Middle Sea Race: statement from Tom Kneen, skipper of Sunrise
Monday, November 8, 2021 10:09 AM
Sunrise is a JPK 1180 owned by Plymouth based RORC member Tom Kneen. Winner of the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race and the RORC 2021 Season Points Championship.
There has been a lot of rumour and hearsay surrounding what happened so to set the record straight this is our official statement of the events.
First and foremost, on behalf of the Sunrise crew please can we extend our congratulations to every competitor who completed the Rolex Middle Sea Race this year. It was certainly the toughest offshore race in which we have ever competed, and we have enormous respect for everyone who took part. Congratulations to Comanche & Argo for winning their respective line honours and their race records, the class winners and especially to Jangada for winning the doublehanded class. This race was tough when sailed fully crewed so to come out on top double handed is an inspiration.
Secondly, the crew of Sunrise would like to extend our thanks to everyone who has shown their support for our plight both directly and via social media - it has really been overwhelming. We are also aware that there has been a lot of rumour and hearsay surrounding what happened so to set the record straight this is our official statement of the events and our position.
We don't go sailing to win watches and trophies. We go sailing because we love the sport, the adventure and building memories with special people. This year's Rolex Middle Sea Race certainly did not disappoint when it came to building memories. Sailing the boat at 28 knots from Stromboli to Ustica is something I'll never forget. We also achieved our second conclusive class win of 2021 and built new friendships with members of the Dawn Treader crew with whom we raced the Rolex Middle Sea Race and are sure to share more adventures in the future.
The race was also unforgettable for the wrong reasons and the chain of events that unfolded after we finished the race were extremely upsetting. I am usually not a fan of sharing my thoughts in the public domain however on this occasion time is not proving to be a healer and I find myself increasingly troubled by what has happened. Given the astonishing level of support we have received from the wider sailing community and the potential impact that events in Malta could have on a sport with which I am infatuated, I feel that it is important to make a formal statement on behalf of the Sunrise team. I believe that what the young crew of Sunrise has achieved this year is nothing short of astonishing. Winning the Rolex Fastnet Race and Rolex Middle Sea Race in the same season really is a once in a lifetime achievement and I believe to have it taken from us in the way that it was is totally unacceptable and fundamentally wrong. Therefore I want to make it clear that we want the Race Committee and the International Jury of the RMYC to reopen our hearing and to give redress to all the boats in the fleet whose results were adversely affected through no fault of our own, but by the decisions made by the Race Committee. It is not too late to right this wrong and I implore the Commodore of the Royal Malta Yacht Club and the Race Committee and International Jury of the Rolex Middle Sea Race to rectify the error that was made and put things right. I ask this not for the benefit of Sunrise, but of the RMYC and of the Rolex Middle Sea Race but especially for the benefit of the sport of sailing which this incident has certainly affected detrimentally. If you act now you will receive the respect of the entire sailing community and you will salvage the reputations of both your club and one of the world's greatest offshore races. Failure to act will leave a cloud over the event which will undoubtedly threaten its future.
The Story So Far...
At 13:23:12 local time on 26th October 2021 Sunrise crossed the finish line of the Rolex Middle Sea Race in Marsamxett Harbour, Malta, beating the IRC corrected time set by Comanche, a 100ft Maxi by 16 minutes. Following our finish, so began a now familiar period of tension to see if some of the smaller boats still racing could beat our corrected time under IRC. We were especially worried about Foggy Dew and Jangada, which with the right conditions could have finished with quicker corrected times. But it became increasingly evident that our time could not be beaten. On the evening of 26th October we discussed with a member of the race committee when we would be given the overall winner's flag and who from our crew would accept our winners trophy at the prize-giving. At this point we could not be beaten on corrected time we were unquestionably the overall winner of the Rolex Middle Sea Race.
