Classic pursuits amid global pandemic
Published on October 16th, 2020
As one of the great 600 nm offshore tests, it is all systems go for the 2020 Rolex Middle Sea Race to start on October 17 from Valletta’s Grand Harbour. Famed for its magnificent racecourse and revered for the scale of the challenge it presents, the 41st edition has preservered during a challenging year for the international yachting calendar.
In light of the global pandemic, the Royal Malta Yacht Club (RMYC) has put in place special protocols and arrangements to ensure the safety of competitors, ashore and at sea. While entry numbers for the anticlockwise circumnavigation of Sicily have been on an upward trajectory over the past decade, with more than 100 yachts from 20-plus countries regularly on the start line, this year may have fewer participants, but the attraction of the 606-nm racecourse – unique in offshore yacht racing as it starts and finishes in the same place – remains strong.
The Mediterranean course’s competitive, historical, cultural and geological allure is perhaps without equal. Contested on waters where empires have risen and fallen and that form the setting for Homer’s Odyssey, the race takes in the active volcanoes of Etna and Stromboli and a myriad of islands. It is an epic adventure that stirs strong emotions and a sense of accomplishment in all who take part.
Crews comprise both professional and Corinthian sailors, veterans and debutants. The transfer of knowledge and the passing on of tradition from the experienced to the less-experienced are among the race’s great legacies. When Maltese yacht Elusive 2 won the race last year, the co-skippers were siblings Maya, Aaron and Christoph Podesta. They had served their apprenticeship under the guidance of their late father Arthur Podesta, himself a 35-race veteran and crew member of Josian, which won the inaugural event in 1968.
“Nothing prepares you for the beauty of the course,” shares Paul Cayard. “The race is truly a classic, with incredible drama and breathtaking backdrops.” Brazilian Robert Scheidt, a five-time Olympic medallist, agrees. “While it is one of the most beautiful races in the world, it is also very tough. When I competed, we faced strong winds and the heaviest sea I’ve ever witnessed in my career. At the finish line we were exhausted, but felt a profound sense of achievement.”
The Rolex Middle Sea Race is a test of endurance, even for crews on the fastest yachts. The race record of 47 hours, 55 minutes has not been broken since 2007 and line-honours times in recent years have regularly exceeded 60 hours.
This supreme test of seamanship comes from the prevailing conditions and the shape of the course. October can be a difficult month in this part of the Mediterranean, bringing strong winds and brutal seas, interspersed with flat calm. As the fleet rounds Sicily, the numerous corners break up the race into distinct sections, each with its own characteristics and obstacles to overcome. The navigational and tactical conundrums stretch even the most experienced sailors.
“The race is relentless,” adds Scheidt. “There is no time to rest on your laurels. Your opposition is often within sight and there is constant pressure to be in the best position to take advantage of the next wind shift.”
About the Race:
The Rolex Middle Sea Race was established as the result of sporting rivalry between great friends, Jimmy White and Alan Green, two Englishmen residing in Malta, together with Paul and John Ripard, two Maltese members of the Royal Malta Yacht Club. Jimmy, Alan (later to become the Race Director of the Royal Ocean Racing Club), Paul and John would eventually map a course designed to offer an exciting race in different conditions to those prevailing in the immediate Maltese coastal waters.
The 606nm course, essentially a clockwise circumnavigation of Sicily starting and finishing in Malta, would be slightly longer than the RORC’s longest race, the Rolex Fastnet. The resulting course is the same as used today, although sailed in the reverse direction. The Rolex Middle Sea Race course record has been broken on five occasions since the inaugural edition in 1968.
The Course Record, established by George David’s 90-foot Rambler (USA) in 2007, is 47hrs 55mins 03 secs