Hard day and night: Rolex Middle Sea fleet suffers oily calm conditions

With light easterly wind forecast for much of the hours of darkness, there will be no respite for any of the crews as they work hard to harness every puff and gain any advantage

Approaching Stromboli (Photo: Kurt Arrigo)
Approaching Stromboli (Photo: Kurt Arrigo)

What a difference a year makes: same boats, polar opposite conditions.

This time last year the Rolex Middle Sea Race reporting was struggling to keep up with the pace of the frontrunners. The Maxi Multihulls had scorched 450 nautical miles of the 606nm course.

The story so far of the 43rd Rolex Middle Sea Race is one of determination and true grit, grinding out the miles one by one, sometimes taking more than hour to do so. The fleet is spread between the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily, 220nm along the track, back to just north of Syracuse, a mere 83nm into the race. If it makes for hard watching from the shore, imagine life onboard.

Currently, Mana is doing just over 7 knots, 2nm ahead of Maserati Multi70. Meanwhile, Zoulou looks to have dived south towards Snowflake, perhaps to stay in or find better pressure. All four are well north of the rhumb line. The leading monohulls are right among them. Bullitt, sailing parallel with Maserati at a similar speed, leads Leopard 3 by about 3.5nm. According to the tracker, Daguet 3 – Corum – at Stromboli - is leading under IRC time correction, but this is really just an indication with so much of the race still to run.

Yesterday’s start from Grand Harbour was a foretaste of the 24 hours that would follow. The wind continually dropped in and out. Some boats were able to make fast progress out through the breakwater into open water. For others it was more miss than hit.

The 55nm passage north to Capo Passero, on the southeast corner of Sicily, followed a similar pattern among all classes: head northeast out of the harbour for about 20nm before choosing when to turning north to Sicily. Boat speeds went up and down with the wind strength until about halfway across the channel when the five racing trimarans took off, posting speeds in excess of 20 knots. The Maxi Monohulls did their best to keep pace hitting mid to high teens. Mid-size boats also profited from this welcome respite from the light airs.

Life got no better as night fell and spotting what wind there was from signs on the water became nigh impossible. Sailing into traps seems to have been frequent and being the lead boat on the water was not always the best position.

Chocolate 3, for example, had sailed exceptionally off the start and Bouwe Bekking reported in during the early evening: “It’s a beautiful sunset, and up to now we’ve been sailing a very good race. François (Bopp) did a very good job at the start, wiggling ourselves through that, the crew work was good and, right now, Bullitt, one of the biggest in the fleet, is only one and a half miles ahead of us, so we can’t complain.”

A few hours later at 3am, after making solid progress up the eastern seaboard of Sicily in line abreast with her IRC 2 class competitors, the Swiss boat looks to have hit a hole and had reason to complain. The boats further offshore just kept on moving, leaving Chocolate 3 behind. It has taken much of the day to get back on terms, and the crew will shortly be rounding Stromboli in a pack of other IRC 2 yachts.

Life onboard the fastest yachts in the fleet has been no easier. Paul Larsen reported in at dawn on the approach to Stromboli: “It’s oily calm conditions. We are holding on by our fingernails to a very tentative lead on the good ship Mana. The sun is just rising and behind us we can see Zoulou, Maserati and Snowflake. We are trying to hang on to every little gust we can get, as we glide along at 3.5 knots which, believe me, is hard fought for and very much appreciated.”

The night ahead looked no easier, with a light easterly wind forecast for much of the hours of darkness, patchy throughout and diminishing over time. There will be no respite for any of the crews as they work hard to harness every puff and gain any advantage.