By 7AM this morning five more yachts had crossed the finish line of the 28th Rolex Middle Sea Race. British yacht Nisida led the minor charge finishing just before midnight, whilst Martin Scicluna's Air Malta Falcon (MLT) completed the course just before seven. In between came the Swiss boat Tai Shan, Elusive Medbank and finally Guts ‘n' Glory (GER), which sailed most of the race with only a trysail after their main gave out before she reached Stromboli. By 5PM two more - Obelix (ITA) and Slingshot (GBR) - were back on their berths, with Global Yacht Racing (GBR) hoping to arrive at some point this evening.
The yachts finishing now are in conditions that were all but unimaginable 48 -72 hours ago. The Royal Malta Yacht Club has been bathed in warm sunshine for much of the day, with members enjoying lunch outside on the terrace overlooking the finish and watching those boats coming home having to short tack up Marsamxett Harbour on the vaguest of zephyrs. A far cry from the extreme winds faced by the crews from Saturday night until Tuesday morning. The frontal system that put three-quarters of the fleet into harbour during the first 36-hours is a distant memory. It is only the stories and faces of those who completed the course that give a true measure of the race.
Shaun Murphy, co-skipper of the only double-handed yacht to complete the course, ran out of metaphors in trying to encapsulate what had been a "race of two halves" for him and Roger Barber, " we started with squalls containing thunder, lightning, hail and horizontal rain with the trysail up and then spent much of the second half in sunshine and shorts, sailing under spinnaker clocking a top speed of 19.8 knots. Finishing was just fantastic. We were completely taken by surprise with the response of the people at the Club." As is tradition when yachts are finishing this offshore classic, a big crowd had gathered at the Royal Malta Yacht Club and Slingshot received a standing ovation. If you coincide your finish with lunchtime diners the noise is overwhelming.
Peter Hopps and Hilary Cook, co-skippers of Nisida finished at night and missed the crescendo of a daylight finish. But they too had been in an exceptional race and happily describe a scene that Joseph Conrad would have been proud of as they dodged thunderstorms, lightning and hail on the first leg up the eastern seaboard of Sicily. Once past Messina they had a good leg to Stromboli, although the foredeck crew had certainly had enough sail changes to last the race, if not a lifetime. At Stromboli there was a sense of déjà vu. Hopps and Cook have done the race twice before and always seem spend some time becalmed of the volcanic island, "it's as good a place as any, given there's always something to look at," laughs Cook. But this time it was the calm after and before the storm. A good chance to draw breath.
Hopps and Cook refuse to point to one thing alone that got them through the race. It is perhaps interesting that they along with Rambler also finished this year's Rolex Fastnet Race - another with strong winds and a lot of retirements early on. The co-skippers are thoroughly trusting of the boat, "[she] was well-prepared, we thought it strong and we had done all the things to make her seaworthy. We never felt there wasn't much we couldn't take. Whilst you don't set to sea with a forecast of 50 knots with a great deal of enthusiasm you don't mind doing it when you've gone through it before," explains Hopps.
Cook echoes these thoughts, "one of the great strengths was the boat and that's a huge comfort. I do a lot of the helming and she's just a joy. You knew that in 47-knots of wind when you're just trying to helm her in a straight line not broaching while you've got three guys on the foredeck battling to get the genoa down she'll behaves beautifully."
Both are equally emphatic that teamwork and team morale were also keystones, as Cook describes, "the most satisfying thing about this race was that we had a team of people that a week ago did not know each other, for three of whom it was their first ever offshore race, and they all came together and really looked after each other. We really did work very hard as a crew."
Arthur Podesta on Elusive Medbank also points to a sound, prepared boat and crew morale as the bedrock of a secure platform in a race where the wind repeatedly went from 10 to 50 knots and back down again in an instant, "the boat was well-prepared and the night before we left we tried on our storm trysail and our storm jib. I told the crew we would probably be using these on the second night with the forecast we had, but it so happened we used them on the first night aswell. It was storm jib up and storm jib down. Then changing the storm jib for No. 4 to keep the boat going at speed. Exchanging the trysail for two reefs in the main, and back down to trysail and back up to two reefs. It was lots of hard work. After the first few times changing sail configurations became routine."
