The clock is ticking down to the start of the Rolex Middle Sea Race in Valletta, Malta on Saturday.
This time last night only 41 of the 70 yachts on the entry-list for the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2007 had completed their formalities. At 16:00 yesterday that number stood at 55 with more expected, a whole host of yachts arriving during Thursday making the most of the improved conditions. In place of the cold northeasterly that prevailed last evening with driving rain, the crews have enjoyed a warmer day in which to prepare themselves and their boats.
The yachts and crews have been arriving steadily throughout the day and the level of activity at the Royal Malta Yacht Club and Grand Harbour Marina has stepped up considerably. Scrutineering by the race officials continues, as provisions and equipment are being loaded onto the yachts and cruising paraphernalia is removed. Boats that were on the hard and could not be launched in the face of the huge swell that has battered the northern shoreline for the last four days are now going in. And, boats stuck in the water needing to be lifted are finally coming out for last-minute attention to the hull.
This year yachts are once again being fitted with tracking technology to allow those ashore to follow the race from the comfort of their own home. Not a bad spot if the forecast winds come to fruition. Dan GRIFFEY from OC Tracker arrived today to help with the final preparation of the units. The race viewer is available on www.rolexmiddlesearace.com
Meanwhile, Janet GROSVENOR, Racing Manager of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, has also arrived to lend her considerable experience and support to the RMYC Race Committee should it be needed. Given the conditions at the Rolex Fastnet this year and those forecast in some quarters for this edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race, GROSVENOR's presence could be fortuitous.
Predicting the wind is something that is a difficult game in these waters. Ask any of the locals whether they can remember a northeasterly blowing so hard for so long and they shake their heads mystified by what the island has experienced in the last few days. Certainly in the run up to the last five races there has been nothing to compare.
John RIPARD Jr is about to embark on his 15th race, co-skippering the Maltese J/109 Jammin
with his brother-in-law Andrew CALASCIONE. The two won the race on the same boat in 2002, under the name of Market Wizard
. This year there is a twist to the campaign, as RIPARD explains, "As crew we'll have my two sons, Sebastian and Tommy, and Andrew will have his two sons, Danny and Marky, so that's six of us all related. We were scratching our heads because we did need more than six, but we really only wanted family. So we decided to take Shirley FALCONE who is Sebastian's girlfriend and a seasoned sailor."
This is some crew when you consider that the two senior crewmembers have four wins between them, and two of the junior crewmembers were on the J/109 Artie that last year came within a gnat's whisker of snatching victory from the 86-foot swing-keeler Morning Glory
. So, RIPARD's primary concerns at present are unsurprisingly the weather, "Jammin is a very competitive boat and the crew are excellent. For us to have a chance we need to have reasonable conditions. We can't face a 35-knot beat and hope to win and, worse, we can't face a fast downwind leg because the bigger boats will just eat us up. So we've been looking at the weather quite intently and it looks like there is still a window open for us."
RIPARD feels the start and up to Messina will be tricky in a building westerly and that the race may well be won and lost between Messina and Stromboli.
Someone doing his first ever Rolex Middle Sea Race, but undoubtedly one of the most experienced sailors in the fleet, is Peter ISLER racing as part of the afterguard on Tom and Dottie HILL's Titan XII. ISLER has Transpacs, Rolex Fastnets, Transatlantics and Newport-Bermuda races under his belt, along with successful Cup campaigns and a couple of legs of the Volvo. He will not expect to see much of Jammin, given the difference in waterline length - the Maltese boat is a veritable minnow at 35-feet against the shark-like 76-foot American boat that hails from Puerto Rico. ISLER knows the Titan XII inside out having been part of the crew that smashed the 811-mile Montego Bay course record, but that all said he is frank in admitting his shortcomings on the Rolex Middle Sea Race and that it could be a steep curve for Titan. "I have been doing my homework and it looks like the course has a lot of opportunities for tactical decisions and local knowledge. It seems like the race is set up for someone who has done it before.
"You could build up a lot of local knowledge and I, of course, have none so I am all ears! I'll take any chance I have to talk to someone who has done the race before about how to get up through the Straits, playing the currents there and the winds at the various turning marks. It'll be fun though. I love a highly tactical race with a lot of challenges," commented ISLER. And, recognizing the benefits of prior knowledge of the course, the HILLs have enlisted a couple of crew from the current Rolex Middle Sea Race course record-holder Zephyrus IV, another 76-foot sled design from Reichel-Pugh, albeit an earlier generation.
Despite the apparent challenge, ISLER is clearly excited to be here and by the complexity of the course, and, he feels that even Rambler the biggest yacht in the fleet at around 15-feet longer than Titan XII will be looking over her shoulder as she approaches some of the more treacherous tidal gates and possible wind holes, "I'm thrilled to be doing one of the great ocean races of the world in a place I've never been before. I sailed on Titan extensively in 2004-05 before the America's Cup programme started with BMW ORACLE. We're looking forward to hopefully a fast race and another shot at a record," added ISLER.
The Rolex Middle Sea Race 2007 starts from Marsamxett Harbour, Malta, on Saturday 20 October 2007 at 11:00.
The final prizegiving is at noon on 27 October.
Event Website - www.rolexmiddlesearace.com