The TP52 Patches suffers keel problems during Rolex Middle Sea Race warm-up

Boats competing in Saturday’s Rolex Middle Sea Race had the opportunity to take part in the first of two warm-up race in the Malta Rolex Cup yesterday. As usual the start took place on the Royal Malta Yacht Club’s line, in the unique setting of Marsamxett Harbour under the huge fortified walls of the Maltese capital Valletta and the Yacht Club base on Manoel Island.

In the first start it was the Russian entry Synergy which made the best job of the gusty conditions within the harbour. They were followed 10 minutes later by the bigger boats and this time Eamon Conneely’s TP52 Patches and Pieter Vroon’s new 56 footer Formidable3 both hit the line at speed.

In north-easterly winds of 10-15 knots, the course took the boats out to sea and then clockwise halfway around Malta to Filfla Island on the south side of Malta. Patches, with double Olympic Gold medalist Shirley Robertson at the wheel, led around the first mark but soon after was forced to retire with what skipper Ian Walker later described as “keel problems”. Patches has since been hauled out of the water for repair and will be racing Saturday but not in the second race of the Malta Rolex Cup today.

Patches out of the race, left the field open to Formidable3 and the yellow-hulled Volvo Ocean 60 AAG Big One from Croatia. The two boats match raced round the course, Formidable3 ahead until the two boats bore off on to a reach when the Croatian boat pulled ahead. Once spinnakers were hoisted, Formidable3 took a narrow lead which she retained to the finish, taking line honours. However, in the end it was the Czech Republic entry Richard Vojta’s Bohemia Express who took handicap honours in Class 1.

The smaller class was won by the Beneteau 45F5 Elusive, sailed by local legend Arthur Podesta, who is the only person to have competed in all 26 Rolex Middle Sea Races. Elusive finished ahead of the Russians on their new Grand Soleil Synergy, and also took the overall IRC prize. “We won and I hope we keep this up for the rest of the regatta,” said Podesta, who is competing with his regular crew including his three children.

For Maltese sailors, the 400 per cent increase in entries over the last five years, including the return of many heavyweight sailing teams from overseas, has made winning the Rolex Middle Sea Race all the harder.

Malta’s Beneteau agent Alfred Manduca, who skippers his First 47.7 Allegra welcomes the competition but says it is hard for local teams to keep up. “The most we can do is improve our skills and our sails, but to change our boats every other year is difficult and very expensive – we are a small country and we don’t have the resources.”

Manduca attributes the dramatic increase in entries in the Rolex Middle Sea Race to the Swiss watch manufacturer’s involvement and their advertising of the event as well as the endeavours of the main committee at the Royal Malta Yacht Club and their Commodore Georges Bonello Dupuis.

This year Manduca will be competing with the young team he has been training up over recent years, including three who have been sailing with him for the last 10 years – since they were 13 – and his 14 year old daughter, Louisa, a keen Optimist sailor. “I have a committed team and teamwork is what it is all about. You can have a brilliant boat but without a brilliant team you might as well stay on the dock.”

On Saturday they will find themselves up against three other Beneteau 47.7s, another from Malta, and ones from Italy and Ireland. “We have finished second on two occasions in this race when the fleet was smaller. Now the competition is tougher”.

The Malta Rolex cup continues today with another coastal race. First start is at 1000 CET.

The Rolex Middle Sea Race 2005 starts from Marsamxett Harbour, Malta, on Saturday October 2005 at 1100 CET. The start will be broadcast live on TVM and EDUC in Malta, between 1030 and 1230.

The final prizegiving is at noon on 29 October in La Vallette Hall at the Mediterranean Conference Centre.

Robert McNeil (USA)’s Zephyrus IV holds the current Course Record of 64 hours 49 minutes and 57 seconds, established in 2000.