2008 is a significant milestone in the history of the Rolex Middle Sea Race, marking 40 years since the Swan 36 Josian won the inaugural race.
Already, this year's fleet shows signs of being something special. Not only are two of the very latest and fastest super maxis - Leopard 3 and Speedboat slated to participate, but also one of the original maxis and the line honours winner in that first ever race - the once formidable Stormvogel.
The Royal Malta Yacht Club is extremely proud of the heritage surrounding its classic 606 nautical-mile offshore race that began in relatively humble circumstances in 1968 when 11 yachts raced the course for the first time. The race has seen good times and bad. In early editions, entry levels rose quickly and featured some of the iconic yachts of the 1970s and early 1980s - Nirvana, Mistress Quickly, Helisara, Pen Duick III, Ondine, Orca. A period of decline led to the race not being held for a while, but since its rebirth in 1996, the Club has seen entry numbers rise with an increasingly large and significant international contingent.
As Commodore Georges BONELLO DUPUIS comments, "Every year we see familiar faces return to take part, and more and more these familiar faces are from all around the world - the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Russia, Greece - not just the traditional countries such as Italy and the UK. We really appreciate this. It is important to us that people know of our race, how good it is as a challenge and an experience. It is even better if those that do it want to come back again - even if it is after an absence of almost 40 years!"
Stormvogel was, in her day, one of the fastest racing yachts around with plaques on her bulkhead to prove line honours in the Fastnet (1961), Buenos Aires-Rio (1962), Sydney-Hobart (1965), China Sea (1966), Transpac (1967) and, of course, the Middle Sea (1968 and 1969). Current owner Ermanno TRAVERSO has owned her for some 25 years and bought her for her ocean-going qualities rather than her history, "She was just a big, old maxi that nobody wanted. The era of the classic had not begun.... It is only recently that people have begun to race these boats again and take an interest in their history. I didn't feel like I was buying a piece of history, not then."
TRAVERSO first came across Stormvogel in Malta and is looking forward to revisiting a successful chapter in the yacht's long life.
Speedboat could very well be the Stormvogel of today. Designed by Juan KOUYOUMDJIAN for a US owner, the 98-foot canting-keeler is currently undergoing sea trials in New Zealand following her build at Cookson's. Her programme includes the Newport Bermuda Race in June when her true pedigree potential will become apparent. Project Manager Bill ERKELENS, exhibits an evident excitement when talking about Speedboat, "her primary design features include the canting-keel, twin rudders and twin dagger-boards together with water ballast and a tall-rig; she will be a very powerful boat offshore, especially with cracked sheets."
The rig is indeed tall, at 44.3 metres the deck-stepped mast is described by Southern Spars as 'the tallest and most powerful maxi rig produced by the company yet. It is the ultimate collaboration of latest design thinking and innovation in rig technology.' Her sailplan, according to North Sails, is the result of meticulous planning, 'the design of almost every component started at the drawing board, resulting in major weight savings. Every aspect of sail design, down to the orientation and density of individual fibres within each aspect of every single one of the 11 sails - was carefully planned out.'
So who do you put in charge of what has been described as a 'Volvo 70 on steroids' - Mr V70 himself - Mike 'Moose' SANDERSON (NZL), who has recruited Stan HONEY (USA) as his high-speed navigator along with a number of other highly experienced offshore sailors well-versed in the art of getting the best out of such a complicated steed. Speedboat's first race outing in the Newport Bermuda this June is eagerly anticipated - even in Malta.
Leopard 3, on the other hand, has already begun her pedigree-building process in earnest. Mike SLADE's (GBR) 98-foot Farr-designed, Ken FREIVOKH-styled canting-keeler already has one record under her belt. Whilst over half the 2007 Rolex Fastnet fleet retired in the face of some brutal conditions, Leopard 3 set about crushing the benchmark time by almost 9-hours whilst fighting off a sterling challenge from George DAVID's (USA) 90-foot Rambler - the 2007 winner and current record-holder of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. Pipped to the winning post by Wild Oats XI at the subsequent Rolex Sydney Hobart, Leopard 3's crew will no doubt be setting their sights on redressing the situation and securing line honours in this race.
DAVID and Rambler are rumoured to be planning a return to Malta too. Last year, with Ken READ
(USA) at the helm, DAVID achieved the highly sought after treble - Line Honours, Overall Winner and Course Record. This year READ will be engaged elsewhere on the Volvo Ocean Race, but Rambler would be expected to be amongst the front-runners once again.
Further back from the headline grabbers, will be the usual mix of yachts between 35 and 70 feet, all with a real chance of overall victory if the wind gods do not favour the biggest yachts on handicap. From its earliest days, the Rolex Middle Sea Race has been a unique test in offshore racing. The course is roughly square-shaped: north from Malta to the Straits of Messina; westwards to the Egadi islands; south down to Lampedusa and (north) east back to Malta. There are plenty of tactical and strategic decisions to be made; plenty of passing lanes of which to take advantage; plenty of potential wind-holes to fall into and even the possibility of mythological sea-monsters such Scylla and Charybdis gobbling up the unsuspecting. This is perhaps the only race in the world where a copy of Homer's Odyssey could sit usefully alongside a nautical almanac in the navigation station.
After last year's battering encounter with Mother Nature, competitors will be hoping for an easier ride this time. But they will rest assured that race will serve up another adventure for the participants whilst writing a new and worthy chapter in the history of the event.
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 (USA) Rambler established the current Course Record of 47 hours, 55 minutes, and 3 seconds in 2007.
Rolex Middle Sea Race - www.rolexmiddlesearace.com