Seventy-three yachts from 18 nations to contest 27th Rolex Middle Sea Race. Of all the great offshore races in the world, the Rolex Middle Sea Race is said to be one of the most beautiful. The scenery along the way is nothing short of breathtaking, with not one but two active volcanoes during the 608-mile course.
Four years ago Mount Etna erupted while the race was underway, and lava is forever bubbling out of the peak of Stromboli, a natural lighthouse of devastating force.
Last year brought disappointment to the 58-strong fleet with an almost entire absence of wind on the course, and yet this year's entry of 73 is the biggest in the event's 37-year history. It seems that with the Rolex Middle Sea, it's a case of once bitten, forever smitten. Even for those who failed to finish last year's slow-motion marathon, many are coming back for another crack. According to Georges Bonello DuPUIS, Commodore of the Royal Malta Yacht Club, it's a case of unfinished business for these sailors, and also because they know it can be so much better. It is an intriguing and complex racecourse. 'There are so many corners in this race, and there are so many geographical influences along the way,'
says the Commodore. 'You are never more than 45 miles away from land at any point in the race.'
The other great appeal of this race is the sense that you are stepping back in time. The race starts and finishes in Malta, with the fleet setting out from Valletta's ancient Marsamxett Harbour. 'We start the race between a fort built in 1726 and two bastions that were built in 1565 and tower over 100 feet high, and between these ancient pillars are sailing these canting-keeled, carbon-fibre, hi-tech weapons,'
explains Bonello DuPuis. 'It is a wonderful setting and a wonderful contrast of the ancient and the ultra-modern.'
With the fleet having reached such high numbers, and with supermaxis such as Alfa Romeo, Morning Glory
jostling for position, the race organisers had considered moving the start further offshore. 'Our club President, John RIPARD, was speaking to Alfa Romeo's owner Neville CRICHTON recently to get his opinion, and Neville said don't even think about changing the start area. It's part of what makes this such a unique event.'
After two days of inshore racing to get the fleet warmed up, the Rolex Middle Sea Race itself takes the boats from Malta towards Sicily when they begin an anticlockwise loop around the island, first north past Mount Etna and through the Strait of Messina, around the volcanic island of Stromboli, then west to the Egadi islands and Trapani at the northwestern corner of Sicily, before heading south past Pantelleria, around the island of Lampedusa, close to the north African coast and back to Malta.
That fabled ancient warrior and mariner Odysseus would think the fleet mad to be voluntarily sailing through the notorious Strait of Messina, the narrow stretch of water where on one side he encountered the six-headed, sharp-toothed sea monster Scylla, and on the other the boat-eating whirlpool called Charybdis. David FRANKS, with his appropriately named J/125 Strait Dealer
, has some sympathy for Odysseus. After becoming the only Maltese owner to finish last year's race, Franks said he wanted to carry out a survey of the Strait of Messina with his British navigator Graham SUNDERLAND. 'The Strait of Messina is unique. There are genuinely big whirlpools there. There are very strange tides, no one has nailed them which is why Graham and I want to address that.'
Finishing first Maltese yacht in the race is a matter of great pride to the local teams, and Bonello DuPUIS is one of a number of sailors who has put in a lot of hours on the water in the build-up to this race. 'We are sailing our boats in race trim, they're fully loaded with life rafts, extra water, lifejackets, so we know them very well, and we're getting used to the conditions. We've tried to sail
Primadonna [a Prima 38] every other day for two to three hours.'
The Irish have a strong affinity for the event, and this year Gerard O'ROURKE brings his canting-keeled Cookson 50 Chieftain
for his first Rolex Middle Sea Race. 'One of our crew, Frank LARKIN, has done the race before and he loves it,'
says O'ROURKE. 'It's a great place to go, it sounds like good fun with good people. It's a Rolex race, it's approaching the same calibre of race as the Rolex Fastnet and the Rolex Sydney Hobart. It's a box to tick.'
has enjoyed great success around the world in the past season, from winning in class and finishing fourth overall in the Rolex Sydney Hobart, to winning overall in the 1780-mile SevenStar Round Britain and Ireland Race. So Chieftain
is a proven performer under IRC, although O'ROURKE reckons the wind will need to average at least 12 knots to justify the powerful tools at his disposal, such as the canting keel and the canard, a bow rudder which adds upwind efficiency but which is also penalised under the handicap rule. 'Provided we get enough wind, we stand a good chance on handicap,' he says, 'but the bigger boats will be tough to beat in breeze.'
With any sort of breeze, it seems inconceivable that Zephyrus IV
will hold on to the Course Record of 64 hours 49 minutes and 57 seconds, which was set in 2000. That record represents an average speed of 9.44 knots, and unless we get a repeat of last year's drifter, the likes of the supermaxis and the Volvo Open 70 ABN AMRO
seem destined to smash that time.
The Rolex Middle Sea Race 2006 starts from Marsamxett Harbour, Malta, on Saturday 21st October 2006.
The Malta Rolex Cup, a two-race inshore series on the 17th and 18th October, precedes the main race.
The final prize giving is at noon on 28th October.
established the current Course Record of 64 hours 49 minutes and 57 seconds in 2000