On the stroke of noon on the third day of the Rolex Middle Sea Race Neville CRICHTON'S Alfa Romeo entered Marsaxmsett Harbour and crossed the Royal Malta Yacht Club's finish line in first place.
Less than three hours later Charles DUNSTONE'S Nokia sailed through the same stretch of water to collect provisional corrected time victory. With the fleet now spread out over half the 607-mile long course local weather conditions are dictating everybody's fate. Thirty five boats are still at sea, last on the water is Lancelotti's 1967 Grand Soleil 46 Loreli III more than 350 miles from the finish.
By rounding Lampedusa yesterday afternoon with just 100 miles to sail and 13 hours to do it in, Crichton's Super Maxi was in a position to break the Rolex Middle Sea Race course record. But the weather pattern the crew had been sailing South East in from Pantelleria towards Lampedusa was about to change and as the crew turned their boat East towards Malta the wind simply disappeared.
"It was really frustrating last night. We came past Lampedusa in good shape for the record and then 20 minutes later, nothing. The wind completely disappeared, there was not even a ripple on the water and it took us all night to go nowhere,"
commented Crichton on the dock in Valletta's Grand Harbour shortly after the finish.
It was the second time in the Rolex Middle Sea Race that Alfa Romeo had parked up in no wind and had to sit patiently and watch the rest of the fleet sail up from behind. The first time was on the first night at sea off Syracuse on the East Coast of Sicily.
"I don't think we did anything wrong, we were just too far ahead on the weather. We'll just have to come back again next year and try again to break the record."
Crichton and his crew may have been bitterly disappointed to have lost another record opportunity due to light winds, but he can be happy with the fact that Alfa Romeo has now achieved the grand slam this year by collecting line honours in the entire Rolex season of races, which includes the Rolex Sydney to Hobart 2002, the Rolex Giraglia Race, the Rolex Fastnet Race, the Rolex Maxi Cup and now the Rolex Middle Sea Race.
The boat that was ultimately to upset Alfa Romeo was Charles DUNSTONE'S Nokia. From the same design stable as her bigger sister but nearly 18 foot shorter and with a significantly less sophisticated configuration, Nokia rates lower than Alfa Romeo but never seems to have a problem staying in touch on corrected time. Skippered by David BEDFORD, Nokia's consistent performance is in part down to her impressive crew.
"I think one of the reasons we have been competitive here is because we were well equipped with helmsman and trimmers. Every night has been really dark, no moon and no light of any kind. Having people who could steer fast and trim sails well, who rotated frequently and were always fresh was really important,"
On his crew's experiences over the last three days he added:
"This is a really great race. We enjoyed the crazy tidal situation in the Straits of Messina. It reminded me a lot of the Solent where we all sail. I think we gained a lot there, and then on the way to the smoking Stromboli, we cruised along at 20-25 knots, it was great."
Dunstone's Nokia has now beaten Alfa Romeo on handicap three times in three races.
As Nokia crossed the finish line in Malta, Skip Sheldon's Zaraffa was rounding the island of Lampedusa some 100 miles further back. Further back again was the Greek Optimum 3. This white Farr 52 owned and sailed by Lazos and Livas will need to average 16 knots to finish before 0100 on Wednesday morning if they want to beat Nokia for overall corrected time honours. It all seems pretty academic now when looking at the weather forecasts for the next few hours. Slow progress in light headwinds is the order of the day and a similar story applies to the smaller boats in the 30-40 foot range that are all rounding the western end of Sicily, almost 330 miles from the finish.
Class B honours are still currently in the balance, with the Italian Benetau 40.7 Concetto Costa's Squalo Bianco leading a compact group of boats that includes the Maltese favourites and last year's winners Market Wizard owned and sailed by Ripard and Calascione.
Mike SLADE'S Leopard of London crossed the finish line third shortly after sunset this evening.