Grand Harbour performed some magic on Saturday, as an assembled 118 yachts set off on the 43rd Rolex Middle Sea Race.
The ancient limestone walls of Valletta seem to come alive in bright sunshine, and they duly offered the gathered spectators, high up on the bastions, a perfect setting to send off the intrepid fleet.
While cannon fire aloft marked each start, whispering zephyrs greeted the crews at water level. Would there be sufficient breeze to exit the harbour was the key concern.
As it was, all seven starting groups got away cleanly, with several yachts putting down markers as they made the best of what wind was available.
By 4pm on Saturday, progress has been as expected: exacting and demanding, as the crews representing 24 countries did their best to navigate between fluctuating cells of pressure that litter the channel between Malta and Sicily.
At the front, the five maxi multihulls were leading the way, with debutante Frank Slootman’s Snowflake making the early running.
Among the monohulls, the tracker showed Elusive II to be ahead on elapsed time by virtue of a fast departure from Grand Harbour and the most northerly positioning on the rhumb line to the finish.
No one will be getting carried away on the experienced Maltese entry. There remains a long stretch ahead just to reach Capo Passero, 90 nautical miles from Malta, let alone the finish.
With five maxi multihulls among the eight-boat start, it was a highly anticipated moment, not without jeopardy for craft almost as wide as they are long. Even in the thin breeze they did not disappoint.
These racing trimarans grace the confines of the harbour, even if more reminiscent of alien space craft. As each picked up speed off the line, they presented an extraordinary sight.
The US entry, Snowflake, made the smartest break mid-line, and showed a clean set of transoms to her opposition, some of which were caught behind the three more cruising-oriented multihulls, also participating.
Ahead of the start, Giovanni Soldini, skipper of Maserati Multi 70, confirmed the conditions pointed some difficult days ahead.
“We are expecting a very slow race, with very little wind,” said Soldini. “However, there is great enthusiasm: this is the first time that five boats like this are competing all together in this race, so morale is high and as usual we will sell our lives dearly, even if it will be a challenge.”
As the afternoon came to a close, Mana was in second place on the water with Zoulou just behind.
The fight to be first to finish is taking time to develop in the monohull fleet. Unsurprisingly, the Italian maxi, Bullitt (93ft) was snapping at the heels of Elusive (45ft) and looked set to pass before the evening set in.
Andrea Recordati’s seasoned crew will be pleased to be in front of their immediate opponents, Leopard 3, and will consider Elusive’s elevated position as a fly in the ointment rather than a significant impediment to the ambition to secure line honours.
The extreme light airs mean the elapsed time standings will need some time to take proper shape.
At the start, though, it was Leopard 3 that set the final departure of the day alight.
Using massive sail area to carve a decisive path towards the breakwaters at the entrance to Grand Harbour, the Farr 100 led by Chris Sherlock was a majestic sight for the well-wishers.
The smaller yachts – small being a relative term – in this last group showed plenty of tactical nous and resilience to hang onto their larger rival.
The wind was still offering opportunities for the adept and alert to keep pace.
For the rest of the fleet, it was a trickier affair. The smallest yachts had the honour of starting after the Multis, and it was slow going.
Shorter rigs struggling to catch the breeze that came and went. French entry, Jean Luc Hamon’s JPK 1010 Raging Bee, made the best of it at the Fort St Angelo, pin, end of the line. Her wily crew figuring a path to the harbour exit that avoided any potholes in the wind.
The Maltese pair of J/109s – JYS Jan and JYS Jarhead featured in this group. Later in the day, JYS Jan reported in from the course: “Working our way slowly across the channel. We’ve got about 6 knots of very shifty wind, and we’ve gone from J1 to jib top to code zero. Keeping a fairly steady speed. Jarhead 100 metres away on our 8 o’clock.”
The third grouping was led in inspiring fashion by Elusive 2, the Podestas then found great boat speed to pull out a significant lead in IRC 4 on the leg to Capo Passero.
The classic Swan 65 Kings Legend was making harder work of the situation, but showing the early intent required to finish the race for the first time in three attempts.
The double-hander, Libertine from Italy, skippered by Marco Paolucci, has participated in the race on five occasions previously. This year’s assault looks to be a massive undertaking.
Before leaving the dock, Paolucci remarked: “It is not possible to predict how long it will take. We hope for six days, but we will see. Whatever, I love this race. It is the most beautiful race in the world.”
The fourth start of the day was stolen for a while by the Polish entry Esentia, a grand Soleil 44 skippered by Marcin Sutkowski.
The yellow spinnaker of Xavier Bellouard’s Pogo 12.5 Baradoz also cut a dash under the blue sky and glare of the unfiltered sun as it sped towards open water.
The next group contained some of the pre-race favourites.
Previous form, displacement and waterline length combining to suggest this area of the fleet might be hiding the eventual winner.
The inexperienced Maltese entry Xone Superyacht Corona took a few by surprise with a strong start, but the competitive juices were flowing throughout as displayed by James Neville’s HH42 Ino XXX powering in towards the Valletta seawall at the Lower Barrakka gardens before deftly gybing away to gain places and position.
The penultimate start featuring more top guns was scorched by the Infinity 46R, Maverick from Australia. Her all-star crew has a huge number of hours on this racetrack, even if skipper Michael Firmin is on his initiation.
Gordon Kay, the builder of Maverick, gleefully called in to emphasise that the smallest boat in this group had led it out of the harbour.
Maverick is up against some tough opposition in class, with the likes of Red Bandit, the German TP52, Teasing Machine, the French NMYD 54, and Arobas2, the French IRC 52 breathing down her neck.
For the Royal Malta Yacht Club race management, it is always a relief to see the fleet depart safely. The dedication and preparation of the competing crews is matched by that of the organisation, led this year by Race Director Chris Stone and Principal Race Officer Stefan Kunstman.
“It was great team effort from all concerned. We were up against it at times, but we ‘threaded the needle’ provided by the wind and are looking forward to seeing how the race develops,” Kunstman said.
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