Given the unpromising start to the day, the three frontrunners in the Rolex Middle Sea Race are probably delighted to be fast approaching Stromboli, and expecting to round by 1900 this evening.
Rosebud (USA), Moneypenny (USA) and Alegre (GBR) have been locked together for much of the race so far and it looks as though this pattern is set to continue. Behind them, the much smaller Ran (GBR) is chasing hard, with a deficit of only 4.5 nm. Then comes Whisper (IRL), all on her own, with a chasing pack of ten yachts also through the Strait that are four miles away from Michael Cotter's 78-foot mini maxi and 14 miles off the pace of the leaders. It all looked very different first thing this morning and both the competitors and organizers, the Royal Malta Yacht Club, will be relieved at the way the day has panned out.
At 0800 this morning, Jim Swartz's STP65 Moneypenny and Andres Soriano's Mills 68 Alegre got themselves stuck in a wind hole just off the coast of Sicily and some way short of Messina. Meanwhile, Roger Sturgeon's Rosebud, with Maltese sailor Christian Ripard onboard started the day in third place on the water. She was positioned further offshore, never stopped moving and effectively sailing round the other two yachts. It must have been galling to watch a hard earned lead slip away in such a fashion, but the day was not over and the next twist was yet to come.
By the time Rosebud, another STP65, popped out of the Strait at just after 1300 this afternoon, Moneypenny and Alegre were moving again and seemingly in more pressure. Passing through the narrowest part of the Strait about thirty minutes later, Swartz and Soriano piled on the effort, both steadily increasing their speed during the day to at times over ten knots. Not great, but enough to reel in Rosebud.
Further back, the stalking horse RAN, which has Adrian Stead on tactics with Tim Powell and Steve Hayles adding their experience to the decision-making process, was making promising progress up the mainland side of the Strait. At one point she almost went into the beach at Reggio di Calabria to make the best of the wind and the tides. Niklas Zennstrom's TP52 also stopped during the morning, but countered this with sustained speeds up to twelve knots at times. Ran was third through the Strait, almost an hour behind Rosebud and forty minutes ahead of Michael Cotter's Whisper.
According to a crewmember on Whisper, 'the crew is in good form, despite frequent sail changes due to the equally frequent wind changes. We are further ahead than we had thought we would be.' Dining on shepherd's pie has kept morale good as had having Rosebud in sight on the horizon for much of the morning. Cotter's crew has reason for good cheer. According to the latest corrected times from the Messina transit Whisper lies in third overall with RAN in second place and Arik-AB Fibre (ITA) in first. There is of course a long way to go and with only 39 boats through the Strait plenty will change. Those which have left the tricky waters of the narrow channel are on the long march north to Stromboli and the second volcano on the course.
First Maltese boat on the water for much of today, Jonas Diamentino and his crew on Gasan Mamo Comanche Raider have been thoroughly enjoying the race so far. 'We were engaged in a battle of David versus Goliath at times,' laughed Diamentino early this afternoon. 'We were stuck next to Rapture for hours, with them stealing our wind! We've stayed offshore a bit, had some great downwind sailing and really have not stopped moving at all. It's slow but very exciting racing. The crew are in great spirits, especially after a full English breakfast first thing this morning.' Comanche Raider has been overhauled by former Rolex Middle Sea Race winner, Strait Dealer, in the race to be first Maltese home, but this battle is a long way from being over.
Towards the front of the group yet to clear the Strait, Peter Hobbs and Hilary Cook on Nisida have also been enjoying the race, Cook reported in that 'we've had more wind that we feared and have got further than expected. We've been sailing in mixed company, with boats we should be beating and boats that should be beating. We've got foul tide until 1730, but have the anchor ready just in case the wind drops out again.' Crew spirits are in good shape, with Cook living up to her name and producing an excellent lunch. Like other yachts, Nisida enjoyed a moonlit night that was cool but not too chilly. 'We have not seen too much in the way of Etna this year, its been shrouded in cloud. We expect to see a lot of Stromboli, since we normally always park up there,' adds Cook, who is also having difficulty persuading the first timers on the crew that the weather really was as bad as it was last year. 'We've been in shorts and t-shirts, which doesn't help.'
Arthur Podesta called in at 1745 to report Elusive was one mile from exiting the Strait. Podesta seems to have only one complaint after an at times frustrating day; he has no wine on board to enjoy with his evening meal. Otherwise all is well, 'we have had a lovely day, sailing in bright sun and flat seas. Not much wind, 12 knots at most and not for long. John Ripard Junior's Lazy Duck (MLT) is in front of us with Sandro Musu's Aziza (MLT) and the Beneteau 50, Namora (ISR). We've got a few behind including Georges (Bonello DuPuis)' Escape and the Russian boat Coral.' Podesta is not encouraged by his forecast winds for the night ahead that suggest a parking lot. 'But we expected that last night and it didn't happen, so there's hope!'
At the back of the fleet Cordelia lies in last place, with Zizanie and Geisha in front of her. All three are just shy of Syracuse, so some way behind the main body. The forecast winds for the next 24-hours remain light, but look to be more stable than previously thought. It will not be great progress on the next few hours, but there should be progress. It is a sobering thought to think that to beat the existing course record, the first boat would need to be home in eighteen hours time. Clearly not possible, but equally it is hard to imagine it ever was. George David's Rambler (USA) established the current Course Record of 47 hours 55 minutes and 3 seconds in 2007. In order to better this time the first yacht needs to be home at about 1100 on Monday 20th October.
Seventy-seven yachts are participating representing twenty nationalities. www.rolexmiddlesearace.com