Rolex Middle Sea Race

Yesterday the 30th Rolex Middle Sea Race had its first boat home and today it appears to have its winner. Andres Soriano's Alegre (GBR) looks impregnable in first place as day four draws to a close. It will take a miracle for anyone on the course to finish inside the time set by the 69-foot Mills design. By 18.30 Tuesday evening, eleven boats had completed the 606 nautical mile course, with Nikata (GBR) crossing the finish line just after five pm, followed by Nadejda (RUS) and Calipso 4 (ITA) as the sun set over Valletta. The remaining yachts still racing are spread between Favignana and Lampedusa. What was a fast ride for some has proved a painfully slow one for others. Unquestionably, this year, the prevailing weather has favoured the larger yachts in the battle for overall victory. A complete turnaround from 2008.

Andres Soriano and his crew of largely Corinthian sailors are hugely popular winners. The plaudits for their achievement have come from every quarter, particularly the pro-sailed yachts at the head of the fleet that Alegre has comprehensively beaten over the course of this year's Rolex Middle Sea Race. Robert Scheidt four-time Olympic medal winner and helm on Luna Rossa (ITA) felt Alegre had sailed an almost perfect race, “they did an amazing job. They pushed the boat very well, preserved their equipment in the strong winds and when they needed to make decisions they made the right ones.” High praise indeed. For Soriano it is a dream come true. Last year he celebrated line honours victory here. This year victory is even sweeter, it is on handicap and therefore overall. In both cases he has turned the tables on some of the most competitively sailed maxis and mini-maxis in the yacht-racing world, crewed by some of the greatest exponents of offshore and inshore racing. This is no mean feat.

Soriano was overcome with emotion as realisation of his achievement began to sink in, “it's just an amazing feeling. When we crossed the finish line, just doing as well as we had against such tremendous competition brought tears to my eyes while I was thanking the crew. The news that we've almost certainly won is just overwhelming. It is a testimony to everyone involved, the crew on the race, those that helped on the shore and in the preparation too.” As an experienced offshore sailor, he is wise enough to know that luck with the wind has been with him. The developing frontal system that crossed the course over the past few days effectively removed two thirds of the fleet from the equation. Even so, Alegrehas had to sail the conditions better than the likes of Patrizio Bertelli's Luna Rossa (ITA) with Robert Scheidt and Torben Grael, Karl Kwok's Beau Geste (HKG) with Francesco de Angelis, Gavin Brady and Andrew Cape, and, Niklas Zennstrom's Rán II (GBR) with Tim Powell, Adrian Stead and Steve Hayles.

Soriano is also wise enough to know that some luck may have been with him in surviving the conditions of the first night and second morning. Alegre completed the course whilst the likes of Rosebud/Team DYT (USA) and Bella Mente (USA) failed to do so. Testament to the team's preparation of Alegre ahead of and her management during the race, as the delighted owner remarked, “this result shows what hard work, team spirit and supporting each other can do. We're just friends sailing together and I'm so proud. When teamwork works it beats the odds.”

Will Best, Alegre's navigator last year and this was also suitably impressed with the news, “it wasn't what we set out with as a goal so I'm stoked that we did so well. Before the race we looked at the weather and realised it was going to be case of getting the boat around safely and with good speed.” Just as last year, Best put much of the success down to good luck. After the results of last year and this it is an excuse that is wearing thin, “there were a few good calls, more through luck rather than judgment really. Staying away from Etna and going into the Strait hard on the right hand side was one. It paid dividends and we got through there in good shape. Another one was past Stromboli going out on port tack and knowing when to make that starboard lay. We went for a tack when, to be honest, I didn't think we were quite there and ended up laying quite nicely so we stayed with it.”

As for being chased around the track by Luna Rossa, Best is refreshingly honest about the additional pressure it creates, “it revs you up to keep on going and makes you think you're not doing a half bad job when there are so many medals on a boat behind you. It's quite a good feeling really!”

Soriano was reluctant to pick out any one member of the crew in particular, but pointed to the quiet confidence of Best as being one of the lynchpins, “he just kept us going, very confident on his calls. He had the weather sussed out. He thought a brilliant race and deserves a lot of credit.”

There is teamwork and support being shown in abundance on the course this evening as the 36 yachts still racing push on to finish the race. Leading the pack at Lampedusa is Tonnerre de Breskens III (NED). Piet Vroon's crew have had their 'make do and mend' caps on in the last twenty-four hours as Frank Gerber reported, “Boat Captain, Dallan Roos, found an issue with the steering. With the help of the boat's designer, Jason Ker and boat builder, Rinus Meeusen [both racing onboard], an allen key and a few metres of spectra lashing, we found the solution. We haven't lost much time and can still push hard.”

Behind Tonnerre is a stream of yachts. Some are having a more interesting time than others, as confirmed by Hilary Cook on Nisida (GBR), “the wind picked up during the afternoon and we were going well. Then we picked up a fish trap - complete with fish. We dropped the headsail and eventually freed ourselves. Due to a few earlier mishaps though, we now have a completely inoperable headsail foil. Fortunately, Nisida has a separate inner forestay and we are now sailing along with a hanked-on staysail and going well again.”

Even further back, there is some hugely competitive sailing. Local rivals Sandro Musu/Aziza (MLT) and Lee Satariano/Artie (MLT) have been sailing within sight of each other for much of the race. Both have found time to call in reporting a frustrating period of light wind has now improved. They are both now sailing upwind, but in a steady 15-knots. Artie expects to be home late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning. Expect a crescendo of noise in Marsamxett Harbour if the two enter together.