Rolex Middle Sea Race 2011, organized by the Royal Malta Yacht Club, is currently underway. Forty-eight hours into the race and the fleet has encountered all of the challenges and conditions that tacticians and navigators had anticipated well before the race start.
The 606-nautical mile course around Sicily is notorious for its changeable conditions, and local anomalies in wind, current, and weather. Many competitors work out a game plan that breaks the course into several parts – each with its own challenges. And overriding all race plans is the weather forecast – this year the predictions were for lighter breeze at the start, though several fronts passing through the area were expected to bring more wind along the western coast of Sicily.
After a faster than expected first 24 hours, the frontrunners suffered on the stretch of the course along the north coast of Sicily where lighter winds finally materialized slowing the boats down to a relative crawl. But once they could stick their bows around the northwest corner of Sicily, past San Vito lo Capo, they were back in the breeze and off again.
Through the Egadis
Esimit Europa 2 (SLO) made their way around the corner, passing between the Egadi Islands of Favignana, to port, and Marettimo, to starboard, at 2300 last night. There they found the forecast southerly breeze, and after a few tacks they were just able to lay Pantelleria, 70 nautical miles distant, and rounded the island at 0630 this morning.
At that same time Rán (GBR) was rounding the northwest point at San Vito lo Capo. Around the point, the breeze increased and the crew on board reported, 'After experiencing very little wind during the night in our downwind sailing, we are now back upwind in 16.5 knots of wind and we are sailing at a speed of 13.5 knots.' Putting it into perspective they continued, 'If you were driving a car, this would compare to about 25 km per hour approx. Slow you might think? Well, with a carbon floating machine like this one and her heel angle when going upwind, you better hold on and forget about your nice hair-do! Rocky and fast is the description of the experience; Hold on and strap yourself in! Still no rain instead a beautiful sunrise behind the hilly landscape of Sicily!'
Along the north coast of Sicily
Around 1000 this morning Alegre (GBR) and Med Spirit (FRA) rounded the northwest corner. Behind them was Class 2 leader Nikata (GBR) just south of Isola Ustica along with Dralion (MLT) and Wild Joe (HUN). From onboard Nikata, navigator Mike Broughton predicted, 'Looking ahead we expect our world to change when we round the western tip of Sicily and enter the southerly winds. The strength will increase and be more on the nose. At the moment we are peeling between the code zero and headsails, but we will just be using headsails shortly. We’re happy with that; it gives us a chance to extend on Dralion, one of our major competitors. We made a good decision last night to stay north, away from the wind shadows of Sicily and the Aeolian Islands. Dralion did the same, and we owe them time unfortunately.'
As for the days ahead, Broughton said, 'Further ahead we think that Lampedusa could be a problem and another park-up. There is a low tracking over Malta on Tuesday that could bring really light winds, changing the picture all over again and really changing the shape of the race.'
The bulk of the fleet - including all of Classes 3 and 4 - is fairly closely packed along the rhumbline off the northern coast of Sicily. Abeam of the island of Alicudi (one of the Aeolian Islands) this morning, skipper Arthur Podesta onboard the Class 3 boat Elusive St. Regis (MTA) said they had a visual sighting of 34-35 boats around them. He reported, 'It was a tough night, we rounded Stromboli with good breeze around 2300 - its usual eruptions and a very nice view. About an hour later, the breeze started to die, and then it was just a big swell with sails flapping, shock loading the boat. We now are sailing in six knots of wind, making 6.3 knots of boat speed, with the apparent wind just forward of the beam. We anticipate the wind to increase by midday, though forecasts have been mostly inaccurate! Anyway, that’s the name of game. Right now we have bright sunshine some cloud cover.'
In the race amongst the Maltese boats, for first boat home, the eight boats are relatively neck in neck, though with Lee Satariano’s Artie in front.
Course record stands
To beat the course record, the first boat would have had to finish by approximately 11.30 CEST today. With the lead boat Esimit Europa 2 currently 130 nautical miles from the finish at 1030 this morning, the course record set by George David's Rambler (USA) is safely intact for at least another year. That record, set in 2007, stands at 47 hours, 55 minutes, 3 seconds.
The Rolex Middle Sea Race Mark is unusual as many of the marks of the course are physical islands. At the northwest corner of Sicily, off Trapani, lie the Egadi Islands. These islands (Favignana and Levanzo) must all be left to port, except for the island of Marettimo, which must be left to starboard.
The permanent population for the three islands is around 5,000. Although a popular summer destination, it is still possible to find secluded coves and walking paths. The islands are rugged and hilly, but offer wonderful beaches for swimming in the cobalt blue sea.
A total of 70 yachts started the 32nd Rolex Middle Sea Race on Saturday, 22 October; to date, one boat has retired, the Class 40 Pogo 1 (GER).
The final prize giving is at 12.00CEST on Saturday, 29 October at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta. Rolex Middle Sea Race website