Rolex Middle Sea Race gets underway, with Rambler 88 and the MOD70s Maserati and Phaedo3 aiming for line honours

The Rolex Middle Sea Race got underway this morning, with 107 yachts setting out from Valetta’s impressive harbour in a light easterly on their first reaching leg towards Capo Passero on the southern tip of Sicily.

Although initial forecasts were that the 2016 race will not be a particularly fast year, just four hours after the start the MOD70 Maserati were showing boat speeds of 30 knots on the race tracker as they approached Sicily, with Rambler 88 first of the monohulls sailing at around 19 knots. Getting through the wind shadow of Mount Etna before nightfall can give the big boats a major advantage in the overall standings, as they are able to carry the sea breeze past Sicily before reaching the tidally tricky Messini Straits.

The start of the Rolex Middle Sea Race ©Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

The start of the Rolex Middle Sea Race ©Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

The existing race record was set by Rambler 90 in 2007 of just under 48 hours, in what was an extreme year that saw windspeeds exceeding 50 knots. Traditionally, however, the Middle Sea Race is a predominately light winds affair, usually with one or two more punishing days thrown in for the smaller boats over the 608-mile course. This year is no exception, with a sirocco wind forecast to bring 30-knot gusts by Tuesday across the Straits of Sicily.

The Middle Sea Race was intended to be the MOD70 Maserati’s first race test in foiling mode. However, on her way to Malta just five days before the start the MOD70 collided with something– the crew suspect a large fish rather than a rigid container – which ripped off the starboard rudder and much of the starboard steering gear including the bearings and rudder arm. Undeterred, ebullient skipper Giovanni Soldini and crew have made some rapid repairs and are setting off on the Middle Sea Race with an unconventional set-up.

Formerly Gitana XV Edmond de Rothschild, Maserati is the first MOD70 that was modified for foiling, and before the collision was already sailing with an asymmetric set up (the conventional MOD70 C-foil to port, with an L-foil in the starboard float, T-foil rudders, and a central T-foil daggerboard).

“The boat never had the L-foil in the left,” explains Soldini. “We’ve had three months on this foil, and we wanted to try the boat and try the foil before we buy the second one because it’s very expensive!

“Basically on starboard tack the foil was always the original MOD foil, on port tack the foil was the L-foil, with the T-rudder like this one. But now we don’t have any of the T-rudder left, so we cannot use the foil. And we cannot put the starboard rudder here because they are not symmetrical.”

Maserati’s repaired starboard rudder

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The remaining port T-foil rudder

With the loss of the starboard T-foil rudder, for the Middle Sea Race the crew have replaced the starboard foil with a conventional ‘non-flying’ foil, but retaining the port T-foil rudder and C-foil. They also still have the shortened winged daggerboard. In effect they have added underwater drag to the boat by having T-foils, whilst no longer having any foiling capability, which could make for an interesting contest with Phaedo3. Going into the first evening, Phaedo3 just had the edge.

“Obviously it [the T-foil dagger] is very useful when we fly with the rudder foil,” explains Soldini, “But in this situation is not so good because the daggerboard is short and the wetted surface area is a lot, so it’s a pity! Especially in light airs, it will for sure be a big handicap.” However, the team were expecting stronger breezes by the time the MOD70s arrived on the western edge of Sicily, with around a 25-knot beat.

MASERATI, ITA0000, Giovanni Soldini ©Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

MASERATI, ITA0000, Giovanni Soldini ©Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

Elsewhere, the Infiniti 46 is another new foiling design which will using the Middle Sea Race as a first major test, after a first trial in the Palermo Montecarlo which saw a few teething problems come to light that the team have been working to iron out.

Maverick is sailing with just seven crew for the Rolex Middle Sea, relying on her DSS-enabled system for righting moment. I took a sneaky peek around her before she set off and was impressed by the sheer aggression of what is really quite a compact boat, with her large bowsprit and fierce chines, as well as packing in the additional technology of a canting keel and daggerboard and the curved foils.

Down below she is minimal in the extreme, with huge attention given to reducing weight wherever possible – even down to a line-based throttle system – and virtually no interior. The team say they need 10-15 knots in order to maximise benefit from the DSS system, so will be hoping for the top end of the forecast for the Middle Sea Race.

Other boats to watch for include Artie, a Maltese J/122 which has twice won IRC overall in the race, and two TP52s – a design which has a strong track record in the event. There is also a 10-boat double-handed contingent, including everything from a Dufour 34 to the Farr 45 Werewolf, not often thought of as a double-handed weapon of choice.

RAMBLER, USA25555, George David. ©Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

RAMBLER, USA25555, George David. ©Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

Rambler 88 has set their eyes on line honours with her big-name crew that includes Erle Williams, Brad Jackson and navigator Andrew Cape. The boat is sailing with a lighter set up than last year and have also opted for a reduced downwind sail wardrobe for a boost to their rating.

See our up-close look at George David’s Rambler 88 last year here http://www.yachtingworld.com/yachts-and-gear/extraordinary-boats-rambler-88-winning-races-opposite-sides-world-70817

Follow the Rolex Middle Sea race tracker at http://rolexmiddlesearace.com/tracker/#pt

PHAEDO^3, Lloyd Thornburg, Skipper, at the start of the 2016 Middle Sea Race. ©Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

PHAEDO^3, Lloyd Thornburg, Skipper, at the start of the 2016 Middle Sea Race. ©Rolex/Kurt Arrigo