Year on year, the Rolex Middle Sea Race features a myriad of skirmishes right through the fleet. If you dream of winning one of the classic 600 nm offshore races overall, you must have the determination and commitment to first win your section of the IRC category. At the 43rd edition, some of the class wars have been intense affairs to the finish, while others have appeared walkovers as the competition missed catching the wind train or suffered other injustices in the fickle winds. At least one such battle is still ongoing and is unlikely to finish for many hours.
In IRC 1, the eventual gap between the first and second boats on time correction was 50 minutes, and the fight remained unresolved until the finish line. The two boats, Spirit of Lorina (FRA) and Wild Joe (HUN) had been in contention since the start, and were locked together until Stromboli. Halfway across the north of Sicily a gap started to appear, and Marton Josza’s Hungarian crewed Reichel/Pugh 60 managed to stretch away from Jean-Pierre Barjon’s French-crewed Botin 65. At the Favignana transit (the nominal halfway point) the gap was 40 minutes in the favour of Wild Joe.
Races can turn in an instant as Wild Joe explained: “We caught the fisherman’s net in the evening hours on the approach to Pantelleria. Luckily, we spotted it straightaway and were able to get free quite quickly and didn’t get too entangled.” All the same by Pantelleria, the positions were reversed with Spirit of Lorina holding a 40 minute advantage on corrected time. Despite a concerted effort by Wild Joe on the Lampedusa – Malta leg, the gap could not be closed. According to the Wild Joe navigator, Andras D’Albini, “To do well in this race you need a favourable weather forecast, and some luck especially in the windless areas. This is our best ever result, so we are very happy. We had an accurate weather forecast ahead of the race. The team is very experienced, and we kept hitting our polars. It was great to be here. Really nice to see two other Hungarian teams. We hope to be back.”
Teasing Machine’s victory in IRC 2 was comprehensive by the finish, Eric de Turckheim’s French NMYD54 beating Red Bandit by more than two hours. It was not always so. A 20 year old Farr 52, Chocolate 3 (the former Optimum 4 overall winner in 2004) now representing Switzerland, although mainly crewed by young Bulgarian dinghy sailors, was right at the top of the standings until Stromboli. “We had a very good start,” said owner François Bopp. “We were first in the rankings going into the Messina Strait, and then we blew a jib. We lost a lot of time because it was ripped in two. We missed the first train there, and then again at Stromboli where we had boats less than a mile faster than us going superfast while we were stuck.” Bopp continued: “The two extremes of last year and this year prove that this race is fascinating. The landscape is beautiful, the winds can change, the result is not predictable, and that is all it needs to be great race.”
The Chocolate afterguard this year included serial round the world yachtsman Bouwe Bekking. “It was a very, very, very slow race. We predicted four and a half days, and it’s taken us over six. There are a lot of young sailors onboard, and motivation was always high, the crew was always eager. They got a great experience and kept fighting to the end. It was probably an eye-opener.” Bekking continued: “The Rolex Middle Sea Race gives you everything. You don’t have any better starts anywhere else in the world than Valletta. Then the whole ambiance, going around corners, seeing Stromboli letting smoke go, it is just a fantastic course. Kudos to the Royal Malta Yacht Club.”
One of the most anticipated duels was in IRC 3, a rematch between Lee Satariano’s Artie III (MLT) co-skippered by Christian Ripard and the RORC Commodore James Neville’s Ino XXX (GBR). Ino XXX beat Artie III by 10 minutes on IRC corrected time in 2021. The Artie team though has won the Rolex Middle Sea Race overall on two occasions in a previous boat. While both boats are both high performance HH42s they are not identical. The drive and will to win, though, is an even match.
“We have a strong team that has been working together for about five years and we have done a lot of 600 mile races,” commented Neville. “During this race we were constantly changing sails; always ready to keep the boat moving. The navigation was also absolutely critical.” Locked together for much of the race, as Ino and Artie approached Pantelleria the wind started to fade again. “As the wind died, we took a gybe west,” explained Neville. “It was only about a half a mile detour, but that converted to a sixty mile lead because it kept us in the breeze, while the wind just disappeared behind us.”
