Today was a day for contrasting fortunes. Opportunities missed and opportunities taken. The 29th Rolex Middle Sea Race yet again confirming the adage that 'it ain't over till it's over'. By 1800 CET three boats had sat in pole position for overall victory.
Even now the throne is not secure, but the French First 40.7, Spirit of Ad Hoc, skippered by Thierry Bouchard, seems to have proved itself best able to adapt to the changing conditions of the race, improvising as necessary. Only one yacht looks to be left on the course with the carrot of glory being dangled in front of its bow. The Italian yacht, Ricomincio da Tre, was one of the smallest boats to start the race at only 34 feet (10.26m), but potentially teeters on the verge of snatching one of the biggest trophies on the offshore yacht-racing stage.
By early yesterday evening (Wednesday), only three yachts had finished and Andy Soriano's Alegre (GBR) was first on corrected time, aswell as first home. Niklas Zennstrom's RAN (GBR) was fourth boat over the line, but not until shortly after 11pm. She was followed by Rapture (MAR), the biggest yacht in the race, and then Whisper (IRL). It was not until 0700 CET this morning that the floodgates opened properly and a stream of yachts started to arrive, all with their own stories of how the race unfolded, where they were lucky and unlucky, what they might have done better and what they did well. The race has been a cruel one; behind every corner on the course a demon has been lurking for the unwary and unfortunate. Even at the death, poor hands were still being dealt. At the Comino Channel, the narrow strait at Malta's northern tip, the winds that had carried the fleet from Lampedusa shut down leaving the competing boats with a painfully slow struggle down the coast to the finish in Marsamxett Harbour.
Just as yesterday, the finishing crews were welcomed home by the watchers on the terrace in front of Fort Manoel. Special cheers were reserved for those with a shout at the overall prize and, of course, the local favourites. One of these was David Frank's Strait Dealer, the first Maltese boat home - an honour every local boat dreams of if the overall prize is beyond their reach. Second Maltese home was Vikesha, skippered by Tim Camilleri. At six this evening the roof was raised for Airmalta Falcon (MLT), whose principal helm Matthew Scicluna is only 16 years old.
Midday or thereabouts is a fabulous time to arrive. The lunchtime diners at the Royal Malta Yacht Club always seem to have time to stand and applaud the finishing yachts, whatever point they have reached in their meal. If you are a returning hero, in the form of 1968 Line Honours winner Stormvogel (GBR), which crossed the line at 1244 CET, you could be excused for taking in a few laps around the harbour to soak up the reception. If only yachts could bow. Owner Ermano Traverso and skipper Graham Henry may not have set any records or matched the achievements of Connie Bruynzeel, but their effort to help celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the first race will not be forgotten in Malta.
But it was earlier in the day that the excitement really started. On corrected time, quite a few yachts seemed to have the chance to better Alegre's handicap adjusted time. The question last night was whether the wind would play ball. It did until Comino, but thereafter the lottery took over. One minute you could be in clover, the next well and truly in the weed patch. Italian yacht, Chestress 2, under the guidance of Giancarlo Ghislanzoni had until 3.30pm this afternoon to complete the course inside the overnight leader's mark. She did so with some ease, arriving an hour after Strait Dealer.
The effect of her arrival was like a stock market crash on the required finish time for the remaining yachts. Anyone who had hedged on Alegre's spot price being the one to beat found themself horribly short. Chestress 2 was seventeenth home, leaving forty-seven on the course (thirteen yachts having retired). Only half of these had a glimmer of hope of scooping the Rolex Middle Sea Race trophy.
The arrival of Spirit of Ad Hoc snuffed out most of those. Ghosting across the line under spinnaker just after 1pm, Thierry Bouchard had cut it awfully fine. Their drop dead time to beat Alegre had been 2040 this evening. Chestress 2's efforts had slashed this to 1325. Twenty minutes might seem a large gap, but it only converted to half an hour on corrected time and the relief felt by Bouchard will only become apparent if he holds on. Spirit of Ad Hoc endured an appalling final ten-miles, staggering from pocket of wind to pocket of wind. A park up off St Paul's bay looked to have smothered their opportunity, but the dice were still rolling and in she squeezed. Bouchard is understandably playing it cool, ' we knew that we had a chance to place third or fourth but are still very uncertain about our position. So, let's wait.' After the twists and turns of the past five days who could blame him. Bouchard and his crew would probably have pushed anyway, but 'when we saw some bigger boats around us on the last two legs we said: it's good, it's good. But, still, we did not know exactly what chance we had so choosing the right sail and the sail trim was very important. We very much concentrated on this - to make the boat go as fast as possible.'
Now only a handful of competitors were in the title race. One was Arthur Podesta and Elusive Medbank (MLT). If anyone might have the cards stacked or the dice loaded in his favour it had to be Podesta. Competing in his twenty-ninth race, a winner in 1968 as crew on Josian. Could this be his year? The wind was going to have to smile all the way home. 'We knew we were close. My daughter Maya gave us a fifty-five minute window to finish the course at one point. I think we took ten minutes too long. We tried our best, but had difficult conditions at the end. The wind just seemed to follow us on the nose from Paradise Bay through the channel, all the way to the line,' remarked a philosophical Podesta. 'It was something special to take part in this anniversary event and I thoroughly enjoyed the race. And, don't worry I'll be back next year!' Podesta's enthusiasm for the race remains undiminished and shows in his excited at description of yesterday's squall that put paid to the hopes of many other competitors, 'it was incredible how fast the wind came up. It doubled from 20 knots in an instant. We dropped the main, hung on with the number 3 jib and wondered what was going to happen next.' And, that from the man who has seen it all on this race. Elusive currently lies in third place overall behind Chestress 2.
So, if it was not to be for Podesta who might topple the French pretenders. Well, Ricomincio da Tre has until just before nine this evening. Her position is precarious. Not yet in the Comino Channel and less than three hours to go, the odds are stacked against her. But, it ain't over yet.
Seventy seven yachts started the race, forty-eight have finished and thirteen have retired.