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Watch: 2021 Rolex Middle Sea Race off to a spectacular start at Valletta Grand Harbour

Boats heading out of the Valletta Grand Harbour at the start of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. Photos: Jonathan Borg

The 42nd Rolex Middle Sea Race has so far lived up to expectations, putting on a sensational start.

All 114 yachts got away cleanly in a fresh south-easterly breeze that built from 10-12 knots, in the confines of Grand Harbour, to 15 knots plus once past the outer breakwater.

Video: Rolex

From the smallest to the largest, the slowest to the fastest, it was a magnificent sight. The impressive bastions of Valletta, Vittoriosa and Senglea providing a fitting setting for this highly competitive fleet, as cannon fire signalled each start.

At 4.30pm on Saturday, the fleet wass spread between Syracuse to the north and midway between Malta and Sicily, to the south.

Jason Carroll’s MOD70 Argo (USA) is leading the fleet on the water, with Skorpios, the ClubSwan 125, the first monohull.

The race is on for the leaders to reach the Strait of Messina where the current is now heading north and was set to turn foul just before 9pm.

The maxi multihulls are hoping to keep enough of the diminished breeze to the east of Sicily to make a seamless trip into the Tyrrhenian Sea and into the brisk easterly established to the north around Stromboli.

Saturday morning, Will Oxley, navigator on Mitch Booth-led Comanche (CAY), was uncertain if the maxi monohulls would be able to take advantage of this window of opportunity, but still felt confident that a new race record is on the cards.

The multihull class was the first off the start line.

Antoine Rabaste’s Ultim’Emotion (FRA) and Riccardo Pavoncelli’s Mana (ITA) hit the line at speed, with Maserati Multi70 in the second row and Argo even further back.

A wind shadow created by Fort St Angelo, a feature of every subsequent start, compressed the fleet, but it was Mana first out of the harbour.

Spare a thought for the intrepid cruising catamaran Minimole (ITA), a Neel 47, also part of this start. Aldo Fumagelli and his crew must have watched in wonder as the four mega-beasts sped away.

The three 70 footers made short work of the passage to Capo Passero, at the southeast corner of Sicily, and the first transit point of the course.

Touching 20 knots at time, Mana, Argo and Maserati were virtually line breast, with Ultim’Emotion on their hip.

At 2.30pm, Maserati reached the Sicilian shore with a 10-minute lead on the water over Argo and Mana. Giovanni Soldini was showing no intention of relinquishing his line honours crown, and perhaps multihull race record, without a fight.

The final start, and seventh, of the day was reserved for the fastest monohull entrants and some of the largest.

The group ranged in size from the clutch of 52 footers up to the, frankly, overpowering 42.56m/140ft Skorpios.

The towering mast of the Swan yacht is taller than the Saluting Battery from where the Royal Malta Yacht Club race team, led by Principal Race Officer Peter Dimech, controlled proceedings.

Skorpios and the 30.48m/100ft Comanche took some time to wind up to warp speed. Both were caught briefly in the irritating wind hole just off the line.

Meanwhile, George David and his five-time line honours winner 27m/88ft Rambler took full advantage to lead the class out of the harbour and to the first mark of the course just past the breakwater.

By Dragonara, proper order had been established with Skorpios leading Comanche and Rambler at the turn to the north.

Compared to the maxi multihulls, the leading monohulls made the crossing to Sicilian at a relatively pedestrian pace of around 13 knots, arriving at Capo Passero later this evening.

Congested Starts

The slowest yachts in the international fleet that represents some 25 countries set off at 11.20am.

Their start was a less dramatic than the spacecraft that had preceded them, but it was full on. Some 28 yachts filled the gap between Valletta and Fort St Angelo.

The favoured position appeared to be just beyond the mid-point of the line, towards the pin, avoiding any issues caused by the sheer-sided St Peter and Paul Bastion beneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens.

Unsurprisingly it was a Maltese boat, Calypso, that launched. Even less surprisingly, the tiny J/99 was crewed by the Ripard family, whose name is etched into the history of the race.

Leonardo Petti’s well-sailed J/109 Chestress (ITA), Noel Racine’s JPK 1030 Foggy Dew (FRA), and the JPK 1080 Rossko (RUS) of Sergei Desukevich all made great strides in the early stages, as did Kiboko Tatu (USA), George Greer’s Arcona 380.

These smaller yachts are the real spirit of the Rolex Middle Sea Race. It will take them between four and six days to complete the course.

Gabriele Spagiari, skipper of the smallest competing yacht, the Hanse 311 Catina 4 (ITA), said: “It is a challenge within a challenge. The first part is to complete the race, the second is to do our best against boats that are all bigger than us!”

These yachts will experience more weather than most over the course area: good, bad and indifferent. This year they are likely to be buffeted twice – first, at dawn today, when upwards of 25 knots are forecast east of Sicily, and then again tomorrow afternoon around the Aoelian Islands, where similar windspeeds are expected.

For one member of the otherwise experienced crew on the Russian J/99 Space Jockey, taking part in his first ever sailing race of any kind, the first couple of days could be a proper baptism.

The third start was another congested line, with all the action at the St Angelo end.

Timofey Zhbankov’s 1080 Rossko Racer (RUS), Tom Kneen’s JPK 1180 Sunrise (GBR) (winner of the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race), the First 40 Tevere Remo Mon Ile (ITA) and the J/111 Blur (SWE) all took off like scalded cats.

The Italian crew would reach the Dragonara turn first. Meanwhile, the all-American crew of J/122 Noisy Oyster made a more restrained start.

The crew, led by John Duncan, is a mix of seven US West Coast and Mid-west friends, who have raced together for many years.

Crewmember Marian Lambrecht Hoskins, whose husband John is the navigator, said:“This is a bucket-list race in a beautiful location. We are a little nervous because the conditions look challenging at times, in keeping with the race’s reputation. But overall, we are excited.”

The next three starts saw some of the highly fancied yachts get underway. The Maltese contingent included the Podesta-led First 45 Elusive 2, winners of the past two-editions; the HH42 Artie III, with multiple winners Lee Satariano, Christian Ripard (with more than 30 races under his belt) and Timmy Camilleri (on his 28th race); and Jonathan Gambin’s Dufour 44 Ton Laferla, third overall under IRC in the 2020 Rolex Middle Sea Race.

Potential international contenders included French yachts, Jacques Pelletier’s Milon 41 L’Ange de Milon; Federic Puzin’s Ker 46 Daguet 3 – Corum; and Eric de Turkheim’s NMYD 54 Teasing Machine with ocean race winner Laurent Pages in the crew.

The Swiss Cookson 50 Kuka 3 skippered by Franco Niggeler will relish the more challenging elements, while British entrant James Neville with the HH42 Ino XXX will be looking to better his second place in this summer’s Rolex Fastnet Race.

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