The Rolex-sponsored Middle Sea Race started on Saturday from the Royal Malta YC in Valletta

The Rolex-sponsored Middle Sea Race started on Saturday from the Royal Malta YC in Valletta. The 607 nautical mile course is sailed anti-clockwise heading north along the eastern coats of Sicily to the Straits of Messina. Once through the Straits the course leads north to the Aeolian Islands and the active volcano of Stromboli where the yachts turn west to the Egadi Islands.

Passing between Marettimo and Favignana the fleet then heads south towards the island of Lampedusa leaving Pantelleria to port. Once past Lampedusa the fleet turns north-east on the final leg to the Comino Channel and the finish at Marsamxett Harbour, Valletta.

For some the dream seemed to be broken early at the start of this offshore classic. Primadonna, one of the foreign favourites for handicap victory found herself over early on the first start. By the time she had returned to the line and cleared her penalty, her main competition in Class 1, Market Wizard, (the J/109 crewed by local yachtsman John Ripard and part of last year’s winning crew) was fast approaching the first mark of the course, at the harbour entrance.

Oh-Jee, one of two J/105s was second to the turning mark where the fleet hardened up before a long beat up the coast towards St. Paul’s Bay and a final turning mark off Ghallis Point.

Class 2 started in the same north-westerly Force 3-4, but in a much more gentlemanly fashion. Strait Dealer, as befits her pedigree, was first away, showing the sort of form that won her line honours and both IMS and IRC in 2001. Local knowledge seemed to pay off as she favoured the Valletta end of the line, starting right beneath the 15th Century bastions of the city and the shadow of St. Paul’s bell tower. For the crowds gathered on the battlements in bright sunshine, it was a thrilling sight. Three starts over 20 minutes with the big boats of Class 3 held to the end.

And, they too did not disappoint. As the starting canon thundered across the harbour from the Royal Malta Yacht Club’s commanding position on Manoel Island, the custom 54ft Mr Fipps found herself not only over early but sandwiched between the Volvo 60 Nautor Challenge on one side and Tonnerre de Breskens on the other. The veteran navigator, Peter Bowker, proved that despite his 12 year absence from the race, he had lost none of his touch. The 52ft Tonnerre almost held Nautor Challenge to the harbour entrance before finally being overhauled by superior sail power.

Outside the harbour the wind was a steady north-westerly Force 4, but a swell had been developing all morning and this meant a hard ride for those boats that did not stay close to the shore. Those boats benefiting from experience and knowledge of the local conditions stayed close in and enjoyed slighter sea conditions and better wind.

Chris Bull’s Primadonna proved that the year spent in Malta and the experience gained in last year’s race has not been in vain. By Ghallis Point, the Prima 38 had picked off not just Oh-Jee and First Ever, the Beneteau 32f5, that had led her to the first mark, but she had also passed the talented crew of Market Wizard.

Reports last night showed that after almost 30 hours at sea the bulk of fleet had yet to pass through the notoriously difficult Straits of Messina. And with the prospect of the wind decreasing, the tidal gate at Messina may prove a critical factor in determining the outcome of this year’s race. Two boats have so far retired with gear failure including Softy, the French yacht who suffered a broken mast during the winds of the first night, and the Italian yacht, Flit. Another Italian yacht, Balue, had to offload a sick crew member at Acitrezza.

The wind north of Sicily is predicted to strengthen during the course of today (Monday) and swing to the north-west.