Big guns heading for Malta
"We're at a good stage already in the entry list," comments Georges Bonello DuPuis, Commodore of organisers, the Royal Malta Yacht Club. "Typically we are at around 25 yachts by end of July. But this is just the formal entries. We are aware of a number more that are in the wings. With Malta being such a small place, news travels fast and as soon as a boat books hotel rooms or marina space for October, the jungle drums beat loudly. We know exactly who is planning on participating before the entry form arrives."
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first ever race. Line Honours winner in 1968 (and 1969) Stormvogel is making a welcome return although she will have her work cut out to repeat her first to finish performance with the likes of the 100ft super-maxi Speedboat slated to compete. The game has moved on considerably since Stormvogel was considered cutting-edge.
Interestingly though, whilst the glamour boys at the front of the fleet will attract the headlines, it may well be amongst the 65-75fot yachts that the real story of this year's race is written. Aptly named pocket maxis, this new breed of boat is appearing in numbers at all the top events around the world this year. Roger Sturgeon's STP65 Rosebud swept to victory at her maiden Rolex Sydney Hobart last Christmas despite a couple of tense hours in light winds at the mouth of the Derwent; an experience that may hold her in good stead for the Mediterranean's answer to the Hobart Race, when light wind mastery is as important as heavy weather skills. While Rosebud is the only STP65 on the official entry list, rumour suggests she will be head to head with Jim Swartz's STP65 Moneypenny (USA), whom she bested on the water and handicap in this year's Bermuda Race. Swartz, however, has prior experience of the Rolex Middle Sea Race having raced his Swan 601 around the course in 2006.
The 50-60ft range often provides compelling competition too. Although recent editions have seen handicap winners from the front of the fleet - the 90ft Rambler in 2007, the 86ft Morning Glory in 2006 and the 70ft Atalanta II in 2005 - one only needs to look to 2004 to find Greek Farr 52 Optimum 3 on the podium.
This year, fresh from his experience in a brutal Round Ireland Race, Irishman Adrian Lee will be on the historic start line beneath the walls of Valletta with his Cookson 50, Lee Overlay Partners. "I'm really focused on offshore racing. If I can't get enough at home I'll go find it!" says Lee. "I've sailed all my life and the Rolex Middle Sea Race is spoken of very highly by those I respect. Lee Overlay is designed for tough offshores, which is why I bought her and my plan is to do all the major grand-prix races, so I'm really looking forward to it."
Given the yacht's performance when the going gets tough, Lee could be forgiven for wishing for a repeat of last year's conditions when the fleet encountered two days of gale-force winds and big seas, forcing three-quarters of those competing to retire.
In the throes of marvelling at yet another invasion of foreigners, something Malta has witnessed time and again in her colourful history, the local entrants should not be forgotten. The expansion in race entry numbers has not come without a price for this small, but proud sailing nation. The last Maltese boat to win the race was in 2002, when John Ripard Jr and Andrew Calascione, on the J-109 Market Wizard, took home the trophy. Optimism is a central core of the Maltese well being, but there is realism too.
Five-time competitor Martin Scicluna will be participating again on his Beneteau 40.7 AirMalta Falcon. Scicluna harbours no illusions of winning. For him, especially after last year's experience when his was one of the 15 boats to finish, participation is enough and completing the course a success. And, this is true for any number of competitors.
The Rolex Middle Sea Race commences on Saturday 18 October 2008 from Marsamxett Harbour, Malta. Entries close on 11th October. The final prize giving is at noon on 25 October.
George David's Rambler established the current Course Record of 47 hours 55 minutes and 3 seconds in 2007.