The first full 24 hours of the 607-mile Rolex Middle Sea Race have now elapsed and already the fleet has split into three distinct groups. Light winds have dogged the fleet over the first night and progress has been slow so far.
The leader on the water in the Royal Malta Yacht Club organised race is Alfa Romeo, who has rounded the Island of Stromboli, one third of the way around the course.
As the sun went down on Saturday night and the wind also dropped, the bulk of the 44 boat fleet were making no better than slow progress North towards the bottom of Sicily. As the wind fell away to nothing for long periods, the long left over swell forced many of the smaller boats to either drop sails completely or reef heavily to avoid damage.
At the front of the fleet Neville CRICHTON'S 94-foot long Alfa Romeo used everything in its wardrobe to keep moving and make the best use of every zephyr of wind presented to it. Through the night the North Easterly wind battled with a light North Westerly thermal breeze from the Sicilian coast. Alfa Romeo's afterguard had to make a decision as to which breeze would ultimately dominate. At times almost completely stopped, the longest period being for four hours around dawn on Sunday, the race leader could often quickly pick up pace again to speeds of at times nearly 10 knots. This record breaking boat is once again sailing on her own far in front of her rivals.
Crichton's New Zealand-registered yacht passed Capo Peloro just after noon today and so left the Straits of Messina and entered the South Tyrrhenian Sea. The approach to the Straits was not straight forward, the big silver boat having to short tack up the Italian mainland coast before coming across the current associated with the gap.
"The Straits of Messina were like the Solent on speed. We expected some current through this narrow gap but suddenly we were sailing in 5 knots of foul tide,"
said Ian Moore, navigator on board Alfa Romeo.
In eight knots of wind from the East Alfa Romeo made short work of the 35-mile leg to the Volcanic island of Stromboli, rounding at 1630 and setting a spinnaker for the first time in the race.
"We expect the wind to slowly move through to the South and later to the West and freshen. As it does it will allow us to put some real miles under the keel, something we must do if we are to have any chance of the record after the slow first night,"
Further back down the fleet some surprising situations have developed. Mike SLADE'S giant Maxi Leopard has been sailing in company with Skip SHELDON'S 66 foot Zaraffa, the pair having never been more than a few hundred metres apart since the start. Using a second boat as a trial horse with which to keep a check on speed and direction is an intelligent way to behave when the conditions are so light and fickle. Both of these boats have got large overlapping headsails, something which will have helped them significantly when compared to the more modern designs that are using configurations without overlapping headsails.
Charles DUNSTONE'S Nokia, one of these latter boats, has been having less fun further offshore to the East and is at the same range from the Straits of Messina as a boat 20 foot shorter, the Greek Farr 52, Optimum 3. Owned and skippered by the pair Lazos and Livas, Optimum 3 is sailing by far the most impressive race so far, and must be leading comfortably on corrected time at the end of the first full day.
Local knowledge has played its part with the leaders in each respective division having opted for a route along the East coast of Sicily. Two boats that steered a more offshore course to the East, Chris BULL'S J-145 Jazz and the Croatian Volvo 60 AAG.Bigone, have both lost a lot of distance with the other boats in their division and will need to be persistent if they are to catch up.
Even further back the leader on the water in Class B is Concetto COSTA'S Squalo Bianco, a Benetau 40.7. Based in Sicily and with plenty of local knowledge on board Costa's crew will be more than pleased with their race so far. Last year's winner Market Wizard owned and sailed by Ripard and Calascione is 10 miles further back but still maintains a serious option on the handicap honours.
Arthur PODESTA'S Beneteau 45f5 Elusive was sailing past Catania late on Sunday afternoon. Joined by telephone this afternoon he had this to say: "The crew is enjoying every minute of it now. But last night was horrible. For about a quarter of the night we had no sails set. There was absolutely no wind and a really bad swell. We had to drop the sails as they were getting damaged. I saw lots of boats do the same."
With the fleet spread over nearly 100 miles the weather conditions across the course are varied. All boats will be looking forward to sailing in the stronger winds expected from the South and West once to the North of Sicily.
The current race record for a monohull has been held since 2000 by Robert MCNEIL'S Zephyrus IV and stands at 64hrs 49mins 57secs. To beat this record the first monohull will have to cross the finish line in Malta before 03:34 on Tuesday morning.