[WATCH] A sense of accomplishment as Rolex Middle Sea celebrates 50th year anniversary

From its humble ideal starting in 1968, the Rolex Middle Sea Race today stands an international event of significant stature

Photos by Kurt Arrigo
Photos by Kurt Arrigo
A sense of accomplishment as Rolex Middle Sea celebrates 50th year anniversary

A record breaking fleet embarked on the 50th anniversary Rolex Middle Sea Race with the dedication, perseverance and spirit which has come to define this famous international offshore race throughout the past five decades. 

130 yachts representing 29 countries, uniting seasoned campaigners, intrepid first timers and those drawn back to Malta after decade long absences. Motivation charged by the prospect of being part of a unique edition of the race. 

In claiming a fourth straight monohull line honours success, and a fifth overall, American George David is now that specific award’s most decorated skipper. Even the fastest multihull, Maserati Multi 70, skippered by Giovanni Soldini, was unable to surpass the increasingly resilient time of 47 hours, 55 minutes and 3 seconds set by David’s previous Rambler in 2007. Overall victory on IRC handicap belonged to Géry Trenteseaux’s JPK 11.80 Courrier Recommandé from France, the very same Trentesaux who three years ago prevailed from a fleet of 356 yachts to claim the 2015 Rolex Fastnet Race. 

Courrier Recommandé winners of the 2018 Rolex Middle Sea Race. Photos by Kurt Arrigo
Courrier Recommandé winners of the 2018 Rolex Middle Sea Race. Photos by Kurt Arrigo

How fitting that a French skipper triumphed in the race’s golden anniversary. After all, it was a Frenchman, Albert Debarge, who in 1968 offered his friend John Ripard Snr the opportunity to choose a yacht to sail the inaugural race. A race, Ripard, a renowned local sailor, would go on to win. “His only condition was that the boat’s name had to be Josian, which was his wife’s name,” recalled Ripard who opted to commission a design from a then emerging boat builder, Nautor’s Swan.

Naturally the pageantry tied to this year’s race provided an opportunity for the likes of Ripard Snr to reminisce on the first edition of the contest. A race contested by eight yachts, conceived in the summer of that year, and which took almost every available hour between then and the start to ensure the race could take place. 

Originally a clockwise route around Sicily, today the Middle Sea Race is a 606-nm anticlockwise passage that still takes in scenic and tactical junctures like the Strait of Messina, Etna, the volcanic island of Stromboli, the rugged Aeolian and Egadi islands, beginning and finishing off Valletta, the 2018 European Capital of Culture.

“The racecourse is the most scenic in the world. It has got a lot of history and has very variable wind conditions. It can be heavy, it can be light,” saidGeorge David whose crew on the 88-ft Maxi Rambler return each year to Malta not only for the charm of the racecourse but with a single-minded mission. “We come back every year because when the race record is broken again we want to make sure it’s us who break it.” 

Prize-giving ceremony. Photos by Kurt Arrigo
Prize-giving ceremony. Photos by Kurt Arrigo

A small boat race 
On the dawn of the race start though, David was already aware that setting a new fastest finish time was highly unlikely. An arduous passage from Capo Passero towards the Strait of Messina during the first evening and night allied those concerns. Although Rambler and the frontrunners picked up speed following the rounding of Stromboli, she finished in the early hours of Tuesday morning over 14 hours outside of the race benchmark. Proud of setting a record number of line honours victories on arrival in Grand Harbour, Valletta, David was immediately briefing his crew that they would be back to try again in 2019.

As the frontrunners continued to arrive in Valletta during the race’s third evening, it became evident that this was not going to be a big boat race.  What followed was a procession of yachts crossing the finish line in Malta and assuming temporary leadership of the race. Momo, Endlessgame, Tonnerre de Glen, all at one stage could dream of success. Then on the fourth afternoon of the race, Trentesaux’s yacht, launched earlier this year, picked up pace down the west coast of Sicily. Her times at the islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa suggested she needed to be taken seriously. And on arriving in Malta, Courrier Recommandé assumed leadership of the race.

The scene was set for a French boat to win the race for the third time – following Antares in 1981 and Spirit of Ad Hoc in 2008. 

Making 600-nm history

Trentesaux’s success is not born from an in-depth knowledge of the course - he has only taken part in the race once before, in 1982 as a 23-year old who had just completed his military service. Rather it is a triumph fuelled by a passion for offshore sailing and as he identifies: “A very strong team, a good boat, a great crew and good sails.” Following the Rolex Fastnet, Trentesaux retired from offshore racing, ‘an addiction’ he was able to contain for only three years. “I love the atmosphere of offshore racing and I couldn’t resist coming back to the Rolex Middle Sea Race this year.”  Amongst Trentesaux’s all French crew was another former Rolex Fastnet winner. Alexis Loison who made history in 2013 when, with his father Pascal, they became the race’s first-ever double-handed winners.

