The Royal Malta Yacht Club sent 44 boats off on the Rolex Middle Sea Race today in a blaze of colour, noise and smoke. Light winds from the North gave a close reaching start to each of the three groups as they took their place in the sequence.
With the yacht club premises positioned centre stage on the front of the 18th Century Fort Manoel, more than 500 spectators watched the start line action from the various vantage points along the Valletta city walls and from a large fleet of spectator craft.
At 10:50 precisely, the warning signal for the first start was given in true Maltese fashion. The Royal Malta Yacht Club's Race Committee, having employed the services of Malta's Armed Forces, used a Howitzer field gun to make the sound signals. Noise, smoke and an echoing boom around the confined spaces between the fortress town of Valletta and the Fort on Manoel Island are no stranger to this historically rich island where for more than 2000 years Malta has seen more than its fair share of sieges, battles and bombardments.
The first fleet away was the shortest and slowest group of boats, IRC Class B. Concetto COSTA'S Squalo Bianco a Beneteau 40.7, started to leeward of the pack with pace and quickly moved out around the front of his class to round the first mark at Tigne Point ahead of Michele Li VOLSI'S Cannonball and 18 other boats.
The second start for IRC Class A, ten minutes later, saw Optimum 3, owned by Messrs LAZOS and LIVAS clean out their group. Tactically, this boat also started to leeward of the pack with pace and moved smartly into the lead. Further to windward was one of the three two-handed crews taking part in this year's Rolex Middle Sea Race, the Swiss Baltic 51 Gordons, being sailed by owner Jurg KONIG and crewman Christian SCHERRER. This pair also started well and rounded the first mark at the exit of Marsamxett Harbour in second place. Third at this point was Chris BULL'S Jazz, class winner in this year's Rolex Fastnet Race and recovering fast from a mediocre start.
The third start, the start everybody had come to see, was held off for 35 minutes to allow all other classes to clear the area and let the big Maxis manoeuvre into position into the small holding space inshore from the start line. Five Maxis, Neville Crichton's Alfa Romeo, Mike SLADE'S Leopard, Charles DUNSTONE'S Nokia, Skip SHELDON'S Zaraffa and the late arrival in Malta, the Croatian Volvo 60 sailed by Tomislav BASIC, then gave the crowd the thrill they had come to see. With the boom of the Howitzer still echoing around the walls of Valletta, David BEDFORD brought Nokia across the line first and into the lead at the yacht club end of the line, whilst at the Valletta end Neville CRICHTON, steering his Alfa Romeo, used superior rig height and the stronger winds aloft to squeeze forward in the race to lead at the first corner, just less than a mile from the start.
The natural amphitheatre that makes up both ends of the start line, which itself is just 400 metres long, allowed the crews of all racing yachts to hear the cheering and clapping from the crowds ashore as they sailed past, a unique situation for sailing.
Ten miles North along the East coast of the Malta was the last turn mark the combined fleet had to pass before heading for the South East corner of Sicily and the Straits of Messina, the first major milestone on the course. The first boat at the last mark was the Greek Optimum 3, with the two-handed crew sailing the Swiss Gordons still well placed. The Maxis rounded in the middle of the combined fleet, Alfa Romeo rounding first followed shortly afterwards by Leopard and Nokia. These big boats were all sailing on course at 10 knots when they sailed out of sight, the light 8-knot Northerly wind and flat seas giving everyone great sailing conditions with which to start this 607-mile classic offshore race.