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40th Rolex Middle Sea Race fleet fully primed

by Rolex Middle Sea Race 18 Oct 12:56 PDT 19-26 October 2019
40th Rolex Middle Sea Race © Kurt Arrigo / Rolex

The 2019 Rolex Middle Sea Race starts tomorrow, Saturday, 19th October, at 11.00 CEST with a fleet of 113 yachts expected to depart from Grand Harbour. In a setting worthy of a Hollywood film, the guns of the Valletta Saluting Battery will mark each of the seven anticipated starts.

The crowds lining the bastions of the fortified city, cheering the yachts on their way, will add to the highly-charged atmosphere. Every participating crew is looking forward to taking on one the world's great 600 mile classic offshore races.

Figuring out which size of yacht might be favoured by the conditions remains a minefield. Yesterday's forecast has been super-ceded by today's, and tomorrow will probably bring more change. For those with ambitions for the overall prize the first objective is to win their class. After that, even with the handicap system levelling the playing field, the development of the weather across the course area will play a significant part in determining the outcome.

The person responsible for overseeing the start procedure is Royal Malta Yacht Club Principal Race Officer, Peter Dimech. Reflecting the heightened anticipation within the organisation, Dimech is excited by the prospects for the race. "Once again, we have a strong, diverse and international fleet reflecting the respect and enthusiasm for this race," said Dimech. "Tomorrow morning is intense for the team running the start, but we are all looking forward to the moment. It is one of the great sporting spectacles. This year has the makings of another great chapter in the history of this race."

Around 100 of the fleet are racing for the overall win scored under the IRC Rating System.

IRC Class 1 (11 yachts)

IRC 1 boasts 11 of the biggest boats racing and is very likely to produce the monohull line honours winner.

George David's Rambler (USA) has taken that prize for the last four years, but the race record set by David's 90ft Rambler in 2007 (47 hours, 55 minutes and 3 seconds) has remained intact for 12 years. It is the longest standing monohull race record of all the famous 600 mile offshore races. This year the predicted conditions look tantalising close to record pace, the answer will be revealed shortly after midday on Monday, 21 October. Peter & David Askew's Volvo 70 Wizard (USA) has enjoyed phenomenal success this year, as the overall winner of the RORC Caribbean 600 and the Rolex Fastnet Race. Success in the 2019 Rolex Middle Sea Race would deliver a 'triple crown', a feat never previously achieved. The smallest yacht racing in the big boat class is Marton Jozsa's Wild Joe (HUN), whilst Wild Joe is unlikely to take line honours, a class win is a reasonable goal.

Wild Joe's strategist is Stu Bannatyne, the only sailor to have won four editions of the Whitbread and Volvo Ocean Race. "The Rolex Middle Sea Race has been won by a vast variety of boats, and that is because of a huge range of wind conditions and wind directions on a circular course," said Bannatyne. "This year we are expecting a light air start and potentially strong upwind and reaching conditions towards the end. The two keys to success will be chipping away in the light, and reliability when the going gets tough."

IRC Class 2 (8 yachts)

The penultimate race start is filled with powerful looking yachts mostly around 50-feet in length. The two Cookson 50s, Riff Raff and Kuka 3 (SUI) will look to the victory of Mascalzone Latino in 2016 as inspiration. Franco Niggeler has done the race eight times and is clear about his crew's goal. "You have to be best in your own class to have a chance. After that it is the weather," said the Swiss skipper of Kuka 3. "I really like the course because it is such a mixture of conditions and marvellous scenery. You can have everything from very rough to no wind all in the same race."

IRC/TP52s have an excellent record in the race, with victories in 2010 (Lucky, USA), 2013 and 2015 (both B2, ITA). This will give encouragement to Anafesto (NED) and Arobas (FRA). Teasing Machine (FRA), Erik de Turckheim's impressive NMYD 54, featuring Laurent Pages among the crew had the misfortune to retire last year, but has pedigree in the Rolex Middle Sea Race with a win in class and third overall in 2017. Stefan Jentzsch's Carkeek 47 Black Pearl (GER) is another polished crew. Despite retiring in last year's tough conditions, Black Pearl has plenty of experience offshore, including the RORC Caribbean 600.

IRC Class 3 (13 yachts)

This is another class bursting with talent and some famous names firmly linked with the 50-year history of the race. Best known, perhaps, following two wins in 2011 and 2014 are Lee Satariano and the Artie team, featuring the Maltese legend Christian Ripard on the crew roster. Satariano is back this year with a new yacht, the HH42 Artie III. "It will be one of the first races we are doing with the boat," explained Satariano. "This is a much bigger project than my previous ones with production boats, but we are really looking forward to the acceleration and sailing as fast as we can. This is all about challenge and having some fun."

Despite his apparent relaxed approach, Satariano has been keeping an eye on the weather. "The first couple of days look quite light," he advised. "The eastern coast of Sicily will be a critical part of the race, particularly under Etna. Once through the Messina Strait, we have some doubts about the best positioning relative to Stromboli. Thereafter, I would hope to be at Favignana by Monday, because the south-easterly looks to be strengthening after that."

