Record fleet of 63 entries from 13 nations

With less than two weeks to go until the start of the Rolex Middle Sea Race (22 October), the tally of boats entered has reached a record 63 – a marked improvement over last year’s 50-strong record fleet and numbers achieved in previous years.

Starting and finishing in Valletta’s ancient Marsamxett Harbour in Malta, the annual Rolex Middle Sea Race is considered the Mediterranean’s answer to other ‘classic’ offshore yacht races events such as the Rolex Fastnet and Rolex Sydney-Hobart Yacht Races.

After two days of inshore racing to get the fleet warmed up, the Rolex Middle Sea Race itself takes the boats around one of the most stunning courses on the yachting circuit – 607 miles anti-clockwise around Sicily, first north past Mount Etna and through the Straits of Messina, around the volcanic island of Stromboli, then west to the Egadi islands and Trapani at the north-western corner of Sicily, before heading south past Pantelleria, around the island of Lampedusa, close to the north African coast and back to Malta.

While the fleet has grown for 2005 it has also changed in profile. Following the line honours victories of Neville Crichton’s Alfa Romeo in the last two races, this year there are no 30m maxis – Charles Brown and Bill Buckley’s New Zealand sloop Maximus was forced to withdraw following her dismasting at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup last month.

This year the fleet has expanded particularly in the medium-large size range, mainly through the efforts of the Royal Malta Yacht Club, organiser of the Rolex Middle Sea Race, its strong volunteer base and the committee headed by Commodore, George Bonello Dupuis. “This year the fleet has increased particularly in the 50-80ft length range,” says Dupuis. “We have 16 entries in that section, but the largest entry list is between 38 and 48ft where we have 22 boats. So there may be fewer maxis, but there are more 50 and 60 footers and that is where the hottest competition will be.”

Also impressive this year is the number of different nations taking part – of the 63 boats competing, 13 countries are represented. While the largest groups are from Italy and Malta, the most far-flung entry is Schle Wood’s brand-new Italian-built Sleeker 45 cruiser racer, Pasaya, registered to the Royal Varuna Yacht Club in Thailand.

Fresh from their win at the Rolex Settimana Delle Bocche in Sardinia is the Russian entry Synergy, a Grand Soleil 40R launched this year. Owned by Valentin Zavadnikov, a Senator in the Russian parliament in Moscow, Synergy is skippered by Andrew Nikolaev and his tactician/boat manager brother Andrei, both from Saratov on the Volga River, whilst almost half the crew come from Vladivostok, at Russia’s easternmost tip. The team has been highly competitive this year with podium finishes at regattas all around Italy.

There are three entries from the USA – the large Swans Constanter and Favonius and the Oyster 53 Paul Gerard. Greece again has strong entries in George Vassilopoulos’ Brave, a Farr 520 and sistership to last year’s IRC handicap winner, Optimum 3 of Pericles Livas and Nikos Lazos. Also gunning hard for the Rolex Middle Sea Race trophy, to put alongside the one he already has for the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race, will be Anglo-Greek owner Nick Lykiardopulo and his team led by Jez Fanstone on the Ker 55, Aera.

From northern Europe are six yachts from the UK, including the 60ft Swans Fenix & Spirit of Jethou, as well as Irishman Eamon Conneely’s TP52 Patches, featuring Olympic medalists Shirley Robertson and Ian Walker in her crew. “I’m really looking forward to racing Patches in the Rolex Middle Sea Race,” said Conneely. “It’ll be our first major offshore race since the Rolex Fastnet and it looks like there should be some tough competition in our length range. It is also our last event before travelling to the US so we will be anxious to finish the season in Europe on the high we have maintained since our launch in June.”

Another boat having made the passage south is the new Formidable 3 belonging to Dutchman Piet de Vroon. A seasoned campaigner in offshore regattas around the world, de Vroon won the Rolex Fastnet aboard his previous boat Tonnerre of Breskens in 2001. He competed in the Rolex Middle Sea Race the following year. “We thought we’d won until all the small boats had come in. So we’ll have to try again. We enjoy the race and the results are secondary. When we did it last time Etna erupted. It was quite spectacular. We don’t go racing for the volcanoes, but it was something else.”

The Rolex Middle Sea Race 2005 starts from Marsamxett Harbour, Malta, on Saturday 22 October 2005 at 1100 CET. The Malta Rolex Cup, a two-race inshore series on the 19-20 October, precedes the main race.

Entries close on 15 October. The final prize giving is at noon on 29 October in La Valette 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.