“The Rolex Middle Sea Race is always a fantastic race, but before this one we knew there would be parts of the race with very light winds,” commented Satariano. “Up until Favignana we were very happy with our performance. At Pantelleria, we missed the breeze by a matter of minutes. We were becalmed for over 20 hours. At that moment you feel devastated, but we did our best and we are really happy with the performance of the boat and the crew. You have to move on because we could not have done anything better to avoid it.”
For co-skipper Christian Ripard, who has done many Rolex Middle Sea Races: “It was a typical race. A lot of unexpected things happened. Very testing conditions, very testing psychologically.” “You ask any sailor, the highest skill you need is to sail with no wind,” Ripard continued. “It is very important to keep everyone pulling the same rope, and not just giving up. The whole crew has to give it their all. Luck may have been against us, I don’t know, but we enjoyed it!”
After Pantelleria, Ino XXX never looked likely to relinquish the lead and sailed away to win IRC 3 by 11 hours. The reward for Artie’s perseverance was to finish top Maltese boat winning the Transport Malta Trophy, the Arthur Podesta Trophy and the Teddy Borg Trophy.
In IRC 4, for a long time the First 45 Elusive 2 entered by the Podesta siblings from Malta looked likely to repeat their successes of recent years. By Stromboli Elusive held a tenuous lead of 17 minutes over Philippe Frantz’s NMD 43 Albator (FRA). By Favignana, Albator had reversed the deficit turning it into a 3 hour advantage. At Pantelleria, the lead was six hours on IRC time correction. Rounding Lampedusa, the southernmost mark of the course, 18 hours ahead on the water the higher rating Albator was 13 hours in the lead. The French crew finished the race on Friday morning just before 1000CEST. At 1800 CEST, Elusive was closing in on the finish having made up substantial ground, but not enough.
“We have done this race four times,” advises Frantz. ”The image we have in mind is mostly heavy weather. Quite calm to Messina and then windy all the rest. We had no idea this race can be so quiet, with light winds all around Sicily. The biggest discovery was that this race could take six days, when our previous average was three to four days.”
“I’m proud of my crew,” said the quietly spoken Frantz. “They were always on deck doing everything to sail the boat as fast as we could. There were no points where we could have done anything better. It is a good crew for efficiency and teamwork. I’m really proud of that.” “For us, the Rolex Middle Sea Race is a high point of the season. You can get light winds, then strong winds which makes it so interesting. Keep on running this event, it is a beautiful race. The most beautiful I know.”
With only one boat managing to complete the course, so far, in IRC 5 and only one boat still racing Gianrocco Catalano’s First 40 Tevere Remo Mon Ile (ITA) is the runaway winner. Their victory is a victory over circumstance as much as the opposition. “This is our third race. It was very hard, very different to the previous ones,” remarked Catalano. “Last year was difficult because there was so much wind. This year was difficult because there was no wind.” Tevere was first to reach every turning mark of the course, the first to wiggle free of the windless zones. “The passages around the islands were very hard,” continued Catalano. “We had a very good crew, able to read the water and find the breeze to keep us moving. The boat has been prepared specially for offshore races. We have had good results here previously. It was our ambition to do well, and we have fought hard. Having bigger boats around us kept the concentration high and motivated us to continue.”
“The preparation for a race like this is hard. You have to work a lot just to bring the boat here, but when you finish you have a lot of powerful emotions. During the previous edition, which was very tough, I had moments when I thought I don’t want to do this anymore,” admitted Catalano. “But as soon as I finish, I started thinking about the next edition. It is like I fill my storage of good feelings which help me live better at home and work for the rest of the time.”
No one has yet finished in IRC 6 – out of respect to those still racing, the full story can wait until another day. In the meantime, Massimo Junis’ JPK1080 Colombre (ITA) continues to lead on the water and under IRC time correction. The only competitor to have rounded Lampedusa, Colombre is 80nm from the finish, and 25nm ahead of Ludovic Gerard’s JPK 1080 Solenn for Pure Ocean (FRA) racing double-handed and Sebastian Ripard’s J/99 Calypso (MLT).