Greek victory in the lap of the gods

With one quarter of the fleet now comfortably berthed in Manoel Island Marina opposite the Maltese capital of Valletta, the tension is rising over who will win the Rolex Middle Sea Race on handicap. Between the three maxis that finished on Wednesday, the German-owned Black Dragon has won under IRC, ahead of Damiani Our Dream and Alfa Romeo.

But overall at present it is the exceptional Greek Farr 52, Optimum 3 of joint owners Nikos Lazos and Pericles Livas that is leading. The team set the tone from the outset arriving first at the St Paul’s Bay mark and remaining with the substantially larger maxi-boats all the way up the east coast of Sicily. Significantly they got a jump on the rest of the fleet, passed through the Strait of Messina on the same tide as the maxis and half way round the course were still up with Damiani and Black Dragon.

Unlike the maxi boat crews, the crew of Optimum 3 are all amateur sailors from Athens with the exception of their tactician and coach, British sailor Eddie Warden-Owen. But they take their racing seriously having trained throughout the summer including an offshore session in 35 knots prior to coming to Malta. This summer the team, sponsored by Wash & Go shampoo, won Greece’s top offshore race, the Aegean Sea Rally.

Like the maxis they too experienced big conditions overnight on Tuesday. Wisely they had decided to drop their spinnaker before the storm hit. “It just blew and the boat was flying. It was doing over 25 knots with just the main and storm jib,” said Warden-Owen, adding that the speedo seemed to be reading less than the speed shown on the GPS.

Pericles Livas said as the wind increased they had dropped the mainsail and at the peak he had seen 52 knots of wind on the instruments. “Nothing would have prepared for what happened,” continued Warden-Owen. “Lightning was just all over the place and while the guys were trying to get the mainsail down one crash came really close.”

Optimum 3 crossed the finish line off Valletta at 16:25:01 local time Wednesday and at present is leader on corrected time under IRC.

Another race favourite Chris Bull’s J/145 Jazz, arrived at 02:11:39 yesterday morning (Thursday), but just outside of Optimum 3’s time and currently second overall on corrected time.

“It was a very difficult race,” commented Jazz’s navigator Mike Broughton. “We parked on the first day, we parked on the second day, we parked three times on the third day and three times on the fourth day. But that is one of the great things about this race – it is so difficult with big lumps of lime stone and volcanos around the race course and the challenge of working out the fluid dynamics of how to get around the next rock are big.”

Further to the north than the maxis on Tuesday night they saw 38 knots of wind in which they achieved the boat’s fastest speed ever of 24.5 knots with three time Olympic medallist Rodney Pattisson at the wheel.

A faster speed was achieved on the former Volvo Ocean 60 Kvaerner Innovation of Peter Hopps and Hilary Cook. “Around Pantalleria we hurtled off and saw 27.6 knots,” described Hopps. “We covered 38 miles in two hours – then we thought we should put a reef in.” However, their progress came to a halt when their mainsail fell to the deck after the piece of mast track holding the sail’s headboard broke off the mast. From then on they were forced to sail with one reef in the mainsail.

This year’s Rolex Middle Sea Race was a rather different experience on the plush Swan 62RS Constanter of American Willem Mesdag, that finished at 09:19:35 this morning. Compared to the stripped out racing machines, Constanter has a well appointed interior complete with microwave, deep freeze and tumble drier and featured a professional chef among the crew. The crew experienced a tough blow during the race when, with their red wine stock dwindling, the kitchen were forced to supply boeuf bourginon made with beer instead.

However their race was not a leisurely cruise, says crewman Campbell Field. “She’s got all the mod cons, but we were peeling and changing jibs just as hard as anyone else was. We ran a watch system with a person changing watch every hour. We were eating boeuf bourginon, but it was out of dog bowls on deck. For us we wanted to do as well as we could, we wanted to race the boat competitively, but it was also an adventure.”

While Optimum 3 is the present leader under IRC handicap, there are two boats still to finish – the German Elan 37 O2 of Sonke Stein and the Italian J/109 Fremito d’Arja of Dario Levi- who could topple the Greek yacht on handicap.