Night one at sea saw the frontrunners in the Rolex Middle Sea Race making better progress than they had anticipated.
Following yesterday's start from Valletta at 1100, Alfa Romeo was the first to complete the 53 mile crossing to Capo Passero, the southeastern tip of Sicily, passing this point at 20:30 local time last night. Following the giant silver yacht were fellow maxis Damiani Our Dream and Black Dragon, roughly 30 and 40 minutes astern. On board Damiani Our Dream the crew reported tight reaching in 14 knots of wind.
Choice of passage up the east coast of Sicily proved to be an all-important one. Alfa Romeo's tactical team including Murray Spence, Alinghi's Grant Simmer and strategist Adrian Stead chose to hug the Sicilian coast while the Italian maxi Damiani Our Dream stayed further offshore on the direct rhumb line course with the sled Black Dragon further east still.
With the 3km high Mount Etna directly to her west Alfa Romeo ran out of wind in the early hours of this morning and having made little progress for several hours was forced to give up on this tactic and head east. Meanwhile to the east Damiani and Black Dragon, beating into a light to moderate northerly breeze, were able to overhaul the line honours favourite.
As the maxis approached the Strait of Messina the strong current was against them forcing them to 'short tack' close in to shore up the Italian side of the Channel. While the south-going current in the Strait can flow at up to 5 knots it is possible to pick up favourable back eddies known locally as 'bastardi'. "The only way to pick these up is to go right inshore and by that I mean your keel is literally inches off the bottom," says Arthur Podesta, skipper of the Beneteau 45F5 Elusive and veteran of all 25 Rolex Middle Sea Races.
Eventually it was Black Dragon, helmed by Danish match racer Jesper Radich who was first through at 1100 local time followed by Damiani Our Dream at 1120 and Alfa Romeo some 40 minutes later.
After her blazing start yesterday, Nikos Lazos and Pericles Livas' Farr 52 Optimum 3 was fourth through the Strait. "So far we've been lucky, we haven't run out of wind, but at the moment it's dropping all the time," commented Eddie Warden-Owen, the British tactician on board.
This afternoon conditions for all the leading boats have proved exasperating as the wind has dropped away to nothing, with a majority of the boats still to make it through the Strait of Messina with the tide due to turn foul at 16:40 local time.
"At the moment we have 0.7 knots of wind speed," said Mike Broughton, navigator on Chris Bull's Jazz who was going well on handicap until she was becalmed for four hours this afternoon. "So far we have averaged less than 4 knots, which is less than the average we need to make it in within the time limit on Saturday. Fortunately we know the wind is going to pick up on Tuesday." On Jazz crewman Andy Dore had been up the rig to spot for any zephyrs of wind that lie ahead. This afternoon they were preparing to head into the coast to get into shallow enough water enabling them to kedge (to anchor to stop themselves going backwards with the tide).
On Primadonna, Royal Malta Yacht Club Commodore Georges Bonello Dupuis said they had been becalmed for one and a half hours last night but approaching Sicily they had seen 16 knots of wind. This afternoon Primadonna was in one of two clusters of boats to be becalmed short of the Strait of Messina. "The boat is fine, the crew is fine, the food is.okay," commented Dupuis, adding that in the zero wind situation it was even too hot to sleep.
The good news for the chasing pack is the four boats through the Strait have also been becalmed as they feel the effects of a high pressure system located to the north of Sicily. The wind charts are showing 5 knots of north northeasterly breeze tonight for those heading northwest to the volcanic island of Stromboli but so far this has yet to materialise.
For further information on the Rolex Middle Sea Race and latest yacht positions visit the event website at the address below.