The name Comanche Raider III (MLT) is another that brings back memories. A previous iteration was one of a handful to complete the storm-ridden 2007 race. Skippered by Ramon Sant Hill, the Maltese entry will have eyes on local bragging rights as well as the class.

Russian yachts have been gaining more and more attention each year. The win by Bogatyr, in 2017, marked the first ever offshore classic victory by a yacht from the Federation. This year, there are plenty to pay attention to, including Sergey Bryuzga's Ker 40 Frogfoot. After a class podium finish in 2016, the last two years have been disappointing with a rig loss in 2017 and then a retirement in the face of atrocious conditions in 2018. "I've done the race six or so times," said Bryuzga. "I just love sailing and I just love this race. We have prepared a lot this year, with new sails and other modifications. We hope the weather will suit us."

IRC Class 4 (23 yachts)

The second biggest class, brimming with some super-strong crews. Winning this class will be a formidable test, and should the winner come out on top overall it will be a deserved victory. It is hard to look much further than Xp-Act (MLT) for a likely contender. Co-skippered by Timmy Camilleri and Richard Schultheis, the Maltese yacht has been a feature at the top of standings in class and overall in recent years.

Camilleri is a four-time winner as crew and this is his 26th race. "I have a strong tie to the race. My father used to do it and I started as a young child, so it's in my blood. It's such an interesting course, different every year and the competition keeps increasing," said Camilleri, explaining why he keeps coming back. "It's the type of race where it is not just the racecourse you have to manage. You have to manage yourself for the four days and the boat. My experience in winning and over the years, has given me an understanding of the approach needed to do well."

Riccardo Genghini, skipper of the Swan 651 Lunz Am Meer, is representative of the core of the fleet. Intensely competitive, he recognises the limitations of his boat, but understands the race is more than just about competition. "It's my seventh Rolex Middle Sea Race. The reason we keep coming back is the kind of sailors, the boats it attracts and the flawless organisation by the Royal Malta Yacht Club...it is all very sailor-like with a very sportive atmosphere," he said, continuing: "It's really something that pushes you to your limits and it also creates very strong bonds among the people on the boat. It is one of the best experiences I could imagine for improving yourself, learning and having an adventure."

The class also features the smallest yacht in the race, the Akilara 950, Pegasus (ITA), skippered by Francesco Conforto.

IRC Class 5 (18 yachts)

Last year, IRC 5 produced the overall winner of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. Géry Trentesaux's JPK 11.80 Courrier Recommandé (FRA) is back, and the Breton Grandmaster has said this will be the last time for the team after 20 years of spectacular success. The Courrier Recommandé crew once again includes Rolex Fastnet winner Alexis Loison.

Compared to Trentesaux's two decades of offshore prowess, British skipper Tom Kneen has just started the journey with his JPK 11.80 Sunrise. "There may be a hundred boats racing, but for us there are only two. This is a match race between Sunrise and Courrier Recommandé," commented Tom Kneen. The Sunrise crew has been reinforced for the race by the inclusion of two Maltese specialists, who have both won the race - father John Jr. and son Tom Ripard - as well as Kiwi round the world sailor, Dave Swete.

Class 6 (25 yachts)

With 25 entries, IRC 6 is the largest class in the Rolex Middle Sea Race and close battles abound. Timofey Zhbankov's JPK 10.80 Rossko is back to defend their class win from last year, as is last year's IRC 5 runner up, Gerard Ludovic's Solenn (FRA). The 2017 overall race winner and 2018 Double Handed champion, Bogatyr (RUS) skippered by Igor Rytov is back for a third race. Rob Craigie's Bellino (GBR) and Trevor Middleton's Black Sheep (GBR) are the leading two boats in the RORC Season's Points Championship and this race will decide the overall champion. Jarhead Young Sailors Foundation Malta has two J/109s racing in the class, JYS Jan will be skippered by Gabriella Mifsud, with an all-women team, and JYS Jarhead will be skippered by Andrea Azzopardi.

Other Classes

The remaining monohull yachts are racing solely under ORC. There is also a small contingent of multihulls and, for the 40th edition of the race, the fastest is Bruno Cardile's ORMA 60 Ad Maiora. The 1988 Nigel Irens design, was originally Fleury Michon IX and has been totally renovated. "I'm very happy to be here with this legendary boat, and am proud to be putting the trimaran back racing. The team is seven guys, and most have good ocean racing experience, including my best friend Attilio Gatti, with whom I crossed the Pacific," commented Cardile.

By sharp contrast to the stripped-out racing Ad Maiora, Nigel Passmore's Dazcat 1495 Apollo is luxurious with a fully fitted interior. The smallest multihull is Christiaan Durrant's Blackwater with an overall length of 10.57m (34' 6").

The 40th edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race starts tomorrow, Saturday 19, October. The first warning signal is at 11.00 CEST and the first start at 11.10 CEST.

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