We first competed in the Rolex Middle Sea Race, a 600 mile race from Malta around Sicily and outlying islands, three years ago and we've been back every year since to enjoy the sunbathing, camaraderie, hospitality, volcano gazing and dolphin watching. We'd kept hoping, in vain, for some wind - two years ago only 9 boats completed the course within the 7 day deadline - but this year our prayers were to be answered with a vengeance.
We sailed Nisida to Malta after the Fastnet and our race preparation there included watching the rugby World Cup semi final. With the final due to be played on the first night of the race we then hoped for a Fastnet-style delay of 24 hours, and thoughts turned to bribing the Maltese weather forecasters to predict 55 knots of wind for that night. As it turned out no bribery was necessary; forecasts for the weekend showed up to 70 knots off Sicily. But this time there were no rumours of postponements.
We spent much of the days leading up to the race glued to weather forecasts, which changed by the hour. It broadly looked like we'd be close hauled in some possibly very windy weather up to the Messina Straits, then have to sail right through the centre of a low along the north coast of Sicily around Stromboli, battle with a very strong north westerly going westwards along that coast and then hope for a nice whoosh home downwind round the southerly islands. But absolutely anything was still possible.
The start of the Middle Sea Race is always an exciting occasion, whatever the wind forecast. The bastions of Valetta tower over one side and the army obligingly lays on a howitzer to make the start really feel like you are being besieged. The harbour itself is too small to hold all the boats, and so the start is staggered allowing the smaller boats to keep clear of the maxis. But it still feels like there is very little manoeuvring room.
The wind in the harbour was pretty light but we could see the earlier starters well heeled over out to sea so we set our shiny new no 3 headsail. We beat our way out of the harbour and up the coast and then set sail across the Sicilian Strait, with crew banter focusing not on gales but on whether we would make the coast in time to pick up the World Cup coverage on William's blackberry.
As darkness fell, the sea was getting increasingly bouncy, it had started raining and the first signs of sea sickness were creeping in. Our 8 till 11 watch was perfectly timed to get the rugby updates; at least the result helped us stop wishing we were back in a bar watching it. By the time of our next watch all thoughts of rugby were gone; the wind was rising fast up through 30 knots and we needed to get the no 3 down quickly. It went on rising though to over 45 knots (47 knots was the most I saw, but I was concentrating rather harder on steering than watching the wind. Whatever it was jolly windy - it was howling in the rigging and two other boats around us reported seeing 57 knots and 64 knots that night). We got the sail down safely and the only casualty was the blackberry, which went under a wave while in William's pocket on the foredeck.
The next morning saw us bounding up towards the Messina Straits where the wind started dropping and veering all over the place. There were several boats of near our size behind us but only one visible in front, and so we assumed that the bigger boats had got through the Straits before the wind dropped.
As we bore away towards Stromboli that morning, the wind picked up and we romped along at 10 plus knots, almost feeling a bit cheated that we wouldn't get to see the world's 'first lighthouse' at night….. As the wind rose through 30 knots we reefed, only for it to drop to well under 10 knots. We crawled our way under staysail towards Stromboli in the company of others reluctant to hoist larger sails, knowing the next storm was imminent…it took 8 hours to arrive.
Approaching Stromboli - under staysail in a force 2
So we did get to see Stromboli's activities by night, after when finally the wind hit us. A very black cloud got closer and closer, and then we were in the thick of 40 plus knots of wind, and huge hailstones which REALLY hurt, and zero visibility. This was to be the pattern of the rest of the night, along with lightning all around us. We managed to miss the worst of the lightening, unlike a boat behind us which we saw being dramatically lit up and who we later learned had lost its instruments.
