1600 CEST: The 43rd Rolex Middle Sea Race came alive today, for some at least. It really is a race of two halves, as those crews to the west stretch their legs metaphorically in a stiff southerly, and those still to the east stretch their actual legs lying on deck waiting for the wind. The fleet is now spread between the Messina Strait and midway between Lampedusa and the finish. Mario Debono’s Sun Odyssey 45 Janissah, a Corinthian Maltese entry, has covered 65 nautical miles in the past 24 hours, and just exited the strait. Meanwhile, Riccardo Pavoncelli’s MOD70 Mana from Italy, skippered by Frenchwoman Alexis Barrier and with speed sailing record holder Paul Larsen on board, has banked 320nm and looks likely to finish tonight.
For the majority of those still racing, last night was a tricky affair. Progress along the course set a staccato rhythm with short bursts of positive movement cut short abruptly as the wind disappeared. All the same, morale among the back markers appears to be good, with regular reports coming in from the boats, which clearly have time on their hands.
At the front, a wholly different scenario is in play. When we left the story yesterday evening, the Maxi Multihulls and Maxi Monohulls were together to the north of Filicudi. During the hours of darkness, a low speed game of cat and mouse ensued, as the four of the fastest multis sailed in parallel pairs towards the westernmost turning point at Favignana. Mana, to the north, and Frank Slootman’s American entry Snowflake, to the south, doing their best to hold off the Italian Maserati Multi 70 and Erik Maris skippered Zoulou (FRA) respectively. Mana looked to hold the edge until just off San Vito lo Capo. The team must have been licking their lips at the prospect of entering the southerly when the boat hit the buffers. Maserati, Snowflake and, eventually, Zoulou, piled in behind and looked likely to cut in beneath Mana and overtake using the nearside line. Any adrenalin rush was quickly crushed, as they too ground to a halt. Mana promptly picked up both wind and speed, and cruised off to Favignana, with the others wallowing in her wake. Mana passed through the Egadi Islands without difficulty at 0250 CEST, with Zoulou and Snowflake about an hour later, and Maserati a further hour back.
Beating into the southerly saw speeds rise, along with the tension as decisions on when to tack became critical. The three poursuivants were well into Tunisian territorial waters before tacking onto starboard, as they ‘banged the corner’ trying to narrow the gap to Mana. It worked for Zoulou. By Lampedusa, the French boat was only 15 minutes behind, and as the pair work east to Malta, they are 5nm apart, with Zoulou appearing to be slightly the faster. With 60nm to run the pair should be home on Monday night, but the wind needs to play along. Something it has not done up until now.
For the leading monohulls, the Chris Sherlock-led Leopard 3 (NED) and Andrea Recordati’s Wally 93 Bullitt (ITA), the elastic to the multis started to stretch at around 2030 CEST. The pair were much closer to the rhumb line and travelling at half the speed of the multis. Presumably in a different pressure cell, they kept their course below the multis continually losing ground until the elastic snapped completely. Leopard 3 caught up with Bullitt just after Palermo. San Vito lo Capo then entered the game again, its high cliffs probably proving a barrier to the wind from the south. Leopard edged clear first, finally breaking into the solid breeze, and now holds a lead of 6nm as they approach Pantelleria. So far, only five monohulls have passed Favignana. Black Pearl and Cippa Lippa X should do so before sunset, with Rán close behind. According to the tracker, Marton Josza’s Wild Joe is using its DSS foils and battle-hardened crew to good effect and, as she heads down the western flank, has taken the lead in the overall standings under IRC Time Correction.
For the smaller boats, it has been a night and day of little drama, indeed little anything. Sebastian Ripard called in this morning from the Maltese J/99 Calypso on the final approach to Stromboli to report that spirits were good: “We have worked hard, and sailed well to get to where we are. We have used every sail in the inventory, and now we are sitting absolutely still. It is probably time for a swim.” Calypso, racing in IRC 6, has just rounded Stromboli in company with yachts from other classes, theoretically faster but only if they can piece together the wind puzzles.