With the ancient fortified city of Valletta on one side and Fort Manoel on the other, the 51 boats competing in the Rolex Middle Sea Race were blessed with a light northeasterly headwind to get them out of the confined waters of Marsamxett Harbour.
As the Howitzer cannon boomed out the first start it was Royal Malta Yacht Club Commodore George Bonello DuPuis' Prima 38 Primadonna that was first away followed by Anthony CAMILLERI'S Matchless, while Aart BROERE'S Sea Goddess from Holland and Patrick and Vincent HARRIS' Symphony were over early. At the Valletta end of the line the Italian yacht Fremito d'Arja snagged a mooring buoy but eventually freed herself.
10 minutes later the larger yachts in Class A started and again several top contenders were too enthusiastic to get going and found themselves over early. These included the all-star cast on Chris Bull's J/145 Jazz, Filippo MASCI'S Silk 2, the Italian Open 40 Isigo of Isidoro Santececca and George Vasilopoulos' Brave one of the two Greek Farr 52s taking part in the Rolex Middle Sea Race. It was their arch-rival and sistership, Nikos Lazos and Pericles Livas' Optimum 3, on which Britain's Eddie Warden-Owen is calling tactics, that led the charge down the harbour.
Among the maxis the Belgium yacht Red Max made the best start at the Valletta end of the line, while down at the Royal Malta Yacht Club end the Italian yacht Damiani Our Dream managed to put a penalty on Neville Crichton's Alfa Romeo who were forced to carry out a 720 degree turn for failing to give room as weather boat. The third maxi, Black Dragon also suffered a faltering start as they had to unhook some running rigging from one of their mainsail's battens.
Heading out of Marsamxett Harbour the fleet hung a hard left towards a turning mark off St Paul's Bay. This leg was slow, the wind dropping to next to nothing. Eventually Alfa Romeo, using her powerful Code Zero headsail, overhauled the other maxis, Damiani Our Dream who had flown out of the harbour in first place having lost ground by taking an offshore flier.
Almost an hour after starting the Farr 52 Optimum 3 was first around the turning mark followed by Alfa Romeo, Black Dragon and Damiani. The first class B boat was the Italian X-442 Oxidiana of Cristiano Lombardo followed by Dario Levi's J/109 Fremito d'Arja and Costa Concetto's Beneteau 40.7 Squalo Bianco.
>From the mark off St Paul's the boats head across to the southeast corner of Sicily before sailing up the east coast of Italy's largest island. The 53 mile passage is unlikely to be a swift one.
"The models today show lighter winds than we have seen in the last couple of days," said Wouter Verbraak, navigator on the maxi Black Dragon. "So I would say that whoever gets a jump on the other boats leaving Malta and reaching Sicily will be looking good." Verbraak forecasts the wind will only be 2-6 knots, this light because at present the weather is going through a transition period veering from the southeast to northwest. "Once the westerly comes late in the afternoon in we will see it growing from three to eight knots," continues Verbaak.
While there should be more wind off the southeastern tip of Sicily, this will disappear up the island's east coast prior to a northerly establishing itself. The boats will then have a beat up towards the Strait of Messina.
"One thing is lacking at the moment is wind," says Arthur Podesta skipper of the Maltese Beneteau 45F5 Elusive. "Certainly today and tomorrow morning we are not going to have much of it. At the moment the only thing to do is to get to the closest part of Sicily and make use of the thermal breezes until we get out of Messina Straits, then we should get some real wind."
Podesta should know - he is the only person to have sailed all 25 Rolex Middle Sea Races since it was first held in 1968. He has also been on the winning boat five times.
"It is such a beautiful course and it is such a wonderful race that it always attracts me," says Podesta, who is this year racing with a crew of family and friends. "Each leg has a different character and a different character from year to year."
By contrast three years ago the fleet were battered by a strong northeasterly soon after the start, that sent several competitors scurrying back to port. In a previous race Podesta remembers having to hand stitch their mainsail back up after it had torn in strong winds.
The leaders are expected to reach Sicily tonight and the Strait of Messina tomorrow morning.
Further information about the Rolex Middle Sea Race may be found on the event website at the address below.