Even in light wind the start of the Rolex Middle Sea Race is something special. The excitement builds with every shattering crack of the howitzers used to signal the class starts. By the time of the fifth and final start of the day the crowd assembled on both shores of Marsamxett Harbour and the spectator fleet were at fever pitch.
Sandwiched between the 16th century bastions of Valletta and the 18th century Fort Manoel, the start line is in the most confined space imaginable. Every foot of space is fought for in earnest. For the seventy-seven boats that embarked on the 29th edition of the race, it was an adrenalin-pumping environment.
Surprisingly given the feeble north-westerly wind that presented itself this morning, all but one start got away cleanly. Probably less surprising is that it was the 100-foot Rapture, the biggest yacht in the fleet, that fluffed her lines finding herself half a boat length over.
The first start took an age to unfold. Airmalta Falcon (MLT) with 16-year old Matthew Scicluna at the helm got the best of a congested line finding a clean zephyr over by the less favoured Valletta shore. While a pile-up looked to be occurring in front of the masses gathered on the steps beneath the Royal Malta Yacht Club, the youngster calmly got on with his business and looked odds on to be first out of the harbour.
As it was Spirit of Ad Hoc (FRA) skippered by Thierry Bouchard threw the dice a little better and was first round the mark laid at the entrance to the harbour, leading the yachts off up the northern coast of Malta to the final turning mark in St Paul's Bay.
Spirit of Ad Hoc was followed out by Vae Victis (ITA), Aziza (MLT), Airmalta Falcon and Belka (CZE). Bouchard held his nerve and lead all the way to St Paul's even holding off the big boats to round first again. Spirit of Ad Hoc was soon thereafter overtaken, but the French crew will have lifted their spirits with their initial performance.
Start two looked to be getting away with fewer problems, but once again those at the Fort Manoel committee end of the line found themselves caught with barely enough wind to move. Jonas Diamentino would have been pleased with his new boat Gasan Mamo Comanche Raider II when seemingly from nowhere he popped out of the start and lifted off.
The third start featuring the TP52 RAN (GBR) of Niklas Zennstrom, of Skype fame, looked to be heading off into building breeze when the sun went behind a cloud and almost immediately the breeze shut down again. That said taller rigs, bigger sail plans soon paid off and British pro-crew on RAN with Tim Powell on the helm and Adrian Stead on tactics relatively tore off up the harbour.
Come the fourth start, the wind had picked up again. Jim Swartz's Moneypenny (USA) with Gavin Brady and Francesco de Angelis in the afterguard was mid-line with Andre Soriano's Alegre (GBR), which has Stuart Childerley in the crew, and these two ripped up the track, with Roger Sturgeon's Rosebud/Team DYT left floundering in their wake trying to find their groove.
Sturgeon's crew, with Maltese talent Christian Ripard amongst its number for this race, would have preferred a cleaner start, however they won the 2007 Rolex Sydney Hobart and did not achieve that by letting the odd setback keep them on their heels for long.
At 17:30 CET Rosebud/Team DYT is just behind Moneypenny and Alegre some twenty-miles south of Capo Passero at the southernmost tip of Sicily. These three are trucking along at a respectable 9-11 knots in less than 10 knots of westerly.
RAN lies in fourth place on the water, with David Frank's Strait Dealer (MLT) the first of the local boats at the head of the bulk of the fleet approximately ten-miles behind the front-runners.
Spirit of Ad Hoc also remains in the leading part of the chasing peloton. Another yacht to look out for is the Austrian yacht Sarah Key, which arrived in Malta late this morning. Whilst skipper Aegyd Peng completed the paperwork ashore his crew provisioned the boat. They made the start with minutes to spare.
The Croatian Geisha lies in last place on the water, but having started much almost an hour and quarter behind her class compatriots she could be excused this.
In the multihull division, Silver Chiller (GER) and High Q1 (GER) are neck and neck.
The wind is predicted to go very light this evening which will present a new set of problems to the crews as they try to work their way up the eastern seaboard of Sicily - the question taxing the navigators and strategists right now is whether to set up to stay inshore or to go offshore.