Steinlager II Mediterranean Bank Thuraya heads fleet through Strait of Messina

Conditions bearing little relation to the forecast, a handful of retirements and generally great progress have been the features of the first 24 hours of the 26th Rolex Middle Sea Race.

Having left the Maltese capital of Valletta on Saturday morning, the boats have made the crossing to Sicily and spent the night making their way up the east coast of Italy’s largest island towards the Strait of Messina. The Strait separates Sicily from the Italian mainland and is two miles wide at its narrowest.

The Whitbread maxi ketch Steinlager II Mediterranean Bank Thuraya passed through the Straits at between 08:30 and 09:00 local time yesterday morning, neck and neck with Carlo Puri Negri’s Farr 70 Atalanta II. They were followed by the Volvo Ocean 60 Amer Sport One around one hour later by Nick Lykiardopulo’s Ker 55 Aera and then Sir Peter Ogden’s Swan 601 Spirit of Jethou and the French Farr 52 Nabatea.

At around 1600 local time yesterday afternoon Steinlager II had pulled ahead and had completed the 38-mile leg north to Stromboli and its tiny neighbour Strombolicchio. “At the Strait of Messina, we went through with Atalanta, then Atalanta stopped just at the top of the Straits and we took the only puff and we go!” said Gaetano Granada, as his maxi Steinlager II was rounding Stromboli. “The problem is that Atalanta upwind is much faster than us and all through the Strait of Messina the wind was on the bow. Now we are all alright. Atalanta are behind, maybe by an hour.”

At the time the wind was a completely unforecast south-westerly, putting them once again on the wind en route to Palermo, but Granada anticipated that the wind would die that evening. The boat was in good shape except for some blown out sails and a broken halyard.

So far there have been four retirements in the Rolex Middle Sea Race: Sandro Cagnoni’s Qu Kal with mainsail damage, followed this morning by Daniele Abolaffio’s Rodman 42 Extasy and this afternoon by Riccardo Camia’s My Song. However, first to retire on Saturday night was Pieter Vroon’s new 56 footer Formidable3. The Dutch offshore race boat was only launched this July and at around 2300 suffered problems with her steering mechanism and rather than risk the boat further, the choice was made to retire. Formidable3 was back in Malta yesterday morning.

Boat captain, Freddie Hall described the conditions on Saturday night as being more lumpy than it should have been due to the wind and after the boats had had a good run up to Sicily in south-easterly breeze, a squall had passed over the fleet complete with thunder and lightning. On the other side of this the wind suddenly and unexpectedly filled in from the north-west. Putting the boats hard on the wind up to the Strait of Messina. It was after an hour of these conditions, while lying fourth on the water, that Formidable3 suffered her steering problem.

While a majority of boats hugged the coast of Sicily on the approach to the Strait of Messina, several boats headed a long way offshore, the extreme case being Willem Mesdag’s Swan 62RS Constanter. “We have sailed a few extra miles than the guys in front of us,” admitted her navigator Campbell Field. But the tactic paid and they passed through the Strait sixth on the water with the Croatian Volvo Ocean 60 AAG Big One. “We’ve just had a cup of tea and warm chocolate cake and every thing is very civilized on board. We blew the tack out of our light spinnaker yesterday afternoon. It is beyond repair, so I hope we aren’t going to have any light running conditions.”

The tide turned against the boats at 1230 local time yesterday and two of the last boats to make it through before then were the leading Maltese boat, David Franks’ J/125 Strait Dealer with America’s Cup sailor Chris Dougall on board as skipper and the Czech yacht Bohemia Express.

Further back, the race’s most capped competitor Arthur Podesta on the Beneteau 45F5 Elusive reported 17-knot headwinds approaching the Strait. “We’re moving well and ploughing through the waves. We’ve had a lot of sail changes since the start of the race, with lots of wind variations, but the crew is working hard and handling it well.” On board their fishing has been successful rewarding them with a lunch of fresh sushi and cooked tuna.

Robert McNeil (USA)’s Zephyrus IV holds the current Course Record of 64 hours 49 minutes and 57 seconds, established in 2000. To beat this record the first monohull will have to cross the finish line in Malta in the early hours of Tuesday (25 October) morning.

The final prize giving is at noon on 29 October in La Valette Hall at the Mediterranean Conference Centre.