Saturday, 23 October 2010

Rolex Middle Sea Race: On the Eve of Departure

Skippers' briefing. Image copyright Rolex/Kurt Arrigo.

by Alex Bocage

The day before the start of the 2010 Rolex Middle Sea Race and for the crews of the 75 boats registered there are different approaches to be battle ready. Most of the boats have been onsite in Malta for the past week and despite some rough conditions early on, they have been able to get out a few times to practice. Though with some crews not arriving until today, quite a few boats were off the dock this afternoon to check sails and practice some maneuvers in advance of tomorrow’s 11am start in Valletta’s spectacular Grand Harbour.

Mike Slade’s Farr 100, ICAP Leopard (GBR) was one of those, running through some maneuvers and showing forethought, sailing into nearby Marsamxett Harbour to check out the finish line off the Royal Malta Yacht Club.

Vladimir Prosikhin, who has chartered the Volvo 70, E1, was out with his team tuning up. The Russian technology entrepreneur first sailed on the boat on a Round Sardinia Race that saw 50 knots of breeze – a fitting test for a former Volvo Ocean Race boat. Many of the fleet retired in that race, including E1 having torn their mainsail. Still for Prosikhin it was “really fun”. Clearly he’s found the right boat. This will be his second Rolex Middle Sea Race, having competed last year on the Shipman 72, Nadejda.

While several others in the fleet were out sailing, and others were dockside provisioning and otherwise tending to last-minute repairs and tweaks, and still others were awaiting the 11th hour arrival of crew, the TP52 Lucky was tucked in at the dock. For sure, they had their practice with a classic Maltese shakedown during Wednesday’s coastal race that served up 20-25 knots and big seas. While the Rolex Middle Sea Race course has been described as one of the most beautiful in the world – with the volcanoes of Etna, Stromboli, and Vulcano along the way – some competitors felt the need for a closer reconnaissance. Early this morning, Lucky’s skipper/owner Bryan Ehrhart and one of his crew had plans to hop a fast ferry to Sicily and make their way to scale Mt Etna, at 3,350m the highest active volcano in Europe. That would certainly get your mind off the impending race start.

Back on the dock in Grand Harbour, the discussion was about weather and what the fleet might encounter. As usual, several forecasts were in circulation and it was up to the navigators to sort out their plans for the race. On Andres Soriano’s 2009 Rolex Middle Sea Race winner, Alegre (GBR), that task falls to Welshman Will Best. With over 24 hours to the start, Best discussed the current strategy and said, “It’s a little different competition this year. But we still have two bigger boats, two boats that are a lot faster, so obviously we were going to try to keep our time on them. Best is referring to the two biggest yachts in the fleet, the 30-metre Esimit Europa 2 (SLO) and the 2009 Rolex Middle Sea line honours winner, the Farr 100, ICAP Leopard (GBR). Of these two, Best says, “We’ll be on them all the time.”

The Mills 68 Alegre has had a good year, coming in second in last month’s inaugural Mini Maxi Rolex World Championship, and missing out on first place by the slimmest of margins. Best described the expected conditions, saying, “It’s looking quite good for us weather-wise, we know we’re quite competitive in the lighter stuff, so we’re quite happy with the weather at the moment, but obviously, we all know with the Rolex Middle Sea Race, things change and we’ll see a bit of everything. But, at the moment it’s teeing up for a sub-15 knot race.”

“We’ve doing a lot of work to widen our range so we’re a lot more competitive in the heavier ranges. When it’s really windy we’re competitive, and also we’ve upped our game in the lower teens and even the higher teens now. Certainly upwind we’ve made big changes to the boat, so it’s a lot stiffer.”

What many like about the race is that it covers different ground, and Best says, “I like this, there are a lot of corners, so it’s not ‘there and back’. It’s quite nice geographically as well, and there are some spectacular sights, when you’re stuck under an erupting volcano at night – there’s something going on all the time. And you do get a massive variation in weather, not just sea state and wind, so it’s good fun.”

The Baltic 77, Black Pearl (GBR) was launched in June 2008. The boat has been cruising most of the season starting last March in Egypt, through the Suez Canal, then Turkey, Greece, Majorca, and Malta.

The Bill Tripp-design is a cruising boat; but, as the American designer’s boats tend to be, it is quite race-oriented, fully carbon fibre, and only weighs 30 tons, approximately 20-25% less than a typical cruising boat. This will be the boats first offshore regatta, and skipper Matthew Sweetman said, “It fits in with our program this year. We’re often all over the place cruising. This is sort of end to the season, we were in the vicinity, and so it helped. But also, it’s a fun course. This is one of the more interesting courses, as you’re pretty much in sight of land the whole way, so it’s more of an inshore/offshore, as it were.

“We have a mix of pros and amateurs: lawyers, bankers, and then we have a couple of ex-Cup sailors. We want to have a fun regatta, but we want to get around. It’s a big boat to sail so we do need professionals onboard, to stop it biting back really. It’s a cruising boat we’re trying to get around the racecourse. It’s orientated to cruising, so it’s really easy to sail, but in regards to racing, it’s quite difficult because you’re compromised quite often.”

Esimit Europa 2 (ex-Shockwave) came on the racing scene earlier this year, and has been gobbling up trophies ever since: Line Honours winner at the Giraglia Rolex Cup, a class win at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, and a new course record at the Barcolana race. The Slovenian boat, skippered by Flavio Flavini and a crew of professional Italian sailors was back alongside the dock, after an afternoon of sailing. They’ve been held ashore the last few days, repairing electronic equipment heavily damaged by lightening last Monday on the delivery to Malta.

Tactician Tiziano Nava reviewed the weather conditions they are expecting and said, “The forecast talks about light conditions of 8-12 knots at the start from Saturday noon to midnight. We expect the new wind will be the mistral, northwesterly and probably and we’ll find this wind after Stomboli and Palermo. For the second or third day, we expect strong winds from the mistral of 25 -30 knots. It’s important for us to make a big distance in the first part of the race, because the second part will probably be better for the small boats that should have strong winds to the finish line. With this weather forecast, the change between the southeast and the northwest is important. I think that’s the point that can decide the race.

“Probably we have to stay near Leopard to understand what is the difference in strong or light winds. The numbers say we have to sail a little faster in light to medium conditions. In heavy winds, particularly reaching, Leopard will probably be faster.”

Tomorrow, Saturday, 23 October, is the start of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. First warning signal will be at 10.50am in Grand Harbour, Valletta. There will be five starts, beginning with Multihulls (of which there is one) and continuing though four IRC classes, beginning with the smallest through the largest.

The final prize giving is at 12.00pm on Saturday, 30 October at the Mediterranean Conference Center in Valletta.

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

Rolex Middle Sea Race