The thunder of military guns heralded the start of the 2002 Rolex Middle Sea Race this morning.
The reputation of the race, combined with the announcement that Rolex S.A. is sponsoring the event for the next three years has drawn a record number of 42 entries from 11 nations.
Last year's winner, Strait Dealer, a carbon built J-125 will be under intense pressure to repeat its 2001 performance of Line Honours, IMS and IRC in view of the high class international fleet gathered for the twenty third running of the race.
The Volvo 60 Nautor Challenge, skippered by Italian, Stefano Spangaro, is expected to set the pace following its third place in the 2000/2001 Volvo Ocean Race. But, Tonnere de Breskins, the Lutra 52, will be breathing down its neck. Dutch skipper, Piet de Vroon and his crew of 14 have featured at the top of the RORC ranking since its launch in 1997 and won the Rolex Fastnet (IRC & IRM class) in 2001.
If the winds are light as predicted, the Farr 40, Albablu from Sicily may find conditions plays into its hands. However, whilst the crew has won the Middle Sea Race on two previous occasions, this is the first time they've raced this particular boat.
This is the second time for Chris Bull and his crew on the British boat Primadonna, which is hoping to improve on its 2001 third place. Chris was so impressed with the 2001 event, Primadonna has remained in Malta since last year with the intent to race again.
Luxembourg skipper, Patrick Mersch and his crew on his 54 foot custom built Mr Fipps have returned to Malta for the second time. Summing up the attraction of the race, Patrick said: "There is simply no Mediterranean alternative to the RMSR. It's tough, demanding and physically hard to manage. But, the reception in Malta and at the Royal Malta Yacht Club, together with the stunning scenery of the course makes it a winner every time."
Strong Maltese competition is expected from 11 local entries. Fastest on the water should be Strait Dealer, with new owner David Franks and a core of last year's winning crew on board. The remainder of the crew is racing on the new J-109 Market Wizard, skippered by John Ripard Jnr and Andrew Calascione. In his sixth event, Alfie Manduca will be sailing Beneteau 40.7 Maltese Falcon following his recent success in the IMS National Championships at Portorosa, Sicily.
For foreign crews, the long passage to Malta was followed by frenetic activity on the fleet pontoon. All crews have been removing unnecessary cruising equipment in order to put their boats into racing mode again. Over the last few days, the environment surrounding activity on the pontoon has been very friendly. Albeit good natured, there is clear rivalry amongst not just the local boats, but the fleet as a whole.