Twenty-three yachts from the 2009 Rolex Middle Sea Race took part in a 15 nautical-mile warm-up race today. Starting from the Royal Malta Yacht Club line off Ta' Xbiex, the fleet raced out of the confines of Marsamxett Harbour, turning south past the entrance to Grand Harbour, and down to Delimara Point at the south-east tip of Malta, before heading back to the finish off the RMYC.
For a variety of reasons, not least of them the weather, this short race proved a good shakedown ahead of the main-event. The two class winners were the pro-team on Luna Rossa (ITA), with Olympic medal winners Torben Grael on tactics and Robert Scheidt on the helm, and owner/driver Arthur Podesta's more Corinthian crewed Elusive II Medbank (MLT). Luna Rossa took the overall fleet win and with it the Malta Rolex Cup.
Hap Fauth's 69-foot Bella Mente (USA) reached the halfway point of the course at Delimara just before midday, with Patrizio Bertelli's 65-footLuna Rossa (ITA) snapping at her heels. These two top-level mini-maxis led the competition home completing the course in just over two hours. Luna Rossa proved the faster of the two on the mainly downwind homeward leg overhauling her American rival on the water to cross the finish line two-minutes ahead. Elusive was the first Class 2 boat home completing the course in three and a quarter hours, beating her closest rival, Jonathan Gambin's Ton Ton (MLT) by thirty seconds on handicap.
On the way down to the turning mark, the competing yachts will have enjoyed the opportunity to see some of Malta's beautiful and historic coastline, including Fort St Elmo and Fort Ricasoli on opposing sides of the entrance to Grand Harbour, and, the Rinella battery - home to the two biggest muzzle-loading guns ever built - along with the crucifix shaped Mamo Tower. However, the way home will have focussed the thoughts of all participating yachts firmly on the bigger challenge ahead.
Kevin Dingli, owner of Fekruna (MLT) must surely be the most disappointed man in Malta tonight. Having spent the last six months preparing to skipper his yacht in the Rolex Middle Sea Race for the first time, a moment of extreme weather has put him out of contention just two days from the start. 'We could see the waterspout developing some way away. It was huge. It kept moving about, changing direction. At one point we gybed away from it, but it came back,' explained Dingli. 'It all happened so quickly. When we realised we were going to be hit, we let go sheets. Then the wind caught us. We felt as though we were being lifted up, about to be thrown over, and then the mast snapped at deck level.' Dingli and his crew are understandably feeling completely flat. The relief that the incidence ended without injury, is tempered by utter disappointment that the dream of taking part in the offshore race has been dashed.
For the other crews in the Rolex Middle Sea Race, this was a salutary reminder of the dangers of offshore racing. There are two days left to finish up preparations for the main event and any crew contemplating cutting a few corners will certainly be rethinking the sense in that. This area of the Mediterranean is notorious for its changeable weather conditions at this time of year. As David Franks, owner of Strait Dealer (MLT) remarks, 'I've done this race five times and seen every type of weather. Sometimes at different points in the same race!'
Jonathan Gambin, Ton Ton, is taking nothing for granted. This is his second Rolex Middle Sea Race as skipper of his own yacht. Whilst a wholly Corinthian crew, his approach has a calm air of professionalism. 'All in all it was a fantastic race. There was a lot of wind, but it was enjoyable and we did well. We like to compete, but we do the coastal race as a test ahead of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. If there are gear failures or problems with some of the sails we have time to put it right,' explains Gambin.
Ton Ton was way ahead of Fekruna at the time of the dismasting, but saw the spout form, as Gambin describes, 'we could see the whirlwind about 200-metres up [in the sky]. We thought it was not affecting the water, but it was. It swept across the sea about half a mile offshore. We thought it had passed the other boats, but unfortunately it went straight onto one of them.' Gambin acknowledged that aside from the disastrous consequences for Fekruna's crew, it prompted his crew to consider what they might experience on the offshore course.
Gambin clearly believes strongly in advance preparation. He aims to have everything ready by the end of today. We left Gambin and his crew finishing making ready, including polishing the hull 'for the cameras', replacing odd items of equipment and loading the remaining safety kit, provisions and water ahead of the Royal Malta Yacht Club's scrutineering inspection scheduled of tomorrow.
Another yacht taking its preparation seriously is Luna Rossa. Hardly a surprise with Torben Grael onboard. Not only does he have five Olympic medals to his name, he has taken part in two Volvo Ocean Races, winning the latest one. More used to racing over 1000s of miles, Grael might be forgiven for treating a 606 nautical-mile race as a sprint. By contrast, his Brazilian compatriot Robert Scheidt is on a steep learning curve. He is more used to short, sharp inshore races, as he comments, 'it is very different from racing windward/leeward races. The Rolex Middle Sea Race will be my longest race yet. It is such a long race that you have to preserve yourself. It is not clever to go and work like a lion non-stop. It is important to do watches to get the best performance from boat and crew. We expect the long race could be decided only in the last 50 miles, so the crew needs to have the physical capacity to do their best till the end.'
Whilst Scheidt understandably concentrates on his personal preparation, Antonio Marrai, Team Manager for Luna Rossa, is responsible for preparations for the race as a whole. Marrai explains, 'the crew is ready to race because we have spent the season together. Ahead of a long race, though, we always have question marks about the condition of the boat and organising ourselves to sail at night. We do a good check of the boat, but we also think a lot about the watch system and getting the right mix in each one. It is too early to make a call on the weather, but we are looking at this very carefully too. Food, we plan to have fresh food for the first day, but after that freeze-dried. Most importantly though we have a few pieces of real Parmesan cheese, which really helps a lot on long races.' We can't wait to find out what Scheidt and Grael think of this secret weapon in the Italian arsenal.
The 2009 Rolex Middle Sea Race starts from Grand Harbour at 11.00 CEST on Saturday, 17 October.
The final prize giving is at noon on 24th October.
George David's Rambler (USA) established the current Course Record of 47 hours 55 minutes and 3 seconds in 2007.
For more information about the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2009 including the entry list, position reports and results please visit www.rolexmiddlesearace.com