With 114 boats scheduled to cross the start line of the 42nd Rolex Middle Sea Race, tomorrow, Saturday 23 October, offshore yacht racing fans are in for a real treat. The Royal Malta Yacht Club has once again attracted a diverse and spectacular international fleet for its flagship event. The call for entries went out earlier this year, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, lockdowns and travel restrictions. No one expected the sailing world would respond so positively. And, if the weather gurus are to be believed, we really could be on the cusp of something special, with the word from the dock that a new race record is on the cards.
The fleet ranges in size from 140 feet (42.56 metres) down to some comparatively, ridiculously small 30-footers (9 plus metres). Skorpios, the monohull line honours winner at the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race and racing under the leadership of 2008 Tornado Olympic gold medallist, Fernando Echavarri, is the runaway Goliath. The Davids are the Sunfast 3300 Munjek RS (CRO), the J/99s Calypso (MLT) and Space Jockey (RUS), and the Hanse 311 Catina 4 (ITA). In between, a trio of 70ft (21m) trimarans – Maserati Multi70 (ITA), Mana (ITA) and Argo (USA) – and a host of other monohull yachts represent some 25 countries; an impressive achievement for this much revered race that has delighted the organisers.
Will Oxley, the seasoned Australian navigator on the 100ft (30.5m) racing maxi Comanche (CAY), who was last here with Wizard in 2019, believes the record time set by the 90ft (27.4m) Rambler in 2007 – 47 hours, 55 minutes, three seconds – is well within the grasp of the fastest monohulls and multihulls. “It’s looking interesting because there is a low-pressure system developing over North Africa that will move over the racecourse,” he explained. “We should see really quite strong winds, which has been unusual for this race (in recent years). The forecast looks good for us. Our routings show a realistic chance that, if we sail well, we will be under record time. The question is whether there is anyone in front.” Comanche’s racing skipper is Mitch Booth, one of Echavarri’s competitors at the 2008 Games.
This assessment was endorsed by Chris Branning and Silvio Arrivabene, the co-navigators on George David’s current Rambler (USA), the 88ft (26.8m) Juan K flyer – five-time monohull line honours winner at the Rolex Middle Sea Race. For Arrivabene, on his ninth race, this is the fastest forecast he has seen, and he is keen to see how quickly they can get through the Messina Strait to open up the remainder of the 606 nautical mile course. In turn, Branning confirmed the importance of the system moving off North Africa: “It will be the dominant weather feature, leaving us with good gradient throughout the course. There will be two tight transition zones at the Strait and on the western side of Sicily. The leg from Lampedusa also seems quite fluid with uncertainty about the eventual position of the low, and that is probably the biggest variable left to work out.”
The big multihulls are also champing at the bit. Giovanni Soldini, skipper of Maserati Multi70, has taken line honours on three occasions and holds the current multihull race record which, at a touch over 56.5 hours, is surprisingly slower than the monohull time. This year, though, it could all be about to change. “We have known for a few days that this edition will be very windy,” he advised. “The first part of the race to Messina for us will not have strong wind, but from Stromboli to the finish looks very, very good … 20 knots or more. It should be a good year for the record, and with the other multihulls it will be a very interesting race. It will be important to be in the front.”
On Riccardo Pavoncelli’s Mana, which was beaten across line by Maserati last year, but won on corrected time, Jeff Mearing the boat captain confirmed the expectation of strong winds. “The boat is sound, all prepped up and ready to go,” said Mearing. “It’s going to be a fruity race; the forecast has been changing every six hours as the low pressure moves around. Right now, we are trying to get everyone goggled up, ready for the waves coming over the deck. She’s going to be a blasting machine for this one.” Mearing is celebrating his 40th birthday on start day and is thrilled to be doing so on Mana in the company of French ocean-racing legend Loick Peyron.
Elsewhere in the fleet, the forecast is casting a shadow, with a tough race ahead for the smaller slower boats. There have the prospect of confronting winds over 30 knots during the race. While the maxi monohulls and multis could be looking at a sub-two-day passage, those further down the list will be at sea for up to six days, facing the brunt of the depression in yachts that, while seaworthy and ready, will not eat the miles in quite the same way.
German sailor Johannes Polgar from Hamburg, who raced against Echavarri and Booth at the Beijing Olympics, is competing on Rafale, the German canting keeled Elliot 52. The 2021 Rolex Middle Sea Race is his first experience of the Mediterranean’s best regarded offshore course, and in fact any race of this length. “This is my first ever offshore challenge, the legends around this race are strong and I am looking forward to a great adventure,” advised Polgar. Robin Zinkmann, navigator on Rafale, agrees it will be fast race, but not straight forward: “It is always hard to model the winds at Messina, and we might get stuck there longer than predicted. Also, we will see a lot of wind in the middle of the race, and I am not sure how close we will be able to sail at 100%. My guess, at the moment, is two and half days.”
James Neville, Commodore of the Royal Ocean Racing Club and skipper of the HH42 Ino XXX (GBR) (second overall at the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race), is another on his first Rolex Middle Sea Race. “We are lucky to have the same crew as the Fastnet, so we are fully up for this,” enthused Neville. “It looks quite looks light off the start, with a drag race across to Sicily and up to Messina. It is crucial to get there early before any shut down. After the Strait it looks windy and fast.” Neville is excited to be competing against a number of the yachts that were in the top ten of this summer’s Rolex Fastnet, including Sunrise (GBR) the eventual overall winner under IRC. He also picked out another HH42 Artie (MLT), led by local legends Lee Satariano and Christian Ripard, a two-time race winning combination in a previous iteration of Artie. “They are quite a different set up to us,”Neville explained. “We are more powerful with twin rudders, whereas I think they have a slightly deeper keel. Their knowledge of the course, though, could be important.”
Many Maltese eyes will be on the Podesta siblings racing the First 45 Elusive 2 (MLT), winner of the past two editions of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. They will have their work cut out to achieve a three-peat of this already stellar success story in such a big fleet. This year sees one of the largest Maltese representations in recent editions, with 13 entries. Andrew Agius Delicata and Matthew Gabriele are taking on the inimitable challenge double handed in the Reflex 38 Vivace. “The Rolex Middle Sea Race is a very big challenge just doing it fully crewed. This is the second time we are doing it double handed,” advised Delicata. “We came fourth last time, but are hoping for a podium position this year. We expect the race to take five to six days, so we will focus on preserving energy over the first couple. We may not be as fast as the crewed yachts, but we will be trimming as hard as we can.”
Whether big, small, one hull or three, the 2021 Rolex Middle Sea Race has all the hallmarks of a classic in the making. The combination of formidable weather forecast, formidable fleet and formidable course is a mouth-watering prospect.