Esimit Europa 2 leads the charge
A low pressure system moved over the island of Malta last night, bringing southerly breeze and thick cloud cover. The 70 boat 2011 Rolex Middle Sea Race fleet filled Valletta’s Grand Harbour today with spectators crowding the Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens, which offer unsurpassed views of the starting area. The Royal Malta Yacht Club race committee was set up at Saluting Battery (immediately below the Upper Barrakka Gardens), where the start line ran between a mast on the Battery and an inflatable buoy across the harbour, just off Fort St. Angelo.
The first of four starts, the smaller Class 4 boats, were off at 11.00 CEST in an eight knot breeze. The Corby 36 AOC Rockall (GER) took the initial bragging rights as first boat out of the harbour. As the front moved in, the breeze in the confined starting area – funnelling around the buildings and fortresses – was gusty, and the third start, the 19 boats in Class 2, had their hands full gybing downwind to exit between the breakwaters. Among them, the 62ft B2 Natali (ITA) and Cookson 50, Cantakerous (ITA), were caught out in the squirrely conditions, each suffering a close-quarter round-up.
The last start, Class 1 – which included the scratch boat, the 100ft Esimit Europa 2 (SLO), J/V 72 Rán (GBR), the Mills 68 Alegre (GBR), the Swan 80 Bernice Bis (ITA) – took advantage of the building breeze which was up to about 15 knots, though still puffy, to effect a quick exit out of the harbour. As Rán navigator Steve Hayles accurately summed up, “The start is quite unique, the way we start inside the entrance (in Grand Harbour), but you want to get out of there cleanly with no infringements.”
From Grand Harbour, the fleet processed down the coast to a turning mark off St Julian’s. Squalls and lightning followed, causing some boats to broach in sudden changing conditions. Around this time the German Class 40, Pogo, was the race’s first retirement, out with a torn mainsail.
An eye towards the weather
Shortly before casting off, Niklas Zennstrom, owner and helmsman of Rán said, “The wind for the first two days looks very, very light and very fickle, so it’s going to be quite challenging for all of us, because it is hard to predict where the little wind is and where it is coming from. It is going to be one of those races where you have to have a lot of patience. I think it is going to be very tactical, it is going to be very much looking to see what’s happening to the other boats close to you and seeing where the wind is.”
Racing on the Swan 82 Nikata (GBR), is skipper Matt Hardy, with navigator Mike Broughton, and Simon Shaw calling tactics. Shortly before the race start, Broughton offered his view of the weather, “It looks like a full mix of conditions, but the good news is the wind is from the south most of the time, not from the cold north. We have a trough line coming through today, so will have a little bit of rain on it and little bit of wind. But at least we have southeast winds to get us away from the island, so that’s good news to get us started.
“We’re looking forward to it. We love this race course, we love the complex mental challenge of the fluid dynamics of the wind going around the mountains and islands, and trying to work our way around to avoid the worst of the shadows. It’s a hard equation to crack and a great challenge, and actually pretty damn hard in a heavy boat, but we’ll be working as hard as we can.”
At 15.00 CEST, the bulk of the fleet is midway across the 50 nautical mile passage between Malta and Sicily. Race leader Esimit Europa 2 was ten miles south of Capo Passero, Sicily, doing 14 knots. The Slovenian boat was six miles ahead of Rán, with Alegre a further three miles behind.