The Rolex Middle Sea Race is now underway and the fleet is making better than expected progress towards Sicily.
The breeze has clocked around from southerly at the start, and during the fifty mile crossing to Sicily, to west-northwest as the fleet sails along the eastern coast of Sicily this evening -- and dropped to 5 – 10 knots, closer to the pre-race forecast.
The fleet is closing in on the Strait of Messina, which most of the competitors have pegged as the first and biggest tactical challenge of the race. The narrowest part of the Strait is 3.1 km (1.9 nm) across, with a water depth of 80 metres that quickly drops off in the south to 800 metres. Given this, the Strait is notorious for strong tidal currents and whirlpools. Timing one’s passage through with the current provides a critical advantage.
Race leader Esimit Europa 2 (SLO) is approximately 65 nautical miles from Messina, currently sailing at 13.4 knots but making less than that in the adverse current. Esimit is about 16 nautical miles off Syracuse, on the eastern seaboard of Sicily, sailing on a northerly heading. Rán (GBR) is five miles southeast of the Slovenian boat with Alegre (GBR) is eight miles further south.
From onboard Rán tonight, the crew reported, 'After a good start, we sailed during the first hours of race with 17 up to 20 knots of wind under the rain. Until now, after 6pm, we have been sailing at a speed of 16 - 17 knots with a northwest wind. We have slowed down a little, coming closer to land. Big clouds were over our heads giving us a lot of constant rain and most importantly the wind. We did not think we would experience so much wind right from the start today. We already undertook over 12 sail changes to always keep the boat as fast as possible. As for competition, it is around; Esimit is still visible to us and Alegre is behind, further back in the mist, but not too far away yet.'
Front-runners in Class 2 include Cantankerous (ITA) and B2 Natali (ITA), and Nikata (GBR). On board the Vismara 62, B2 Natali is bowman Stefano Raspadori sailing his seventh Rolex Middle Sea race. Raspadori sailed his first Middle Sea Race in 1998 onboard the Open 60, Riviera di Rimini, which won the race that year and established a race record. In the 13 years since, Raspadori noted, 'The boats change, the size increases, and design and weight of the boat is changing all the time, -- but this is what we like in racing.'
In Class 3, Vikesha II and Elusive St. Regis both Maltese entries, are in front doing five knots. Class 4 leaders include Maltese competitors, Ton Ton Surfside and the J/122 Artie. Christian Ripard, co-skipper (with Lee Satariano) on Artie said, 'The race to me is like an around-the-buoys race for 600 miles, because the conditions change very rapidly. You have anything from zero knots to gales; you have thunderstorms. It keeps the crew very busy and there are a lot of tactical decisions that have to be made every hour.'
Grace Payne-Jones is the youngest crew competing in this year’s Rolex Middle Sea Race. The cheery14-year old from Essex, United Kingdom, who has been sailing most of her life, said, 'It’s in my blood because for my parents, it’s their life.'
They are active offshore racers, Jason and Judy Payne-Jones, owners and co-skippers of the Dufour 45, Heartbeat IV, who are sailing in the RMSR for the first time. Grace is the youngest cadet of the East Anglian Offshore Racing Association (EAORA) youth program; she is using her race experience towards her silver Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, a youth achievement programme in the UK, for which she will create a video diary of the race.
Every race has a ‘lifer’ and for the Rolex Middle Sea Race it would be local Maltese sailor Arthur Podesta, racing this year on his Beneteau First 45 Elusive St. Regis in his 32nd race. After three decades of races, you would think it would be routine, but Podesta claims it is not so, 'The organization required keeps on increasing, and the competition increases, as does the number of boats and the quality. It’s climbed to an incredible level, and I feel privileged to be a part of it.'
Podesta’s enthusiasm for the race has spread to include his three children: daughter Maya, and sons Aaron and Christoph. The 66-year old does not plan on stopping anytime soon, 'As long as I enjoy it and there’s that adrenaline rush, I’ll keep doing it.' Podesta who helms and does tactics, said 'I think they’d prefer me driving upwind; the boys think they can do better job downwind, and maybe they’re right. If we can gain 0.1 of a knot, hooray!'
Cultural Notes: The Rolex Middle Sea Race course takes the fleet past two active volcanoes, Mount Etna and Stromboli. Etna, at 3,329 metres (10,922 ft) high, is Europe’s tallest and most active volcano. It is located on the east coast of Sicily just north of the city of Catania. The year 2011 has been an active one -- the volcano’s most recent eruption occurred on Sept 29, marking the 15th time this year.
70 yachts started the 32nd Rolex Middle Sea Race. The final prize giving is at 12.00CEST on Saturday, 29 October at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta. In 2007, George David's Rambler (USA) established the current Course Record of 47 hours, 55 minutes, three seconds. In order to beat this record the first boat must finish by approximately 11.30 CEST Monday, 24 October.
Rolex Middle Sea Race website