“This is a magnificent, beautiful race course. We had a lot of wind during the last 24 hours of the race, 15 of which were really challenging,” explained Trentesaux on arrival. Perhaps though the key moment came when the yacht broached off Pantelleria. Trentesaux, the skipper, leader and most experienced member of the crew, assumed the helming duties for four hours, using all of his guile to ensure Courrier Recommandé’s crew settled any nerves and recovered lost ground at a critical stage.

Having won the 50th Anniversary of the Rolex Middle Sea Race, Courrier Recommandé are planning on travelling to Australia for 2019's 75th edition of the Rolex Sydney Hobart. A tantalising opportunity for Trentesaux to become the first skipper to win all three of the Rolex-partnered 600-nm offshore races.

First-time achievers

Competing for the first time, and amongst the crews to travel furthest to Malta were the Filipino sailors on the 40-ft Hurricane Hunter. In a race that witnessed 31 retirements, their sense of accomplishment on crossing the finish line off Valletta was palpable. 

“We never thought about not finishing,” explained skipper Albert Altura. “It was a tough race for us. We always kept pressing. We had all the challenges that a big race presents – broken sails, blown out spinnakers. The crew were all composed, our spirit was never broken. The wind conditions in this race made us better sailors.” 

While winning the main prizes and classes is a significant incentive at the race, the experiences gained and challenges conquered in completing the race are as memorable and character defining. Perhaps no boat embodied this more than the race’s last finisher, L’Aventure, which spent five days, 13 hours and 45 minutes at sea. Likewise, those who sailed double-handed and for whom resources are extended. In this Class, last year’s overall race winning owner Igor Rytov triumphed with Bogatyr. A year ago, an exhausted Rytov remarked that he couldn’t conceive returning to the race. Yet twelve months later, the Russian sailor attacked the course with just as much vigour and determination.

2018 Rolex Middle Sea Race – Principal Prize Winners 

  • Rolex Middle Sea Race Overall WinnerRolex Middle Sea Race Trophy & Rolex Timepiece - Courrier Recommandé (FRA), Géry Trentesaux 
  • ORC Division WinnerBoccale del Mediterraneo Trophy - Bohemia Praha Debra (CZE), Milan Tomek 
  • Double-Handed ClassAndrea Vattani Trophy for Line Honours - John Illingworth Trophy for Overall win under IRC, Bogatyr (RUS), Igor Rytov & Vyatcheslav Martynov 
  • Monohull Line Honours: RLR Line Honours Trophy - Rambler (USA), George David 
  • Multihull Class Malta: Tourism Authority Trophy for first foreign boat to finish, Captain Morgan & MOCRA Trophies for first boat on corrected time  - Maserati (ITA), Giovanni Soldini 
  • First Maltese Boat Transport Malta Trophy for first boat across line with Maltese skipper & majority of Maltese crew members: Jonas Diamantino & Ramon Sant Hill (MLT), Comanche Raider III; Arthur Podesta & Teddie Borg Trophies for first Maltese Boat under IRC & ORC: Elusive 2 (MLT), Aaron, Cristoph & Maya Podesta 
  • First Italian Boat FIV Trophy for first Italian boat under ORC: Endlessgame (ITA), Pietro Moschini 
  • First Swan Yacht Swan Mediterranean Challenge Trophy for first Swan under IRC: Lunz Am Meer (AUT), Riccardo Genghini & Marietta Strasoldo  

Class Winners 
IRC 1 - Momo (GER), Dieter Schön 
IRC 2 – Optimum 3 (GRE), Periklis Livas & Nikolaos Lazos 
IRC 3 – Tonnerre de Glen (FRA), Gerard Ludvic 
IRC 4 – Albator (FRA), Philippe Franz 
IRC 5 – Courrier Recommandé (FRA), Géry Trentesaux 
IRC 6 – Rossko (RUS), Sergey Kiziev 
  
ORC 1 – Freccia Rossa (RUS), Vadim Yakimenko 
ORC 2 – Endlessgame (ITA), Pietro Moschini 
ORC 3 – Be Wild (ITA), Renzo Grottesi 
ORC 4 – Elusive 2 (MLT), Aaron, Cristoph & Maya Podesta 
ORC 5 – Bohemia Praha Debra (CZE), Milan Tomek 
ORC 6 – Redshift Reloaded (GBR), Ed Fishwick

More in Sailing