Dark clouds scudded across the sky over Valletta, bringing with it wind pressure for the ten boats that took to the start line for a coastal race in advance of Saturday’s start of the premier event, the Rolex Middle Sea Race. The fleet – just a part of the 84 yachts entered in the offshore race – used the approximately 24 mile course as a warm-up, a chance for the foreign boats to shake off the jet lag and get crews sailing together, for some the first time in these waters.
The coastal course also gave a chance to sort out the local conditions, which were fresh today, as well as this archipelago’s fascinating geography. The fleet started in Marsamxett Harbour, in the shadow of the towering spire of St Paul’s Cathedral and the landmark dome of the Carmelite Church. There was no shadow from the breeze however, which shortly before the start piped up to 15 to 18 knots. The northwesterly wind angle put the fleet on a broad reach and shortly after the start, many boats put up spinnakers or big genoas; the TP52 Lucky hoisted an asymmetrical spinnaker and shot to weather of the fleet and led out of the harbour. At the opposite end of the line was the 38-footer, Seawolf of Southampton (GIB) flying a symmetrical kite, that enabled them to sail more of a rhumbline course down the coast. Offshore the 3 - 4 metre sea was slightly bigger than the accompanying 18 to 20 knots of breeze; once on the opposite gybe the bigger boats made use of the following seas to surf at speeds of 18+ knots in the gusts.
The course took the boats a mile out to a fairway buoy, and then on the opposite gybe, around and down the eastern end of Malta to round the outer island of Filfla, leaving it to starboard, and a long beat back to the finish in Marsamxett Harbour.
Today’s fleet was a good cross section of the breadth of the full list of competitors with boats from Russia, Italy, Switzerland, Gibraltar, United States, and United Kingdom. The lone Maltese boat was Elusive Medbank (MLT), Arthur Podesta’s Beneteau 45. This will be Podesta’s 31st Rolex Middle Sea Race, and the lifetime sailor has the distinction of having done every race since the inaugural start in 1968. His track record is good with wins in 1970 and 1983, and a 2nd and 3rd place as skipper. Arthur’s core crew is made up of his daughter Maya (who’s done 9 races), and his two sons Aaron (9 races) and Christoph (8 races).
Following today’s coastal race, Podesta reflected on the day, “It was a fantastic pre- Rolex Middle Sea warm-up. We’re going to start off next Saturday in less wind; it might build up but it’s good that we had today’s wind that topped 27 knots. We managed spinnakers, we managed to top 15 knots of boat speed, and we also managed not to break anything, so that’s a good hooray.”
The conditions down the coast got lumpier and several competitors – Lucky and Bonita – retired rather than risk breakdowns that would keep them from the main event. Bryon Ehrhart, Lucky’s owner/skipper said “We came here to do the offshore race, everything was fine, though with 24+knots we probably should have tucked a reef in. But we got the boat going, we checked out all the safety equipment, and we’re ready to go on Saturday.”
The first boat to finish was the Valentine Zubkov’ Shipman 63, Coral (RUS), at 14:29:12 (an elapsed time of 4 hrs, 29 mins); but, it was David Latham’s Seawolf that won the coastal race on corrected time, followed in 2nd place by Elusive Medbank, Peter Hopps’ Nisida (GBR) in 3rd, and Coral in 4th (the balance of results were pending at press time).
Valentin Zubkov, owner/skipper of line honours winner, Coral, said, “It was really a good wind. They (RMYC Race Committee) gave us a long course around Malta, the wind was 25-30 knots; it was fantastic. To be honest, we didn’t hoist all of our sails, keeping safe, but we hoisted a large 330 sq m gennaker and our maximum speed was 22 knots.”
This will be Zubkov’s third Rolex Middle Sea Race on Coral; in 2008 they were 11th on elapsed time, but corrected out to 56th place as the boats’ handicap reflects the carbon boom and rigging. In the strong winds of the 2009 race, they ripped the main and jib and broke the furling system and had to retire. This year, with some improvements to deck hardware and new sails, Zubkov said, “Now we have three professionals from Synergy, the Russian team…we grew up together. It’s a little better, now we have 50/50 pros and amateurs (six + six).
“This is one of the top regattas for me, I can’t go to Rolex Sydney Hobart, and no chance to go to Rolex Fastnet, so this is the most high-rated regatta and it’s the end of the season. We try very hard to be here, and we put a lot of effort into it. I like this race, it’s very interesting: there’s no wind, and then there’s strong wind.”
Quite a few boats and competitors are still enroute to Malta, while many of those already here spent the day dockside running through a punch list of tasks to complete over the next three days. The 606-nautical mile offshore race begins on Saturday from Grand Harbour, with a start at 11.00am.
Tomorrow, Thursday, is a Crew Party at the Royal Malta Yacht Club, and on Friday there will be a skipper’s race and weather briefing. The Rolex Middle Sea Race commences on Saturday, 23 October 2010. The final prize giving is on Saturday, 30 October. George David's Rambler (USA) established the current Course Record of 47 hours, 55 minutes, and 3 seconds in 2007.