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Bullitt tops Rolex Middle Sea Race's IRC One

by James Boyd / International Maxi Association 25 Oct 2023 07:01 PDT 24 October 2023
Rolex Middle Sea Race © Rolex / Kurt Arrigo

After an unusually light Rolex Middle Sea Race in 2022, the Royal Malta Yacht Club's premier event, the opening event in the International Maxi Association's 2023-24 Mediterranean Maxi Offshore Challenge, returned to headbanger mode this year.

The wind on the anticlockwise lap of Sicily might have just reached 30 knots but it was the mainly upwind conditions and a sharp seastate left over from Friday's southerly gale, not aligning with the wind direction after Saturday afternoon's start that caused several maxis to sustain damage.

As usual Saturday's departure from Grand Harbour next to the Maltese capital Valletta was sensational, each class sent on its way by a noisy, smoky cannon blast, that echoed around the ancient city's imposing ramparts and fortifications to the delight of the giant spectator turn-out. The maxis in IRC 1 set sail last at 1220 with Bryon Ehrhart's Lucky leading the maxis away from Malta. By 1800 all were converging as they passed Capo Passero, at the southeastern tip of Sicily but from here, instead of there being the forecast lull east of the Italian island, there was both more wind and a brutal seastate. As Leopard's tactician and watch leader Mitch Booth reported: "We were really struggling. There was a really nasty chop."

This took its toll: shortly before midnight Giovanni Lombardi Stronati's 82ft Django HF was first maxi to retire. "We were going for a reef in 27 knots of wind with a big sea," reported crewman Chris Mason. "During the reefing manoeuvre we had a mast track failure, which led to some of the mainsail car stack coming away from the mast and causing irreparable damage to the main. We were unable to continue." An hour later it was the turn of the 107ft former Wallycento Spirit of Malouen X which suffered electrical issues due to water ingress, forcing them to retire too.

Those still racing stuck their bows into the toe of Italy with Lucky heading furthest east to lead Leopard 3 and Andrea Recordati's Bullitt into the Strait of Messina, hugging the Calabrian shore. Transiting the Strait, Bullitt edged ahead of Leopard 3 and Lucky, which had stayed a little further offshore.

Tactically the exit of the Strait, at Capo Peloro, was the key moment of the race as the smaller Bullitt was first round, to lead Leopard 3 north towards Stromboli. However soon they were neck and neck, as Bullitt's tactician Joca Signorini explained: "We had a small lead on Leopard but they brought in some drainage breeze."

While the lead duo escaped, those astern, including Lucky and Roy P Disney's Pyewacket 70, remained at best parked in light wind and building counter-current, at worst being flushed back into the Strait as all the 50 footers caught them up.

As Mitch Booth described it: "The current against was starting and there wasn't much wind and we were wiggling along the shore trying to keep us advancing and we only just made it around the point. We could see Lucky behind us. They tacked and they were going back into the middle and they just got flushed back down. Meanwhile we were gone."

Three hours after extracted themselves, Leopard 3 and Bullitt were half way to Stromboli as those trailing finally freed themselves. After a transition zone northeast of Palermo, the lead duo were once again on the wind. They passed Trapani at 0300 Monday by which time Leopard 3 had pulled out a small lead over her rival. From there it was a port tack fetch to Pantelleria and then fully upwind again to the race's southwesterly turning mark of Lampedusa. The close reach back towards Malta was again a boneshaker, then passing through the South Comino Channel and on to the final beat towards the finish at Valletta's Marsamxett Harbour.

After an exceptionally close race, the last leg back to Malta was tough and Leopard 3 again had to back off. She was still able to extend over Bullitt and crossed the line at 01:20:56 this morning (Tuesday) her elapsed time of 2 days 12 hours 50 minutes 56 seconds enough to collect monohull line honours, but nowhere close to Comanche's race record of 1 day 16 hours. Bullitt arrived 1 hour 49 minutes later, second on the water, but vitally leading IRC One by almost 2 hours on corrected time.

Leopard 3's crew looked exhausted; the comedown from the fast tight reach returning to Malta. Leopard's owner was delighted with their result, especially after her extensive winter refit; recreating her again as a pure race boat. It had also been a rerun of the 2022 race, which they had also spent locked in competition with Bullitt. "I was worried about north of Sicily, because last year we were floating around there for a long time. This time we always had some wind so we never really stopped. Also we had a very powerful J0 sail with us - with that, even if you only have 3 knots you can still keep the boat moving."

Despite losing on the water to her longer rival, Bullitt's owner Andrea Recordati was brimming with enthusiasm too. "It was extremely exciting and challenging, especially the first night. It was amazing that we managed to get out ahead of the fleet at Messina - we weren't expecting that! Let's not forget we were up against Lucky, Leopard, Pyewacket, etc - some serious, serious boats. We were just keeping ahead of the breeze while the others were slowly losing it at different points of the race, which made their lives more difficult."

His Brazilian tactician, Volvo Ocean Race winner Joca Signorini added: "We worked hard on the first night to look after the boat, because it was very windy. I think the crew did a fantastic job keeping everything together." In the rough seas Bullitt's worst breakage was...their kettle!

Other maxis suffering gear failure during the race included Guido Paolo Gamucci's canting keel Mylius 60 Cippa Lippa X and Hungarian Márton Józsa's DSS-equipped 60 footer Wild Joe, both of which broke running backstays, just before and just after Stromboli respectively.

However by far the worst incident was the dismasting of Lucky, a boat which knows the course very well having previously been George David's serial line honours winner Rambler 88. At 0700 Monday, while having just passed the Egadi islands off west Sicily, Lucky's mast broke a few metres above her first spreaders. As tactician Brad Butterworth put it: "We were under J2, putting in a reef in the main in 19 knots TWS when - BANG..." Fortunately no one was hurt and having jettisoned the mess, Lucky pulled into Sicily to pick up fuel and then motored back to Malta. The reasons for the breakage of this five year old carbon fibre spar are at present unclear.

Despite their significant length differences, Lucky and Pyewacket 70 had also been having their own race following the Messina restart. For Roy P Disney's heavily turboed former Telefonica VO70, this was the first time the California-based team had entered the Rolex Middle Sea Race, however his crew are all old hands, including multiple Volvo Ocean Race winners Brad Jackson and Tony Mutter.

For Isler and the crew there was some romance to their race, seeing the lava on Stromboli steaming away and the incredibly clear star-lit night off northern Sicily. Despite having a deeper keel, huge rig and sail plan (reefed, Pyewacket 70 has the same sail area as a regular VO70), Isler still felt that on the bumpy first night their round the world race boat was the best suited to the brutal conditions.

Third home on the water, they suffered on the final leg back towards Malta both due to dropping breeze but also picking up some flotsam which resulted in America's Cup/round the world sailor Kyle Langford having to dive overboard to unentangle themselves from what proved to be some Styrofoam fishing floats and a large reed branch.

At present Bullitt is leading IRC One but whether the 92 footer can make any impression under IRC Overall remains to be seen, as much racing needs to be played out across the rest of the 91 boat IRC fleet over the next 24-48 hours in this Rolex Middle Sea Race.

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