Then at 1600 on 27th October 2021, nearly 27 hours after Sunrise had finished a notice was issued to all competitors that the race committee had decided to use an alternative finish line. This caused us no concern as we would always expect the race committee to act in the interests of safety. However the notice also informed us that the race would now be measured over the 593 miles to Comino rather than the full 606 miles to Marsamxett Harbour. The decision to use the alternative finish line must have been made long before this announcement was made to competitors because at 1319 on 27th October I received a text message from Georges Bonello DuPuis, a RMYC committee member saying "Afternoon Thomas. Nothing to worry about, but we're just recalculating the results using the alternative finish line". But then when the new results were later published six of the boats in the top 10 positions had changed. Most significantly and unbelievably Sunrise was now ranked as 2nd overall rather than 1st overall. Georges and other members of the race committee tried to reassure us and said on several occasions to follow the process and they would make it right."
We believe that this will be the first time in any major offshore sailing event where actions of the Race Committee have had such a monumental impact on the results, especially when applied retrospectively after 75% of the fleet had finished. We appreciate that the sailing instructions for this race do include a description of how this alternative finish may be used in the case of severe weather preventing boats from entering Marsamxett Harbour. However, never in yacht racing is a course shortened after competitors have already finished, certainly not more than a day later. And shortening the course of an offshore race is an odd practice in any case – surely it should be up to competitors who feel they are unable to complete the course either to retire or to wait until conditions abate?
Nowhere in the Rolex Middle Sea Race SIs does it say that should the alternative finish be used that the race would be scored over a shortened course, nor does it mention at what point it can be implemented – sure not after any or indeed the majority of the fleet has finished? It should be noted that over the period the RMSR race committee changed the finish line, Marsamxett Harbour was never officially closed to marine traffic. Indeed after the finish line was changed to the Comino Channel, all but one boat still successfully sailed into Marsamxett Harbour.
It is impossible to criticise the RC committee for making a decision in the interest of the safety of their competitors. However the committee did make a number of other decisions which had a devastating impact on the race.
The Technical Bit...
The rules under which our sport is governed are very clear on how sailing instructions should be written and how they are to be used in parallel with the racing rules of sailing (RRS). RRS 86 allows changes to the rule governing shortening a race - RRS 32. However Appendix J, RRS J2 states that any such change SHALL (translates as MUST) be included in the race documentation. In other words, the sailing instructions can amend the rules, but this must be done very specifically.
The Rolex Middle Sea Race Committee documentation DID NOT change RRS 32 and Sunrise firmly believe that it was therefore still in force. This means that if the race organisers wanted to use the shorter course then they could, provided they shortened it before the first boat finished.
Whilst Sunrise understands and appreciates that the race committee acted in the interest of the safety of the smaller boats, we believe that the actions taken breached the RRS. Unfortunately it seems the Race Committee found themselves between a rock and a hard place with no way for them to act in the interests of safety while also remaining compliant with the RRS.
When Sunrise became aware of the notice from the race organisers they approached the Race Officers who were surprised that the change in course had affected the results. They suggested that Sunrise filed a request for redress and that the appointed international jury would resolve the issue. The race organisers had already reported to the media by this point that Sunrise was winning the IRC overall race. These posts have now been removed from their website and social media channels.
In a bizarre turn of events that has astounded the yachting community and media around the world, the international jury ruled in ours, and several other requests for redress, that the race committee had used an alternative finishing line, which is not in conflict with, and is independent of, RRS 32".
Shortly after the decision to this hearing was published, Sunrise racing team was flooded with messages from the yachting community, including umpires and judges at the very top of our sport and rules experts from national governing bodies. They urged Sunrise to point out that if this was an "alternative finish line" (a term used nowhere in the rules for our sport) then why was the final mark of the course, a fairway marker at the entrance of the harbour, omitted from the course? If this is the case then surely nobody sailed the correct course, as they would still have had to round that final mark and then sail on to the alternative finish. Most people agreed that this was clearly not the intention of the notice and the international jury had made a mistake. To highlight this, Sunrise lodged another request for redress on the premise that she had not been able to sail the correct race course and a separate protest against the new winner for the same reason. Tom Cheney, the navigator from Sunrise spoke to Mitch Booth, skipper of Comanche, on the phone to make it clear that Sunrise was not trying to imply any wrongdoing by Comanche.
