Crossing the finish line at 1110 CEST this morning, Niklas Zennstrom’s J/V 72 Rán was the second boat to complete the 606-mile Rolex Middle Sea Race. With Esimit Europa 2 taking line honours, Rán is dockside in Valetta having beaten Esimit Europa 2 on corrected time. But the crew will have to wait until tomorrow - when several competitors with the potential to topple them on handicap arrive - to see how they have fared against the rest of the handicap leaders.
Zennstrom, owner and helmsman on Rán said: “We wanted to do well, so we made sure we planned as much as we could. We studied the different weather models that were available to us, and really tried to understand the racecourse as well as possible. I think we handled it well; we didn’t make a lot of mistakes, which is what it’s all about in this kind of race. Though it was pretty light conditions; you didn’t have the tough conditions where you really have to handle the boat. It’s a fun race because there are always different corners to go around, different islands -- for sure it’s very tactical.”
Rán’s tactician Adrian Stead, echoed that and said, “It was a pretty challenging race – it was alive the whole way around the course. For us, we sailed a very good race, we sailed a tactical and a fairly risk-free race. We controlled everything we could; so now it’s down to see whether it turns out to be a mini-maxi race or a small boat race. But once again, a great racecourse, you can’t beat it!
Recounting their race strategy, Stead added, “Even at the start, one of our biggest gains on Alegre was out of the harbour and the first two legs, if you like. We recognised it was quite squirrelly at the time. The breeze was shifting around and everyone was thinking of a relatively light-ish start. As we went down to the turning mark off St Julian’s, the breeze felt well in the right, so we elected to gybe-set and took off doing 15-18 knots, and that gave us a really good jump on Alegre. There were enough shifts in the first two hours and we probably put two to three miles on them, which was really good, in terms of laying down your marker. The opportunities were there to do it.”
Both Esimit Europa 2 and Rán made the most of the passage through Messina, often touted as the ‘make or break’ point of the course. Stead said, “Off Catania we knew we wanted to be in the middle of the bottom of the Strait, and if we could get to the right-hand side, we would. We were conscious when we went in there that Esimit was going to go through with favourable current, and that we were probably going to plug it. We got most of the way down the eastern side in the back eddy and just had three knots against us when we crossed the entrance and enough breeze to do it, so we managed to escape in reasonable shape; whereas, a lot of the boats behind us came through on the next tide.
“We were relieved to have got through Messina in the shape we did. And going through there with a three-hour, 30-mile lead on your archrival was pretty satisfying. But they sailed well, coming back into us in the light (wind), but there really weren’t very many ways around us.
Intriguingly, this race has not been a case of the rich getting richer, as the weather conditions continued to confound even the race leaders right to the end – and served as a reminder of what may lie ahead for the rest of the fleet still racing. Stead explained, “The last 50 miles into the finish were incredibly tricky. Originally we were pointing straight at Malta, then we were slowly headed and effectively faced with a 30-mile beat to the Comino Channel, and coming in to here at midday the breeze started to get very fickle off the shore, with very big shifts. The last nine miles saw 40 degree shifts, and breeze as light as five knots to as much as 11 knots. You had to keep your wits about you the whole way.”
At 17.16 this evening, Andres Soriano’s Mills 68 Alegre crossed the finish line. 12 miles behind them, Med Spirit was approaching the South Comino Channel. Between Gozo and Lampedusa there are a half dozen boats close reaching in a light 5-10 knot easterly. While further up the track between Lampedusa and Pantelleria, the bulk of the fleet - close to 40 boats - are beating into a headwind, hoping for a Wednesday finish.
At midday today, Chris Opielok’s Corby 36, AOC Rockall was currently leading Class 4, and in contention for overall handicap as well. Crewmember John Brinkers reported: “We are on the way to Lampedusa, having had a very interesting night getting through a big hole off San Vito lo Capo (NW tip of Sicily). We chose the 'go out to sea' option, and it initially looked great – but then the breeze filled in from the land so we lost a little bit. But hey ho, thems the breaks.
“We are now sailing upwind in 10 -12 knots with our main opposition six miles ahead (the local Maltese boat J/122 Artie). We realise a 40 minute lead on corrected is nice, but it can be taken away in a heartbeat in the massively variable and sometimes illogical conditions found out here. The battle continues.”
Sandro Musu emailed in from his Maltese entry, the Grand Soleil 40, Aziza: “Three days in, and all is well on Aziza. We've enjoyed every wind condition from zero to thirty-two knots, from every direction, rain and now sunshine. Spirits are high on board. We're eating well and keeping hydrated in the warm wind. As I write this we are passing Pantelleria. We are looking forward to sitting in the Royal Malta Yacht Club with our rivals in a few days to recount the many funny and exciting stories from the arena of competition.”