Offshore racing

Rolex Middle Sea Race is timed out

Rolex Middle Sea Race 2012

This first blog post is a historic one to get us going.

For me it’s been a first stab at a serious offshore classic – and in this case it’s the Middle Sea Race which leaves Grand Harbour, Valletta in Malta, heads north east to round Sicily and outlying islands before returning to Malta. In all, the rumb line is just over 600 miles long and we had hoped for a race lasting four days, or five at the outside. We did indeed return to port within this time period, but not by the anticipated route.

Having flown out to join the beautiful Swan 48 Snow Wolf, the pre-race period was a mad rush to prepare the boat for sea. Not for this classic boat did this entail minutely planning routes according to alternative meteorological scenarios, or packing and re-packing all the shiny new sails. Rather, skipper and mate (yours truly) had heads down heads, generators in bits and winches stripped down. Final prep did not allow for the new sails to be hoisted, or for extensive strategic planning to happen, which perhaps suggests that we did not start the race in first-rate order. Moving around from the Royal Malta Yacht Club, which has hosted the race since its inception, to Grand Harbour in plenty of time for the Saturday morning start, provoked feelings of excitement and nervousness in doses. The breeze seemed promising, though the skippers’ briefing had promised a light airs race, and entering Valletta from the sea with boats all around was a terrific experience. Sightseeing in the pre-start is bad, however, and Snow Wolf missed her gun by a less-than-marginal ten minutes – in fact, we started amongst the keenest of the following fleet. Having cleared the line and Grand Harbour without incident, we settled down for the fetch towards Sicily, tinkering with sail settings and set-up as we went.

By the time we had reached the south-west corner of Sicily, the large fleet had spread out, with many staying out to windward – steadily the breeze dropped away, and those who were to windward stretched out. As night set in, Snow Wolf fell into a mode which would become very familiar over the next 60 hours or so: eeking boat speed out of breeze topping 5 knots, whilst trying to stick with other slower boats, without making much recourse to the bigger picture. During this period we transited the Straits of Messina – a major tidal gate on the course – partly at night, slipping backwards in the fierce current, and finally in a thrilling 15 knot breeze which sucked us through the following day.

Another slow passage northwards towards smoking Stromboli, with reports of boats becalmed all around the course and numerous retirements, started to affect crew morale. There is only so much wind whispering that can be done as the mental gymnastics of calculating VMG set against race cut-off time begins to take over.   Finally, twenty miles beyond Stromboli, with its volcanic chimneys sending out messages to the gods, the inevitable decision was taken: for us the race was over, with only a third of the miles covered. Even a huge departure from the forecast weather could not get us round the remaining race course before the Saturday 0800 cut-off time so we turned back towards Messina, then Malta and flights home.

Irony of ironies, the final few night hours with engine throbbing saw the worst weather of the trip: a spectacular electrical storm which threw lashing rain and 30 knot winds at the soaking on-watch crew. Who knows what a ‘typical’ Middle Sea Race is like, but for me it was a fascinating and enjoyable experience, tempered with disappointment and dreams of what might have been.

25 October 2012, Malta

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