In a further surprising decision from the Jury. They concluded that the race committee did shorten the course and used the term "new, shorter course" twice (see Decision 6, Conclusion 3), however they continued to deny our request for redress.
Despite bringing this to the attention of the international jury, chaired by international judge and former RYA Racing Manager, Gordon Stredwick, two requests to re-open the original request for redress were denied. They declared that Sunrise did not provide evidence of significant error by the protest committee. The other members of the international jury were David Pelling (CAN), Jim Capron (USA), Mufti Kling (GER) and Zoran Grubisa (CRO).
RMYC Principal Race Officer, Peter Demech, then approached the Jury with a suggestion on how to restore the scores for the 69 boats that completed the full course and grant redress to the 29 boats that were finished at Camino. The jury did not act on this request.
What Happened Next...
Soon after our second request to reopen our request to redress was denied by the international jury, the RMYC announced Comanche as the overall winner on IRC over the shortened 593 mile course. Comanche and Argo were also awarded race records over the 606 mile course. The outcry from the international sailing community to this decision, given that the race course had been shortened in our case but apparently not in theirs, was very public. In fact the support for Sunrise has been second to none. At the RMSR prizegiving the Sunrise crew received a three minute standing ovation from the competitors which was overwhelming.
In response to the reaction by the wider sailing community RMYC published a statement on 2nd November 2022 stating:
"The RMYC is sympathetic to those competitors and followers of race that feel aggrieved by the eventual outcome. It recognises that, in this instance, in writing a sailing instruction related to safety it inadvertently, but seriously, impacted the race results. The RMYC will take action to make sure that a similar situation does not arise again. It will do its utmost to ensure that the rules and regulations surrounding future editions of the race are fit for purpose. In this regard, the Royal Malta Yacht Club has already sought guidance from appropriate authorities within the sport."
This is encouraging for future races but in my opinion does not go nearly far enough to correct the injustice that I feel we have suffered.
Putting Things Right...
We will never criticise a race committee for making a decision in the interests of safety. However, doing the right thing does not mean the committee did not act improperly. The consequence of using the alternative finish line was to create a shorter course and have a detrimental impact on the results of several boats through entirely no fault of their own.
Due to the protest committee being an international jury, there is no process within the governance of our sport to appeal this decision. However, a protest committee has the right to reopen a hearing at any time and we are determined not to give up on getting what we feel is the right result. We are in contact with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, World Sailing and the RYA to gain their support in overturning this unfair and ill conceived decision to score the race at Comino. Our proposal is simply that the results for the 69 boats that finished the race in Marsamxett Harbour are reinstated and that the 19 boats which finished the race in the Comino Channel are given redress for the last 13 miles of the course. We believe this is the fairest way to score the race in the circumstances.
We therefore implore the RMYC to appoint an arbitration board of experts to investigate whether the rules of our sport have been correctly applied in this instance. This will avoid the need to lodge this case with CAS and start to repair the reputational damage suffered by all parties involved. Should the arbitration board conclude that the international jury and race committee ruled correctly, then so be it. However, should this group determine that our proposal is a more reasonable resolution, or indeed propose a different solution, the race committee could take control of their race and put things right.
Finally we hope that the Royal Malta Yacht Club and the Royal Ocean Racing Club will act to ensure that future editions of this great race will be run fairly and to prevent massively damaging incidents like this from happening again. We would very much like to return in 2022.
The Sunrise Racing Team is a group of friends and family that are very good, predominantly amateur, sailors. The crew for the 2021 Rolex Middle Sea Race was: