There are three months to the start of the 2022 Rolex Middle Sea Race. Some 61 yachts have entered, with crews from Australia, the United States, Canada and most of Europe slated to participate. The fleet comprises the usual array of professionals, amateurs and adventurers. At the faster end, debutant Frank Slootman’s MOD70 Snowflake has been joined by Giovanni Soldini’s Maserati Multi 70, on the Italian multihull’s fifth appearance.
Among the monohulls, the 30.5 metre Leopard 3 is currently the largest entry, making a welcome return after a five-year absence. Within the main body of IRC entries, the impressive two-time winning Maltese co-skipper combo, Lee Satariano and Christian Ripard, are back hoping for a three-peat, with Satariano’s latest Artie.
The cut-off date for entry is officially Friday, 23 September 2022, but the Royal Malta Yacht Club (RMYC), has retained the discretion to accept late entries up to Friday, 30 September. The race itself starts from Grand Harbour, Valletta, on Saturday, 22 October.
One entry to catch the eye is Maverick. The Infiniti 46R has been campaigned around the 606 nautical mile course with great success on two previous occasions by Quentin Stewart, winning class both times and finishing third overall in 2016. This year Maverick has been chartered by Michael Firmin, who raced on the DSS foil equipped flyer at the 2017 Rolex Fastnet and 2019 Rolex Sydney Hobart (third in class).
“Despite a longstanding love of the ocean and offshore racing, this will be my first Rolex Middle Sea Race,” says Firmin. “I have been very lucky to complete all the other major blue water events, and I hold this one in high regard. It has long been on the bucket list.”
As for why now, Firmin answers: “We have the race on the schedule for our new boat, so wanted to take the chance to gain experience and insights for the future.” When he learnt that Maverick was available for the race, he leapt at the chance to charter her: “Maverick is an awesome boat that I have had a long affinity with from the initial concept through to Quentin’s successful campaigning over many seasons. I know her pedigree very well.”
And, while it will be a debut race for Firmin, he has surrounded himself with an exceptional crew, many of whom have done the race before. “It’s a tough race with multiple points on the course where decisions need to be made, which combined with the variable conditions make it a thinking sailor’s race,” he explains. “The crew is a great mix of seasoned and successful professionals combined with high quality, experienced amateurs, most of whom I have known and sailed with over many years.” Among others, Firmin is joined by Stu Bannatyne, known as King of the Southern Ocean and a four-time winner of the Ocean Race; Steve Thomas, a two-time 29er world champion, David Gilmour and Gordon Kay, the founder of Infiniti yachts.
In contrast to Firmin, Chris Sherlock is no stranger to the Rolex Middle Sea Race, having first competed back in 1997 onboard Mike Slade’s IOR maxi, Longobarda. Sherlock has competed four times since as the skipper of Leopard of London in 2002, and Leopard 3 in 2009, 2010 and 2017.
“When we came in 1997 with the Longobarda, it was part of Mike Slade’s wish to help the Royal Malta Yacht Club with the reinvigoration of the race,” explains Sherlock. “He was also keen to visit Malta again.” The 24.2m Longobarda was third to finish on the water behind the newer Sagamore and Alexia B. The 29.49m Leopard of London achieved the same result in 2003, losing out to Alfa Romeo and Nokia Enigma.
“The Rolex Middle Sea Race is one of the greatest offshore races in the world,” says Sherlock. “First, it’s a circle and that is unusual. It has the most amazing scenery too. Most importantly, though, I think it is a fair race. You will get a bit of everything and because it is a circle every boat should get the conditions they perform best in at some point. It is not just a straight line, so it is never ever boring.”
In 2009, Slade and Sherlock brought the 30.5m Leopard 3 to the course and in winds similar to 2007, set a blistering pace finishing just over 30 minutes outside the then record time. Returning in 2010, and racing in less favourable breeze, Leopard 3 was outgunned by Esimit Europa 2 in the battle for line honours. In 2017, Leopard 3 was under charter with Sherlock as skipper and finished second on the water behind Rambler in another ‘slow’ year.
For 2022, Leopard is under new ownership, as Sherlock explains: “We have a new owner who is currently building his familiarity with the boat. He is young, likes to helm, and is keen to go offshore. We did the RORC Caribbean 600 as a taster and that went well. The Rolex Middle Sea Race is the next challenge.”
“It is one of my favourite races,” concludes Sherlock. “This year we have got a great crew, with a lot of Ocean Race experience, but also experience on Leopard: Mitch Booth, Ian Budgen, Jan Dekker, Juanpa Marcos, and Will Best as navigator. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Looking at the rest of the 61-boat fleet, one third of the entries to date took part in last year’s Rolex Middle Sea Race reflecting well on the course’s notable scenic attractions and tactical challenges. Frederic Puzin’s Daguet-Corum 3 had the best result finishing first in IRC Class 2 and third overall, while Artie III was second in IRC Class 3 and seventh overall. Chenapan 4, Gilles Caminade’s Ker 40 finished in the top-twenty overall, as did fellow French entry Ludovic Gerard’s Solenn for Pure Ocean (second in the Double-Handed Division). Francois Bopp’s Chocolate 3 (Switzerland) and Stella Maris (Austria) also put in creditable performances to finish in the top half of the 105-boat IRC fleet. Henry de Bokay and the Elliott 52 Rafale (Germany), the J/109 Jubilee of Gerald Boess and Jonathan Bordas, and the Swan 65 King’s Legend are back again, despite the disappointment of not completing the race in 2021 and again demonstrating the compelling appeal of the race.
The eventual fleet count last year was 114, with the highest ever gathering being 130 achieved in 2018, the 50th anniversary of the first Rolex Middle Sea Race in 1968. The RMYC is always looking to exceed that target, and who is to say that this will not be the year.