Anastasi had a lot on and did extremely well. Strait Dealer is a very wet boat, but everyone just got on with it, » continued Franks, who finished with some praise for the organisers. « This is a most fantastic race. It is so well organised, it’s so exciting, so many great boats come along, it’s very competitive and to top it all there’s a good social programme before and after. »

Skipper David Anastasi was pleased too, but admitted that their ambition had been to win first Maltese boat on handicap. Strait Dealer does better downwind than upwind and with more of her race being into wind, she was always going to be hard pressed to secure that prize and, indeed, tonight it is held by Artie. « We had a really good race up to Messina in conditions that the boat loves. From then on the wind was on the nose, which is very hard for us. Everything went well, the crew worked well together including the younger ones such as Sean Borg, Darren Cauchi and Alan Tabone. » Anastasi admitted that the biggest problem had been eating, even freezer-dried food that needs just boiled water adding to it, « the conditions were so bad, and it was practically impossible to cook since there was just too much going on below. »

Tactician, Nigel King, a veteran of the 2001 Volvo Ocean Race was also relieved to be back in one piece, « it was probably the toughest Rolex Middle Sea Race I’ve ever done. Quite a lot of storms came through, with squally showers. The guys had to work really hard to keep the boat moving. The most difficult bit was once we got round Stromboli. There were lots of squalls and showers and storms coming through. Lots of sail changes and fighting the occasional fire when they came a bit quicker that you expected.. It was very hard at night because there was complete loss of visibility and it was much harder seeing the wind that’s coming. You’ve got to be a bit more pre-emptive in getting things done. The Mediterranean’s famous for days like that though. »

Other finishers today included Piet Vroon’s Tonnerre de Breskens III (NED), Sonke Stein’s BOV Kerisma (GER), Jonas Diamantino’s Comanche Raider Gasan Mamo (MLT), Edward Broadway’s Hooligan VI (GBR), Peter Hopp’s and Hilary Cook’s Nisida (GBR), Fillippo Lancelotti’s Sciara (ITA) and, of course, Elusive II.

Elusive II crossed the line at midday, all but four days after starting the race in Grand Harbour. Her arrival was smoother than the early birds. The wind had built over the day and whilst the leg from Comino to the finish was a beat, at least there was something to power the boats. Podesta has now completed thirty races. An unparalleled record and one unlikely to be matched for many years. His enthusiasm for the race continues to shine through, even when he has been in a battle, « this was as tough as the 2007 race, though perhaps not as treacherous. We hit our first major squall after Capo Passero and suffered an enormous broach. We recovered. eventually. and continued pushing forward. We had another enormous squall at Stromboli and then, all the way to Palermo, we had squalls every two or three hours. That made the race most tiring. » As reported by Maya Podesta during the race, much of the problem weather occurred during the pitch black of a moonless night and Podesta senior confirmed the added peril of hail and temperature loss referred to earlier by Franks.

A couple of hours after the finish and a good meal later, Podesta laughingly confirmed that he would be returning next year.

Five hours after Elusive, we saw the tightest finish to date as four yachts entered Marsamxett Harbour within a few minutes of each other. .Lee Satariano’s Artie (MLT) led the charge, followed three minutes later by Sandro Musu’s Aziza (MLT) and Antonio Fava’s Velado (ITA), separated by half a tack and five-seconds. About as exciting as it gets after 606 nautical miles of racing. Sneaking in just before press time to grab their piece of the limelight was Seawolf of Southampton (GIB). Eight yachts remain on the racetrack including the two double-handers who appear to be match-racing their way to Lampedusa and will probably continue to do so to the finish.

69 yachts representing twenty nations started the race.

George David’s Rambler (USA) established the current Course Record of 47 hours 55 minutes and 3 seconds in 2007.

The prize giving will be held at the Sacra Infermeria, Valletta, on Saturday, 24 October.