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Rolex Middle Sea Race: The Bowling Alley

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Aaron, Christoph & Maya Podesta's Elusive 2
Aaron, Christoph & Maya Podesta's Elusive 2

As predicted, the 50th anniversary Rolex Middle Sea Race exploded into life overnight. The tension created by the strong northerly squeezing through the Strait of Sicily has grown steadily since sunset on Monday. First, the battle for line honours in the Multihull and Monohull fleets was played out. Both questions were resolved either side of midnight, with the pre-race favourites holding off spirited challenges from their closest rivals. Then, attention turned to the main prize: the overall win under IRC time correction and the destiny of the Rolex Middle Sea Race Trophy. With just 100 yachts still at sea, the final result is by no means clear-cut, but the true pretenders to the throne are beginning to stake their claim.
 
George David’s Line Honours victory with Rambler may not have set a new race record, but David and his well-honed crew have entered the history books. The first yacht to claim four successive first to finish titles, Rambler has consigned the endeavours of Esimit Europa (2010-12 & 14) and Benbow (1975-77) to a lower rung on the list of outstanding achievements in the Rolex Middle Sea Race. For David, this was a fifth such success, when combined with his all-conquering debut in 2007 with a previous iteration in the Rambler maxi dynasty.
 
“This was a challenging race,” said David. “There were a couple of notable points including a big squall north-west of Trapani, about 40 knots for us, and a bunch of park ups when we were ahead of everybody. The summary for the race is zero knots to 40 knots and winds from east, west and north, but no south! South was the one direction we didn’t see on the compass rose this time.”
 
David confirmed that the German Maxi 72, Momo, had kept them on their toes throughout: “We always had the boat speed to get ahead of Momo and stay ahead, but it was amazing to see the elastic band we had between us. At one point, they were two miles ahead and then we were 12 miles in front, and before they were two, we were five or six miles ahead; then we were 30 miles ahead again, then 12 and, finally, 25 miles.” For David, there was no doubt they would return. His closing remark will be music to many ears: “We’ll be back again next year.”
 
Maserati Multi70 had a similar experience with PowerPlay. It took most of the leg to Messina for the Italian trimaran to impose herself. Even then, the lead never felt certain as the evolving conditions and frequent corners of the course gave PowerPlay opportunities to pressure Giovanni Soldini’s crew. The Italians did not make life easy for themselves, suffering two significant equipment issues. First, a problem with the hydraulics needed resolving and then, more seriously, damage to the starboard rudder fitting looked set to derail their efforts.
 
“Last time (in 2016), we hit something on the delivery and could not foil,” recounted Soldini. “This time it was an engineering problem with the new rudder system. It is very frustrating! The boat was 100% in flying mode at the start. Then we had the big problem with the starboard rudder. We were lucky to have the light air. In the stronger wind, we had to back off because when you go fast you have less control.”
 
Soldini explained that the Rolex Middle Sea Race is a great test bed for his innovative craft. The constant changes in conditions due to the shape and location of the course mean plenty of opportunities to learn how best to adjust trim and rake, and, to perfect manoeuvres. It was the willingness to keep trying different set-ups that enabled Maserati to stay ahead, particularly on the stretch from Lampedusa to the Comino Channel.
 
“We had to gybe on the way down to Lampedusa and then sail on the starboard hull all the way to Malta,” advised Soldini. “We were very scared that PowerPlay would be able to overtake us. We kept trying and found that by trimming the rake a little bit we could flatten the boat and be very fast, with just the central rudder in the water. We were also lucky that we were in the beginning of the strong winds and the sea-state was flat.” Soldini is another who enjoys the Rolex Middle Sea Race course despite the stresses of racing: “Sailing is my passion, so I always enjoy it even if I’m not happy to have a problem. It is a very nice race and I would love to come back.”
 
In the contest for the overall win, the day resembled a bowling alley as boat after boat topping the standing was skittled. Rambler, Momo, Freccia Rossa, Arobas2, Endlessgame: all at the top of the podium on arrival, all unseated by a later finisher. French yacht Arobas2 took out the Russian entry Freccia Rossa by less than two minutes. The Greek entry Optimum 3 then squeaked in by just under five minutes. Pericles Livas and Nikos Lazos, Optimum 3’s owners – winners in 2004 - could then only watch as Tonnerre de Glen sailed the final few miles, from Comino to the finish off Fort Manoel in Marsamxett Harbour, against the stopwatch to snatch the lead by just under 23 minutes. With so many boats still at sea, it is now for the French yacht to wait to see if their hold on the trophy is tenable or tenuous.
 
Elsewhere, there remain individual battles within the main contest. The first Maltese yacht to cross the finish line always receives a hero’s welcome at the Royal Malta Yacht Club. Since the start of the 39th edition of the 606nm race, an epic contest has raged between three Maltese boats. At 1700 CEST, Ramon Sant Hill & Jonas Diamantino’s Comanche Raider III controlled the bragging rights. Approaching Lampedusa, 114 miles from the finish, Comanche Raider was 20 miles ahead of the Podesta family on Elusive 2 and Josef Schultheis & Timmy Camilleri's XP-ACT, which in turn have been side by side for virtually the entire race. This envied honour is will remain undecided until the early hours of tomorrow (Wednesday).
 
They may not be pursuing a major race trophy, but the J/109 Jarhead Young Sailors Malta will receive huge kudos should they finish the race. Rounding Favignana on the fourth day of the race, with 250 miles to go, the crew of teenagers backed by the Jarhead Young Sailors Foundation - a Maltese non-profit organisation with the principal purpose of educating youth in the sport of sailing -  is making the most of their testing experience. “Happy to be round Favignana.... And heading for home!” blogged Jarhead.  “It has been a tough 36 hours, but the young guys are doing well and in high spirits, now we are blast reaching south!”
 
The remaining bulk of the fleet, still racing, has enjoyed exhilarating downwind conditions throughout the day, making good speed towards Pantelleria. Yves Grosjean’s J/133 Jivaro called in while passing the island, 185 miles from the finish: “We are tired, but our spirit is good. Every year we do this race it is never the same. We love coming back because it is a well-organised, magnificent race, with a beautiful course, which is always mysterious.”
 
The team on board Tilting at Windmills, skippered by John Alexander, have flown all the way from Australia to compete in the race. Veterans of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, the tough upwind beat to Favignana would have been familiar territory for many of the crew. With 230 miles to go, Roger Jacobsen exemplified the overwhelmingly positive mood prevailing across the course, despite the tough examination of the previous few days: “Good spirits onboard Tilting at Windmills! Flying main and spinnaker on our way to Pantelleria - boat and crew in tiptop shape.”
 
130 boats started the 2018 Rolex Middle Sea Race. At 1800 CEST, 14 had finished and 19 had retired, leaving 97 still at sea.

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