The 30th Rolex Middle Sea Race has been an enthralling one, not least because the battles at the front are being repeated throughout the fleet, as each section goes through its share of heavy and light conditions, rain squalls a sunshine. Monday morning saw ICAP Leopard not quite off the leash, but certainly straining at it. A less formidable wind than forecast met her after Favignana and, whilst she stayed in touch with the record pace, that piece of glory eventually just slipped away.
Sixty-nine yachts representing 20 nations set off on Saturday morning to the sound of gunfire from the Saluting Battery - the biggest fleet to depart Malta since the Turks left at the end of the Great Siege in 1565 set off on its 606 nautical mile adventure. Crowds filled every vantage point on the southern side of Valletta, witnessing at first hand the dawn of a new era in this classic race. As the fleet streams across towards Sicily, ICAP Leopard (GBR) led on the water from Beau Geste (HKG), Bella Mente (USA) and Rán (GBR). By 17.00 local time Leopard was already abreast of Capo Passero.
It took between five and eleven hours for the fleet to cross the sea between Malta and Sicily; certainly one of the faster fleet passages on record. ICAP Leopard was first to Capo Passero, only four minutes ahead of Karl Kwok's Beau Geste. Last boat to pass, some six hours later was Zizanie (ITA), the veteran Sparkman & Stephens design that last did the race in 1974, winning the cruising division in the process. With 53 yachts round Stromboli by Sunday evening, the overall handicap leader was Andres Soriano's Alegre (GBR), line honours winner at the 2008 Rolex Middle Sea Race. At Stromboli she led Luna Rossa (ITA) and Rán 2 (GBR) by a matter of a few seconds and minutes respectively.
At 10:00 CEST today, ICAP Leopard was slipping along at about 17 knots in 15-18 northwesterly with just over 20 nautical miles to go. She rounded Lampedusa, the southwestern extremity of the racetrack, just shy of 17:00 and only an hour and a quarter behind Rambler's 2007 time. Leopard had gained overnight, but not enough and final long leg to Malta proved to be her nemesis on the record assault.
A little further back, the race for overall honours is still favouring the bigger yachts. Alegre (GBR) has been in pole position since Stromboli albeit by a matter of seconds from Luna Rossa (ITA). Rán (GBR) has been in the bridesmaid's slot for much of the race, but early this morning looked to be making a move to close in on her British rival. This group also includes the two VO70s, Ericsson (SWE) and Intermatica (ITA), which appear to be enjoying the fresh wind experienced so far without quite managing to open their stride completely.
Back at Favignana the leaders of the main pack are starting to head down towards Pantelleria, still in a northwesterly flow, albeit a light one. This group includes Tonnerre de Breskens III (NED), Fever (GBR), Nix (BVI) and Strait Dealer (MLT). Then there is a stream of yachts all the way back to the Aoelian Islands. The last boat in the fleet is the double-hander Cambo III (GBR), sailed by Stephen Clough and Michael Clough who will be delighted with progress so far. The Clough cousins are within shouting distance of their remaining rivals in this division, Cymba (ITA), sailed by more qualified pairing of Francesco Piva and Isidoro Santecca. The Italians have done the race three times previously, winning the double-handed division in 2002.
Michael Clough found time to fire off a quick report on Sunday, which encapsulates the fleet's experience in the race so far, "the race started the way we wanted and had a good beat out of the harbour. Since then we've had everything. A complete calm at the turning mark off St George's, which found the half dozen slowest boats in the fleet going backwards with the tide while the rest of the fleet set off into the distance. We were hit by 35k whilst under spinnaker in the dark that got the boat going very fast and the crew too. In the early morning we were hit by another squall of 44 knots. We were under full main and jib, and, the speedometer hit 15.6 knots! You can imagine the way we were hanging on. We got the jib down and put two reefs in the main and carried on broad reaching at a sensible speed of around 8 knots."