Snakes and ladders, parking lots, electrical storms and a successful man overboard recovery were the talk on the dock at Malta's Manoel Island Marina at the conclusion of the 25th Rolex Middle Sea Race.
Light winds were forecast for the early part of the annual anti-clockwise lap of Sicily, starting and finishing at the Royal Malta Yacht Club's line off the Maltese capital, Valletta. Fortunately a light northeasterly wind was enough to propel the boats out of the harbour after the start at 1100am local time on Saturday 23 October.
Rounding the turning mark off St Paul's the three giant maxis Alfa Romeo, Damiani Our Dream and Black Dragon pulled inextricably into the lead, chased hard by the Greek Farr 52 Optimum 3. Passing Capo Passero at the southeast tip of Sicily Neville Crichton's race favourite, Alfa Romeo was leading but chose to hug the coast, while her maxi rivals made great gains offshore. 24 hours into the race and Black Dragon led Damiani Our Dream and Alfa Romeo through the Strait of Messina.
The Strait, between Sicily and the toe of Italy is a mile wide stretch of water busy with ferry traffic and commercial shipping with the added challenge of tide that can run at up to 4 knots. While the maxis were able to scrape through with the tide the smaller boats behind them were left to wallow as the wind died, the tide turned foul and they were forced to take measures to prevent themselves being ejected back towards Malta. Crews on several boats from the 30 ton Swan 62RS Constanter to Anthony CAMILLERI'S more nimble Bavaria 38 Matchless reported being caught in eddies that swirled their boats around by 720 degrees.
With a high pressure system parked over the north of Sicily the maxis were also becalmed as they attempted to make their way up to the next turning mark, the island of Stromboli. One of the attractions of the Rolex Middle Sea Race is its spectacular course that takes the fleet past two active volcanos, one on Stromboli, the other the 3km tall Mount Etna on Sicily. But it would take some time before even the maxi crew would see Stromboli. "We did 38 miles in 20 hours," reported Danish match racer Jesper RADICH, racing skipper on Black Dragon of their slow slog north.
The leaders among the smaller boats eventually made it through the Strait of Messina at midnight Sunday while the maxis rounded Stromboli in the early hours of Monday morning. Over the next 24 hours conditions would improve little as the fleet were repeatedly becalmed, crews beginning to worry whether they had brought enough food for the ride and if they would make their flights home.
It wasn't until Tuesday when the front runners had passed the Sicilian capital Palermo and were well on their way south to the islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa that the wind finally picked up with the onset of a cold front. At this stage Alfa Romeo had pulled out a significant lead rounding the northwest tip of Sicily and leaving her maxi rivals to wallow for a further five hours before they too picked up the breeze. But heading south the maxis were to pick up far more breeze than they anticipated with severe gusts that could see the wind speed rapidly pick up from single figures to 30 knots or even more - all accompanied by a most spectacular display of sheet lightning.
Alfa Romeo was the worst affected, as owner Neville CRICHTON described:
"We had 8 knots of breeze and suddenly 50 knots and we tried to run with it, but it was hopeless - we lost control and it went straight over. The boom and the rig was in the water and dragging us sideways. It took us 15 minutes to get back upright on its feet." During this incident they destroyed their mainsail and a genniker - a Aus$200,000 knock down as Crichton dubbed it.
The crew of the Kiwi maxi had suffered a worse shock only a few hours earlier as they were attempting to drop their massive Code Zero headsail. A gust had stuck causing crewman John MACBETH to be pitched off the foredeck and into the water. In the pitch black Macbeth's position had been recorded and the crew turned the boat around and picked up Macbeth on their third pass. Crichton estimated he had been in the water for 12 minutes. "All credit to the crew: they did a fantastic job, they picked me up very quickly and I never really felt in danger at any time,"
said Macbeth later.
On Damiani Our Dream they attempted to drop the mainsail as the wind piped up to 55 knots. In doing so they badly tore it and were forced to manhandle the massive sail below where they spent five hours repairing it.
Fortunately the smaller boats further back up the course did not experience gusts as strong as the maxis. The conditions were still enough to cause eight of the 51 boat competing to retire among them former Rolex Middle Sea Race winner Strait Dealer. Some of the heavier boats came into their own in the conditions. The Volvo Ocean 60 Innovation by Catering Equipment hitting a top speed of 27.6 knots before a section of track flew off her mast causing the mainsail to come tumbling down. The two handers and past winners Andrew Calascione and Darius Goodwin on the J/109 Jammin had been up with the front runners in their size range until they had to beat into 35 knot winds when with no extra weight on the rail their progress was all but halted.
Throughout this time the Greek Farr 52, Optimum 3 of Athens-based joint owners Nikos LAZOS and Pericles LIVAS had remarkably managed to hang onto the coat tails of the maxis. Significantly they had managed to make it through the Strait of Messina on the same tide as the bigger boats and, despite at one point seeing 52 knots, came through the storm relatively unscathed and were able to fly back towards Malta making more than 25 knots under main and storm jib. They finished at 16:25 on Wednesday afternoon just six and a half hours after Alfa Romeo, some 40ft their larger, a performance that was respectable enough for the amateur Greek team to win the 25th Rolex Middle Sea Race on handicap ahead of Chris Bull's J/145 Jazz.
Prizes were awarded at La Vallette Hall, at the Mediterranean Conference Centre originally built as a hospital by the Knights of St John where the class winners were awarded with Rolex Submarine watches.
The next Rolex Middle Sea Race will start on 22 October 2005.
IRC Class A - Optimum 3 - Nikos Lazos and Pericles Livas (GRE)
IRC Class B - O 2 - Sonke Stein (GER)
IMS Class A - Optimum 3 - Nikos Lazos and Pericles Livas (GRE)
IMS Class B - Squalo Bianco - Concetto Costa (ITA)
Further information about the Rolex Middle Sea Race may be found on the event website at the address below.