With only a matter of days until the start of the 29th Rolex Middle Sea Race, organizers the Royal Malta Yacht club are rubbing their hands together at the prospect of an entry exceeding 70 boats for the first time ever.
Not only that, but the yachts are drawn from most corners of the sailing world with the fleet flying no less than 18 different national flags. Entries close on 11 October and the race itself starts from Marsamxett Harbour on the 18 October - so there is still time to be part of an historic contest that marks the 40th anniversary of this 607 nautical mile adventure.
The race is open to yachts from 9 metres to 30.5 metres and this year will see the full range. Currently, the 100-foot Farr designed Rapture (MAR) takes pole position in the size stake. This is not something that particularly troubles Jeff HANLON, Rapture's captain, who explains, "This will be the first of four planned offshore races for Rapture. We chose the Rolex Middle Sea Race because it is one of the most famous races you can do and we enjoy this style of offshore distance racing. We have an international crew joining us for the race, all good experienced offshore racers, a crew of good, well-humoured blokes that know what they're doing."
HANLON has heard all about Malta's hospitality and the scenery around the course. Hanlon has also heard the race can be difficult, but again this is not an overriding concern, "I have known about the race for years. I was even told recently not to do it due to its tough reputation for bad weather, but that's yacht racing. It's as much against the weather sometimes as it is against the other boats."
And with the Rolex Middle Sea Race tending to blow hot or cold and rarely in between, HANLON is perceptive in this judgement.
Other big boats, over seventy-feet, include Stormvogel (GBR) 39 years after her last participation, Steinlager II (NZL) and Michael COTTER's Whisper (IRL), hoping to complete the course this time after retiring in the face of the storm last year. The newcomer is the Nauta 80 Acaia Cube (ITA) owned by Italian filmstar, Claudio AMENDOLA.
Much has been written already about the battle royal shaping up in the 50-70 foot range, where the IRC race boats - Rosebud/Team DYT (STP65/USA) and Andres SORIANO's Allegre (Mills 68/GBR) - have just been joined by a second STP 65, Jim SWARTZ's Moneypenny (USA). And the participation of the 60-foot, Veolia Oceans, Boogaloo (FRA) could add another twist to the tale. Those that represent shape of things today will find themselves up again some of the former workhorses of the oceans - the VO60, Big One (CRO) makes a welcome return and is joined by a trio of 2000 vintage Open 50s, 13 (ITA), Regione Piedmont (ITA) and Vento di Sardegna (ITA). The 50-foot Rolex Fastnet 2007 winner Chieftain is back under new ownership, Adrian LEE, and a new name, Lee Overlay Partners (IRL), but still sports her canting keel. The sole TP52 is the IRC optimized RAN (GBR) owned by Skype co-founder Niklas ZENNSTRÖM.
Elsewhere in this size band are a pack of cruiser/racers, such as the Baltic 56, Lurigna (SUI), the Shipman 63 Coral (RUS), the Swan 62 Berenice (ITA), the J/V 53 Bank von Bremen (GER) and the First 50 ISR 500, which is apparently the first ever entry received from Israel. Imagine owner Gil Tagar's surprise to find he will not be alone, with a second Israeli flagged yacht scheduled to on the startline - Wizsoft.
Wizsoft is one of six First 47.7s that will be engaged in a private competition in the sub-50 foot bracket. The others are Enoch (ITA), headstart.at (AUT), Gyrate (GBR) and Femme Fatale (HUN) and RMYC Commodore Georges Bonello DUPUIS' Escape (MLT). Other local Maltese boats fill the ranks here too - Arthur PODESTA continues his uninterrupted run of participation with Elusive Medbank, past race-winner John RIPARD Jr has entered Lazy Duck with a crew made up mainly of his children and other close relatives, David FRANKS goes again with Strait Dealer as does Tim Camillieri on Vikesha
Into the forty-foot and below segment and there are more familiar Maltese names, including Sandro MUSU's Aziza, Jonas DIAMANTINO's Gasan Mamo Comanche Raider and an entry from Maltese Falcon (the Maltese Beneteau 40.7 version) is expected today, which will bring entries to 77. Diamantino was one of three Maltese skippers to finish the storm-ridden race of last year, and would be forgiven for giving the race a miss this year. Not a bit of it. He's back and with a new boat, the old IOR two-tonner giving way to an ILC 40, explaining that "I felt that after the severe bashing she got in the last Rolex Middle Sea Race that the old boat required too much maintenance to consider her safe for more races."
It is not just any ILC 40 though; one previous owner was Spanish sailing star Pedro CAMPOS. Even so, while he will never say never Diamantino does not hold up much hope of winning, "whilst my team and I sail the race for the pure pleasure of it and the sense of accomplishment it is always the intention to try and win it some day. Although we are unlikely to win it with this boat this year maybe some time in the near future we will! I am fortunate that I have had the same great crew for the last six years and I always look forward to sailing with them confident in their ability and confident in the knowledge that for them, like me, safety and fun is paramount."
There are a number of boats hovering around the minimum length mark, but rounding out the fleet at a shade over 31-feet looks to be Noel RACINE's JPK9.6 Foggy Dew (FRA). According to RACINE, "I have wanted to do the race for three or four years now, but it is a big logistical exercise getting a boat of this size to Malta."
And though Racine has not done the race before, he has two Rolex Fastnet's under his belt - the long, slow 2005 race (good practice if this year's RMSR is tortuously difficult) and the 2007 high-wind, big sea version (good practice if we have another Mediterranean belter).
Last but not least, there are two multihulls competing and, if this is not testimony to the enduring fascination of the race, one is none other than Hans NAGEL's HighQ1, which finished last in 2007 some 24-hours after the penultimate boat. Maybe NAGEL has had a word with the wind gods and agreed a better package for 2008.
The Rolex Middle Sea Race commences on Saturday 18 October 2008 from Marsamxett Harbour, Malta. Entries close on 11 October. The final prizegiving is at 12:00 on 25 October.
George DAVID's Rambler (USA) established the current Course Record of 47 hours, 55 minutes and 3 seconds in 2007.
Event Website - www.rolexmiddlesearace.com