1700 CEST This time last year the Rolex Middle Sea Race reporting was struggling to keep up with the pace of the frontrunners. The Maxi Multihulls had scorched 450 nautical miles of the 606nm course. What a difference a year makes: same or similar boats, polar opposite conditions. The story so far of the 43rd Rolex Middle Sea Race is one of determination and true grit, grinding out the miles one by one, sometimes taking more than hour to do so. Accepting pats on the back and slaps on the face from the wind is par for this edition. The fleet is currently spread between the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily, 220nm along the track, back to just north of Syracuse, a mere 83nm into the race. If it makes for hard watching from the shore, imagine life onboard.
Currently, the MOD70 Mana, just north of Filicudi, is doing just over 7 knots, 2nm ahead of Maserati Multi70. Meanwhile, Zoulou, another MOD70, looks to have dived south towards Snowflake, perhaps to stay in or find better pressure. All four are well north of the rhumb line. The leading monohulls are right among them. The monohull maxi Bullitt, sailing parallel with Maserati at a similar speed, leads the larger Leopard 3 by about 3.5nm. According to the tracker, the French Ker 46 Daguet 3 – Corum – at Stromboli – is leading overall in the battle for the Rolex Middle Sea Race Trophy under IRC time correction, but this is really just an indication with so much of the race still to run.
Yesterday’s start from Grand Harbour was a foretaste of the 24 hours that would follow. The wind continually dropped in and out. Some boats were able to make fast progress out through the breakwater into open water. For others it was more miss than hit. The 55nm passage north to Capo Passero, on the southeast corner of Sicily, followed a similar pattern among all classes: head northeast out of the harbour for about 20nm before choosing the right moment to turn north to Sicily. Boat speeds went up and down with the wind strength until about halfway across the channel when the five racing trimarans took off, posting speeds in excess of 20 knots. The Maxi Monohulls did their best to keep pace hitting mid to high teens (at least according to the tracker). Mid-size boats also profited from this welcome respite from the light airs.
The relief did not last. While the multihulls kept in good breeze all the way to the beginning of the Messina Strait, which they reached around midnight, the wind dropped across the rest of the fleet as the leading monohulls reached Etna. In the darkness spotting what wind there was from signs on the water became nigh impossible. Sailing into traps seems to have been frequent and being the lead boat on the water was not always the best position.
Chocolate 3, for example, had sailed exceptionally off the start and Bouwe Bekking reported in during the early evening: “It’s a beautiful sunset, and up to now we’ve been sailing a very good race. François (Bopp) did a very good job at the start, wiggling ourselves through that, the crew work was good and, right now, Bullitt, one of the biggest in the fleet, is only one and a half miles ahead of us, so we can’t complain.” A few hours later at 0300 CEST, after making solid progress up the eastern seaboard of Sicily in line abreast with her IRC 2 class competitors, the Swiss boat looks to have hit a hole and had reason to complain. The boats further offshore just kept on moving, leaving Chocolate 3 behind. It has taken much of the day to get back on terms, and the crew will shortly be rounding Stromboli in a pack of other IRC 2 yachts.
Life onboard the fastest yachts in the fleet was easier until halfway to Stromboli. Having negotiated the narrow Strait in relatively good shape, exiting at 0130 CEST on Sunday morning, Paul Larsen reported in at dawn on the approach to Stromboli: “It’s oily calm conditions. We are holding on by our fingernails to a very tentative lead on the good ship Mana. The sun is just rising and behind us we can see Zoulou, Maserati and Snowflake. We are trying to hang on to every little gust we can get, as we glide along at 3.5 knots which, believe me, is hard fought for and very much appreciated.”
For a long time, Leopard 3 looked to have the legs on the slightly shorter Bullitt. Their passage up the coast of Sicily was harder than for the multihulls, but easier than for many yachts behind. Reaching the beginning of the 20nm strait at about 0300 CEST, the two did well to get through it in two hours. Then shortly after exiting the Strait of Messina at around 0500 CEST on Sunday morning, Leopard appears to have got into difficulties, coming to a near standstill and losing 5nm to her Italian rival, a gap which has not changed greatly in the intervening hours.
The fight at the front of IRC 3 has been no less intense, with Lee Satariano and Christian Ripard on Maltese yacht Artie eking out a lead over Tonnerre de Glen from France and sistership Ino XXX from the United Kingdom. Just before midnight, off Syracuse, Artie and Tonnerre appeared to get stuck in glue while Ino XXX further offshore kept moving. Artie made better work of the conundrum than Tonnerre, but lost significant ground to Ino XXX. While these two have stretched away from the rest of their class, Artie has not yet been able to claw back lost ground as they approach Stromboli. Ripard and Satariano have done the race enough to know it is not over and if the forecast wind ahead of them is as tricky as it looks, there will be plenty of opportunities.
Yves Grosjean’s French Neo 430,NeoJivaro, also in IRC 3, gave a flavour of the experience so far for most of the crews: “It’s been a long night, we have been done a lot of sail changes… spinnakers, genoas, really everything. There isn’t a single sail we have not tried.”
The night to come does not look any easier, with a light easterly wind forecast for much of the hours of darkness, patchy throughout and diminishing over time. There will be no respite for any of the crews as they work hard to harness every puff and gain any advantage.