The fleet heading for Valletta, Malta comprises some of the biggest and fastest racing monohulls on the planet, crewed by America's Cup stars and round the world race winners, and, with no fewer than 18 nationalities represented the Rolex Middle Sea Race has never looked stronger.
At the top end of the scale, three super-maxis have entered. Neville CRICHTON's (NZL) blisteringly fast Alfa Romeo - line honours winner at the Giraglia Rolex Cup earlier this year - and Hasso PLATTNER's (GER) Transpac record holder Morning Glory have just finished first and second at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup. The most recent super maxi entry is Thuraya-Maximus, the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge 2005 handicap winner, chartered for this race by the same group of Italians that raced Steinlager II around the course in 2005. One significant difference for the team led by Filippo MOLINARI and Damiano LIPANI (ITA) is the participation of Paul CAYARD (USA) - the winner of the Whitbread, an America's Cup finalist, Olympian and multi-World champion. Add to this high octane blend Mike SANDERSON (NZL), winner of the Volvo Ocean Race 05/06 with the Dutch VO 70 ABN AMRO ONE affectionately known as Black Betty and the race really is turning back the clock to the 1970s when all the big names in yachting took tilts at one of most challenging race tracks in offshore sailing.
Last year's overall and line honours winner, Carlo PURI NEGRI's (ITA) Atalanta II, is returning to the scene of her trophy clean up, though this year first across the line would appear out of reach. Two more conventional keeled maxis, Damiani Our Dream and Steinlager II; the Swan 601s, Spirit of Jethou and Moneypenny - recent winner at the Rolex Swan Cup - along with the Volvo 60 AAG Big One, close out the big boat category.
At the other end, the smallest competitor thus far registered is the double handed entry Slingshot, the 10.5-metre J-105 crewed by Shaun MURPHY and Ric SEARLE (GBR). MURPHY is a relative beginner in the sport, 'I started sailing six years ago, and only took up racing when I bought Slingshot in 2003.' In that short time he has acquired some considerable experience, 'I did the Rolex Sydney Hobart in 2004 on a fully crewed race boat and followed this up with going double-handed in the 2005 Rolex Fastnet where we finished fourth in class. If I can complete this one, it will give me the 3 classic Rolex yacht races in three years.'
As expected the Italians and Maltese are out in force and will threaten the handicap win having taken the Middle Sea Race Trophy three times apiece in the past ten years. This year the Italians have the distinction of the oldest yacht in the fleet, the Sangermani built Samurai, launched in 1962 and currently owned by Luigi PAVESE. A regular winner on the classic circuit, with victories at Cannes, Antibes and Monaco, she will present a striking contrast to the carbon fibre racers at the front of the fleet. The Italians may also claim to have two of the newest boats in the fleet; the Starkel 60 Grande Orazio and the A40 Aquaranta, both launched this year. Also new in 2006, are the Vismara 46 Bella Donna and Rusal Synergy. Rusal Synergy is hoping to be the first TP52 to take on the course and will wish for better luck than the TP52 Patches, which was withdrawn at the eleventh hour in 2005 following the discovery of keel problems.
Of the Maltese yachts entered, David FRANK's Strait Dealer, which won in 2001 when skippered by Cristian RIPARD, has the 2002 race winner John RIPARD Jnr on board looking to repeat his cousin's success. Meanwhile, Alfie MANDUCA will be participating in his tenth race, this time on his Beneteau 47.7 Allegra. Whilst he feels the opposition is getting tougher each year, he remains excited by the prospect, 'I'm really looking forward to it. We have more safety regulations to comply with than before and the competition is harder with newer and better yachts, but the race is really a wonderful, scenic course. What could be better, three or four days at sea with family and friends, the possibility of volcanoes erupting and so much else one doesn't normally see.'
The Rolex Middle Sea Race 2006 starts from Marsamxett Harbour, Malta, on Saturday 21 October 2006. The Malta Rolex Cup, a two race inshore series on the 17-18 October, will precede the main race.