Phil Sharp on the Rolex Middle Sea Race
I always find that racing in the Mediterranean is somewhat of a bizarre experience. Being land-locked, the weather systems are usually isolated from the Atlantic and tend to be localised, complex and highly unpredictable. This tends to throw extreme conditions at you; either forcing you to painfully try and keep your boat moving in the lightest of breezes whilst slowly suffering from sun-stroke or dehydration, or punishing you with a fresh Force 7-8 Mistral wind and steep, breaking seas.
The Rolex Middle Sea race is the highlight of the offshore Mediterranean calendar, and this year it made no exception to this general rule. I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to skipper a Class 40 in this year’s edition of the race, which incorporated a separate division and trophy for the seven entries in the class. We had a total crew of five for this race, which turned out to be a really good mix of skills in the form of Marek Chatrny, Aljaz Jadek, Andraz Mihelin and Jure Jerman. I have known Andraz well since we both campaigned entries in the 2005 Mini Transat, whilst Jure’s head for weather and navigation was pivotal in helping me win the 2006 Route du Rhum.
Our Class 40 was a highly competitive Pogo 40 S2, the ex-Monbana that finished fifth in the 2010 Route du Rhum and the second edition of the Finot-Conq designed Pogo 40s that superseded the design I raced in the previous edition. The most obvious difference of the S2 is its refined hull-shape, which incorporates powerful chines, and whose internals clearly show that this boat is designed as an ocean racer and not just for impatient cruisers. No woodwork galleys or chart tables, no quarter-berth hatches and unfortunately no spacious heads. All crew must report solely to a bucket on the aft deck.
The course is a simple one. Starting and finishing in Malta, the fleet sail anticlockwise around Sicily and its neighbouring islands, negotiating the strong currents of the Messina straights and passing close to the active volcanoes of Mount Etna and Stromboli. This is probably the most scenic and spectacular races on the yachting calendar which provides highly variably and challenging conditions over the 606 mile course.
Our start line was laid in The Grand Harbour, Valetta, and this one of the most impressive starts that I have experienced. Huge bastions built more than 400 years ago tower over the sides of the harbour, making even a 72ft Mini Maxi look rather humble. The cannon fired from the Saluting Battery, and we were eventually on our way, after a nice clean start, towards the southeast point of Sicily in a good breeze that would be the last we would see for next few days. The forecast for the next few days was the lightest I had ever seen in an offshore event. There was almost negligible pressure gradient over the race course and it was clear that this was to be an extremely long Middle Sea Race.
The next morning after our first night at sea we seemed to find ourselves in a comfortable place in the fleet. Every boat around us seemed bigger, and on the ride up to the Messina straits we sailed quite comfortably past an old Volvo 60, which is always a good confidence booster. Later that night we rounded the island of Stromboli and were given a breathtaking view of its active volcano which, every few minutes, ejected a dazzling shower of lava from its summit. This was accompanied by a deep rumbling sound from deep inside its core, much like an avalanche, reverberating through the entire surroundings. How the locals sleep properly at night I don’t know - they really must have a death wish of some sort.
By the morning we had started to put some good miles between us and the other Class 40s, and with this cushion we managed to then jump into a faster weather pattern that paid to our advantage. 10 miles turned into 40 miles, and eventually into 80 miles. On the evening of the fourth night at sea, just after sunset, we passed the island of Lampedusa with around 100 miles remaining to the finish.
If we thought it would be an easy last leg home we’d have been mistaken, as shortly after rounding our final island we started to get swallowed up by an enormous black cloud from the West. Jure announced that approaching us was ‘The Mother of all Thunderstorms’. The system as shown on the latest satellite images was simply huge, with a highly active front that was set to hit us around midnight. There was no way of escaping it, and the lightening grew steadily more intense until forks were striking the sea in all directions around the boat. All of a sudden the wind died off completely, slowing the boat to a standstill. All that remained was the sound of the sails flapping backwards and forwards as the boat rocked to and fro in the remaining sea, while everything else was silent. No doubt this was the calm
before the storm, and I was aware of a particularly tight feeling in my stomach over what may lie around the corner.
The boat suddenly got hit by a fury of wind and torrential rain. The contrast was staggering. I bore away violently downwind to avoid a broach and the boat suddenly took off, accelerating wildly into the darkness. “All hands on deck!” I yelled, and we quickly managed to drop the jib to the deck and started to reef the main. This was a struggle in itself as the sail was pressed so firmly against the rigging, and therefore had to be winched down using downhaulers at the luff reefing points. By the time we had the main down to two reefs with no headsail, the wind was blowing even stronger, at around 40 knots.
Boat speed was a solid 17-18 knots and spray was flying absolutely everywhere, with lightening strikes continuously blinding our otherwise impeded vision. “Just like being back in the Doldrums!” yelled Andraz, who seemed to be missing a decent blast as much as myself.
The experience was simply awesome. After four days of tame light-weather sailing, a kicking and some adrenaline-fuelled sailing was exactly what we needed. The madness continued for 15 minutes or so before the wind subsided, enabling us to get a jib back up and actually point the boat vaguely in the direction of Malta once again. It was to be another 2 hours or so before the lightening and torrential rain decided to leave us in peace, and a very welcoming clear night sky appeared following the front passage. I took the opportunity to catch a couple of hours of much needed sleep, and awoke soon after dawn to hear that overnight we had pulled out 10 miles on Zenhea Takesha, with whom we had rounded Lampedusa neck and neck. Not bad going, for a night of drama.
Convinced now that our troubles were over, our race was to encounter one final ‘twist’. We had a very light passage around the Malta through the South Camino passage, before the wind faded so much that we came to a near standstill around the final headland. Whilst we drifted along I noticed a large fountain of spray close to the coast, a few hundred metres from us. I watched the spray extend skywards, until it quickly became bridged, as a very tall funnel, to the lowest array of clouds. It was a waterspout! I had seen photos of these phenomena but never witnessed one in the flesh, and what a sight it was. We watched it gradually grow larger and larger in diameter, until you could actually see individual water droplets being sucked skywards around this columnar vortex. Due to our current lack of any manoeuvrability under sail, there was an obvious concern that this spout would start moving seawards and pass over the boat. Non-tornadic waterspouts of this nature can typically have windspeeds of some 60-80 knots and can cause severe damage to yachts. Fortunately, we picked up a burst of wind from a squall and passed safely to windward of the spout, giving it a nice generous berth!
Shortly after we saw the vortex hit the land and quickly dissipate.
An hour later we crossed the finishing line of the Rolex Middle Sea Race in Marsamxett Harbour in an elapsed time of 5 days 59 minutes, 1st in class and some 20 hours ahead of second placed Class 40, Rosa de Mare. We were also very encouraged to finish well into the top third of the fleet overall, under IRC handicap, for which the Class 40s rate very poorly due to their water ballast, masthead spinnakers and
gennakers etc. Above all, it was great to race with such a fun and motivated group of people, whom, despite the challenging conditions, remained positive at all times.
Sailing with other people after Figaro is also a lot better for your sanity. I look forward to some more soon!