Podesta's three children that range in age from 18 to 24 have over twenty Rolex Middle Sea Races between them. Still fewer than their father, but Podesta is quick to acknowledge the role they and the rest of the crew play in setting up the boat and managing her on the racecourse. According to daughter Maya, on her seventh race, this is by far the worst she has experienced, "I saw 57 knots. I've been in 45/50 before, but I've never been in 57. It's an experience. When it really blew the first night it flattened the seas, it was amazing. But then the seas started building. And then the northern part of Sicily was big. It was definitely the toughest. The one where we retired because we could not make the time limit because there was no wind was tough. This was tougher, and more exciting. And I loved every second of it!"
Just listening to Maya Podesta describe the sail changes is tiring, "I think we got the main halyard down and untied it about six times. That means we put the trysail up about three or four times. The wind came up so quickly. One time I was resting down below and my brother shouted down ‘come up whether you are dressed or not'. Rather than get my clothes wet I stripped down to my underwear, went up and helped them. It was cold and the hail was so hard it slapped you. It was squall after squall. You'd go ‘ok this squall is finishing, ok here comes another one'."
Podesta's daughter has never had a trysail up before this race. Asked if she ever wants to see one again she replies, "I wouldn't ever want to be on a boat that doesn't have a trysail."
Gianpiero Martuscelli, skipper of Obelix, the only Italian boat to finish so far from the 13 that started was also aware that he had been in a monumental race, "it is the third time we have done this race and it was absolutely the toughest but it was an incredible experience. We enjoyed it; we just had a very great time fighting in these rough conditions. We were very happy with the boat. In 45 knots and rough waves this boat just performed very, very well."
Martuscelli admits to feeling apprehensive before the start knowing that there would be periods of seriously bad weather, but he discovered that when they got stuck in they did not think of them anymore, "we could really get along with the weather conditions, and never had a real problem. The hardest moment was the night we sailed between the Stromboli Islands and Capo San Vito. The wind got very strong, at 6AM there was a real black wall in front of us with lightning, thunder, squalls, waves up to 6m - a lot for the Mediterranean."
In true Italian style, Obelix made sure that the catering was well taken care of despite the conditions, "the cook on board was really great. It is not easy to cook spaghetti properly in a rough sea! Still, we had three hot meals every day." Along with the good food, Martuscelli's secret ingredient to complete the course, " you just have to believe in it."
British boat Global Yacht Racing is expected to finish this evening - she is currently a couple of miles from Marsamxett Harbour struggling in less than 5-knots of breeze. With any luck she will coincide with this evening's diners at the Royal Malta Yacht Club and the reception will make up for the lack of wind. Thereafter, Gasan Mamo Insurance - Comanche Raider (MLT) is halfway between Lampedusa and Malta, whilst Muzyka (ITA), Nord Star (RUS) and Windsong (GBR) are approaching Pantelleria with about 180 miles to the finish and less than spectacular wind forecast. The multihull High Q1 remains to the north of Sicily and doubt may be creeping in that she will finish within the time-limit of 0800 on Saturday 27th October. Now who would have taken bets on that at the beginning of this epic race.
George David's Rambler is the Overall Winner of the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2007, she also set a new Course Record of 47 hours 55 minutes and 3 seconds.
Robert McNeill's Zephyrus IV established the previous Course Record of 64 hours 49 minutes and 57 seconds in 2000.
The final prize giving will be held on Saturday 27th October.
For more information about the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2007 including the entry list, satellite tracking/position reports and results please visit www.rolexmiddlesearace.com
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For information about the Organisers, contact:
Royal Malta Yacht Club
T. +356 2133 3109
F. +356 2133 1131