The Rolex Middle Sea Race, organised by the Royal Malta Yacht Club, was founded in 1968 principally to provide local Corinthian sailors with more challenging opportunities to sail in the Mediterranean winter.
From that humble ideal fifty years ago, today stands an international event of significant stature. Rolex, marking its six decade long association with yachting this year, has been Title Sponsor since 2002. This partnership between club and watch brand has coincided with the race’s resurgence over the past fifteen years.
The main prizes
One statistic not threatened this year was the 11-year old race record. However, 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.
Time for reflection
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.
Alan Green, a British sailor living in Malta in the late 1960s, one of the race’s co-founders, was invited to be part of this year’s celebrations. “Seeing 130 boats today is a dream come true,” he observed at one of the many special events organised for this year’s celebrations.
“When we started this race I was in no doubt that the formula was right. In one of the first press releases I wrote in 1968, and perhaps owing to the impetuous nature of youth, we already gave the race the title ‘a classic’. This is a title it richly deserves today.”
By the time that first race came around, the toll of organising and promoting the event, involving some 50 different bodies, had squeezed almost all of Green’s energy. Following the race start on 30 November 1968, Green, who insisted upon taking part, recalls sleeping for much of the first 200-nautical miles.
Once rested he helped drive Sandettie to third place overall. Ripard, approaching his 90th birthday, reflects on how times have changed: “When you go off on a race today, you can press a button and know exactly where you are, how fast you are going, what the course is exactly. In those days it was a question of monitoring and logging your move every half an hour or so. Your course, your calculated speed. The difference between then and now is astronomical.”
What remains true of the first race and today’s is the wild beauty of the racecourse. Originally a clockwise route around Sicily, today it 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,” added George 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.”
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.
A time for celebration
Another of the invited guests, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston returned to Malta, thirty-eight years after he completed the race. His one appearance in 1970 came just eighteen months after his ground-breaking solo non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. Observing this year’s race start from Saluting Battery, Valletta, Knox-Johnston commented: “Everyone thinks it is the strong winds which are difficult. Sailing when there is no wind, that’s when the skills come in. That is why this is such an attractive race, because you get that combination.”
Fittingly, Knox-Johnston is also celebrating a golden anniversary of his own in 2018. His world-girdling adventure having started on 14 June, 1968. A legendary achievement for which his trusted navigational aide was a Rolex timepiece, the very reward bestowed on Trentesaux for winning the Rolex Middle Sea Race fifty years later. It is indeed, a significant year for yachting anniversaries.
No races were held from 1984 to 1995 so, although this was the 50th anniversary of the race, it actually marked the 39th edition. The 40th Rolex Middle Sea Race takes place next year, starting on Saturday, 19 October. And, undoubtedly, more stories of passion, skill and determination will be recorded in the history of this classic race.
Malta=Sara Grant, Howard Jungchan Lee
Photo: Howrard Jungchan Lee, Rolex