The Mediterranean's classic offshore event, the Rolex Middle Sea Race gets underway from Malta's historic Marsamxett Harbour at 1100am local time, Saturday 23 October, with a record fleet of 50 entries.
While the bulk of these are from Malta and Italy others come from further afield, including the UK, USA, Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, Czech Republic, New Zealand and Croatia.
This is the 25th time the Rolex Middle Sea Race has been held since it was first run in 1968. The race was originally conceived as the Mediterranean's answer to the Rolex Fastnet and Sydney-Hobart. The 607 mile long course takes the boats from Valletta harbour across to Sicily, and up it's east coast. Here they are likely to fall into the wind shadow of Mount Etna - at 3,350m tall this is one of the world's largest and most active volcanos.
Then the boats must negotiate the course's most tactically complex part: the Strait of Messina. Located between north east Sicily and the 'toe' of Italy, here the channel narrows from 10 miles wide and 1,000m deep to 2 miles wide and 100m deep. Current - both favourable and adverse - can launch boats through this channel or stop them in their tracks.
The boats then round the island of Stromboli, where there is another active volcano, before turning west to leave Sicily and its outlying Aeolian and Egadi islands to port. They must then continue south leaving the islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa to port before returning to Malta and the finish line.
"The best thing about this race is that there are lots of challenges the whole way round. No legs are longer than 100-110 miles," commented Stead, strategist on board Neville Crichton's Alfa Romeo. "There are plenty of snakes and ladders around the course. It is like a Rolex Fastnet Race, but everything is different the whole way round."
Alfa Romeo is the favourite for line-honours and will be attempting to break the present course record of 64 hours 49 minutes and 57 seconds set by Bob McNeil's Zephyrus IV in 2000. Her 21 crew is a star line-up including Australian sail maker Mike Coxon and Volvo Ocean Race skipper Neal McDonald while for the race they will have as their navigator America's Cup legend Grant Simmer from Team Alinghi. However as Neville Crichton puts it "most of the crew are 'crook'" - all but three are now suffering from gastric flu'.
While Alfa Romeo heads off into the distance, Damiani Our Dream will be fighting it out with fellow maxi, Black Dragon. The Italian-owned Damiani, on which the talented Vasco Vascotto is calling tactics, is designed for the light conditions forecast for the race, but in the warm-up races Black Dragon, with Danish match racer Jesper Radich as skipper, also proved strong in these conditions. Significantly Black Dragon is sistership to Nokia Enigma, last year's winner on handicap. She has a highly experienced crew including leading Swedish offshore sailor Magnus Woxen and former GBR Challenge America's Cup crew Chris Mason, who sailed on board Nokia Enigma last year.
Unfortunately conditions are unlikely to be ones for breaking records, forecasts meteorologist Mike Broughton, navigator on Chris Bull's Jazz: "It's looking light from Saturday through until Monday. There's hardly an isobar between Barcelona and Cairo virtually." While the start is likely to be in a light westerly once the boats get offshore tomorrow, there will be little gradient breeze until Wednesday forcing crews to make the most of local sea breezes. On Wednesday Broughton forecasts that the wind will fill in from the northwest before backing to the south and dropping again on Thursday, before building again on Friday.
One of the strongest entries will be Chris Bull's J/145 Jazz. Aside from Mike Broughton, her crew includes British triple Olympic medallist Rodney Pattisson, plus Volvo sailors Nigel King and Emma Westmacott and Christian Ripard, nephew of one of the race's founders and past Royal Malta YC Commodore, John Ripard.
The present RMYC Commodore, Georges Bonello Dupuis, the man attributed as having boosted the Rolex Middle Sea Race from its nine entries six years ago to its present record level, is this year competing on board his Prima 38, Primadonna. "I am really happy with how the race has progressed," said Dupuis, who adds that one of the most significant developments this year has been fitting all the boats with ARGOS beacons allowing each to be tracked as it makes it's way around the race course.
Other competitors in with a good chance on handicap include Nur, Guido Franchi's Comet 51-S sailed by a crack Italian crew, Sandro Musu's new Grand Soleil 40R Aziza, with a large contingent of the Ripard family racing on board, the 2 Tonner Comanche Raider of Jonas Diamantino, known to go well in light conditions, Kirribilly, the Beneteau 47.7 of Doug Flynn, O2, the German Elan 37 of Sonke Stein, a past IMS winner, the Beneteau 40.7 Squalo Bianco sailed by Costa Concetto and a Sicilian elite crew and Strait Dealer, David Pizzuto's J/125.
There is also likely to be a good match race between the J/109s Dario Levi's Fremito D'Arja, and Andrew Calascione's Jammin, both being sailed doublehanded.
To break the record the leaders will have to finish by Tuesday morning. The tailenders could finish as late as Saturday. Confirming the importance of the race for Malta, Franco Azzopardi, Minister of Sport, today confirmed his support of the Rolex Middle Sea Race, congratulating the Royal Malta Yacht Club for the continued success of their event.