At 1100 CEST, the winner of the 50th anniversary Rolex Middle Sea Race was announced as Géry Trentesaux’s Courrier Recommandé. With neither of the two boats still at sea able to overhaul the corrected time of the French JPK11.80, Trentesaux adds the laurels of the Mediterranean’s highly-regarded 600-mile offshore classic to the Rolex Fastnet victory he achieved in 2015, and his many other successes.
Second place overall has been secured by the Czech entry Bohemia Praha Debra, the Figaro II, owned by Milan Tomek, which corrected out four hours behind. Another French entry, the MN43 Albator, skippered by Philippe Frantz, took the final spot on the podium. Trentesaux and his crew will be awarded the Rolex Middle Sea Race trophy and Rolex timepiece at the final prize giving on Saturday, 27 October in the historic Sacra Infermeria, Valletta.
Trentesaux is one of France’s most successful racing yachtsmen. Following his victory at the Rolex Fastnet in 2015, Trentesaux announced at the prize giving – to the relief of many rival sailors – that he was retiring from offshore competition. So, it was a pleasant surprise for the Royal Malta Yacht Club to have such an esteemed sailor come out of ‘retirement’ to participate in its celebratory race. “I said that I would stop racing offshore after the 2015 Rolex Fastnet Race,” explained the softly-spoken Trentesaux. “However, for me, offshore racing is an addiction. I started when I was 14, I love the atmosphere and I could not resist coming to the Rolex Middle Sea Race this year.” Trentesaux has only taken part in the race once before, in 1982, when he was 23 and had just completed his military service.
The primary keys to succeeding in a 606nm offshore race are pretty clear-cut to Trentesaux: “A good boat, good sails and a good crew are the main ingredients.” The Jacques Valer designed JPK 11.80 was launched in February 2018 and immediately caught the eye finishing second in class at Spi Ouest France and collecting other respectable results at distance races in the English Channel.
Over many years, Trentesaux’s series of boats all starting with the prefix Courrier have been regularly winning trophies in northern European waters. The core crew has remained stable throughout, and includes the likes of Alexis Loisin, overall winner of the 2013 Rolex Fastnet and one half of the first ever crew to win a 600-mile race sailing two-handed.
Trentesaux is experienced enough to know that while his foundations were solid, victory was by no means guaranteed: “Even with those elements in place you cannot always win. We aim to win our class by our performance and the cherry on the cake is winning overall. Before the race, you cannot imagine you will, since it depends on the weather. Winning overall is truly incredible.”
That being said, the crew’s collective experience paid over and over during an edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race that has tested some of very best sailors this year with some 27 yachts retiring. “Each time it was difficult we very quickly found the solution,” Trentesaux continued. “We didn’t make a lot of errors. The boat was fast and we [sailed] in the right places. After Messina, we applied the pressure and increased the distance between us and our competitors.”
Despite the spectacular environment of the start, the overcast conditions during the early miles reminded Trentesaux of racing in the English Channel. “But when we arrived at Sicily I was reminded of how beautiful this race is,” he smiled, continuing: “From a strategic point of view we performed well in the light air up to Messina, keeping up with larger boats. The difficulty in light weather is you don’t know where the wind will come from; it was very complex. For the leg to Stromboli the wind was strong and we began to sail fast, even in 30 knots we were under full sail.”
From the outside, Courrier Recommandé’s ability to push on in the strong upwind conditions encountered after Stromboli may well have made the difference. Igor Rytov, the overall winner sailing fully crewed in 2017 and double-handed this year, remarked that this leg over the top of Sicily was the one that cost them the most in terms of overall position. Rytov’s proven willingness to push himself when the going gets tough was enough to win the 2018 double-handed class by two and half hours from Austrian entry, 2Hard.
“From Stromboli, we were upwind in strong wind and waves and we sailed well and made some good decisions to pass bigger boats,” added Trentesaux. “It was wet and very tiring. After Favignana, it was still very windy, but we put up our small spinnaker, even in 30 and sometimes 40 knots.” It was not all plain sailing. Like many of the crews, Courrier Recommandé experienced a few alarming moments. Some could have ended their assault on the race title. “At night, at Pantelleria, we broached and one of the crew went overboard,” he explained. Fortunately, the crewmember stayed connected to the boat and the French crew were able to get going again: “We had no damage, but we took down the spinnaker for three hours. I steered for the next 60 miles, as I think I am a good helmsman in big wind.” Given the eventual result, this last assertion seems entirely reasonable.
This segment between Pantelleria and Lampedusa clearly made an impression on the experienced Trentesaux. “We were very, very fast downwind,” he said. “It was incredible to steer the boat with big waves and surfing. It was great.”
Courrier Recommandé is the third French flagged yacht to win the race overall following the exploits of Antares in 1981 and Thierry Bouchard/Spirit of Ad Hoc in 2008. For Trentesaux, there is tremendous satisfaction in having added his name to the honour roll of this race. So much so that he is encouraged to take on a few more offshore challenges including next year’s Rolex Fastnet and Rolex Sydney Hobart, which will be celebrating its 75th anniversary. Good news for the armchair sailor who enjoys following his progress; not so good for those in the race harbouring hopes of winning these contests.
As the exploits of Courrier Recommandé and her crew enter the fabled annals of this great race, there was a moment of reflection: “I would like to dedicate this win to the Dutch sailor, Piet Vroon. He is my mentor and I have the greatest respect for him and his manner. I first sailed with Piet when I was 16, I sailed for him for many years, Piet has been my inspiration for over 50 years.
The Rolex Middle Sea Race is supported by the Ministry for Tourism, the Malta Tourism Authority, Transport Malta, Yachting Malta, Marina di Valletta, Grand Hotel Excelsior Marina and the Grand Harbour Marina.