The next morning all seemed altogether calmer; we could see which clouds to dodge, and we bounced along towards the west of Sicily under staysail alone. We couldn't see any other race boats but we had taken a more northerly track, both to give us more running space should the wind get seriously violent and in case it backed more westerly. (This tactic did in fact pay off big time but we didn't know that then). We did get a hint of other boats' problems when the coastguard asked if we were all ok when we radioed in our position that morning - but we didn't then know about the foundering of Loki (a 60 ft yacht built in 2005 and which came 5th in the Fastnet) or that all harbours on Sicily had been closed.
We then got the thrill of a helicopter coming over to film us. It stayed long enough for us to stop waving excitedly at it (we've never been filmed by a helicopter before) and to attempt to look rather more professional. When we were filmed a further twice again that day it was clear even to our befuddled brains that perhaps there weren't all that many of us still racing.
Off northern Sicily
Once we had inched our way round Sicily's western tip we finally got some fabulous downwind sailing, and by Pantelleria we were revitalised enough to think it would be nice to hear from the outside world... We switched on our phones and got an array of broadly optimistic but ambiguous messages; 'looks like you're doing pretty well' (how well is pretty well?), 'keep it going' (keep what going?). It was 1.30 in the morning UK time so we couldn't phone back and William's blackberry was still on the blink, so we could only text requests for a more specific update.
Come Lampedusa we had a lovely sunny day with only a force 5 (we'd got to the stage when anything under 40 knots seemed tame and in less than 30 knots we felt becalmed). Phone messages and calls gave us the astonishing news that we were 5th on the water, and were having a close battle to win our IMS class with a First 50 which was 15 miles behind us. We also heard the news of Loki, and for the first time ever in a race I phoned home to say we were all fine.
Still not exactly sunbathing weather
We took advantage of the lee behind Lampedusa to drop our mainsail and tie in a wayward batten, and hoped our slow passage around there would not lose us our class. We also decided to keep sailing pretty conservatively rather than upping the tempo; the strategy seemed to have worked pretty well so far.
There was, therefore, a collective groan from the crew as we sailed through the Comino channel, only 10 miles from the finish, and the skipper appeared on deck with the spinnaker, exhorting those of us off watch to get on deck quick. Half of the crew had never seen our enormous spinnaker, but luckily we had plenty of time to set it up and all went remarkably smoothly. It certainly did make a difference (very possibly to our class win); the newcomers on the crew described it as like putting an engine on the boat and we shot down the Malta coast under moonlight.
Beating into the floodlit harbour, with the wind agonisingly fickle, our eyes were further dazzled by a boat filming us under spotlights. We finished at 1132pm to a big cheer from the yacht club and one more of relief from the crew.
Joe Cross met us on the quayside with some very welcome beers, and then we repaired to the local bar which stays open till 1am. Luckily we were the only customers as we must have looked and smelt very strange in our sailing gear, showers having been postponed till the morning ….
We had to wait another three days for the prize giving on the Saturday, but it was worth it. Rolex's sponsorship seems to go further out in the Mediterranean and there is a fabulous lunchtime party. We were pleased enough with our class win and prize but even more fun was the video footage they showed, which included waterspouts as well as shots of us crashing along the waves and then looking rather dazed at the finish (how Debbie managed to look so glamorous after that race I do not know). The biggest cheers of the prize giving were reserved for the helicopter crew from the Italian air force, who received a special award for their bravery and skill in rescuing Loki's crew from their life rafts in over 45 knots of wind, and for the crew of Atlanta 2 who stood by while they were rescued.
We are very proud to share with only Rambler (who smashed the course record in 47 hours; we took 83) the honour of having completed both the Fastnet and the Middle Sea Race this year. Next year there is no Fastnet but we are planning to be back in Malta again for this race. We can't promise another epic but we've already started saying our wind prayers.
Nisida and her crew (missing Marie Colvin)
Crew: Peter Hopps (skipper), Hilary Cook, Trudy Netherwood, Peter Horton, Marie Colvin, Debbie Leach, Jenny Scott, Jo Smith, Joy Skipper, Peter Meaney, William Rutherford, Michael Pinches.