Stormy conditions cause havoc in the Med with man overboard, wipe outs and ripped sails

After days of little or no wind, last night the Mediterranean Sea to the west of Malta became reminiscent of a scene from the Old Testament as a massive thundercloud complete with 50 knot gusts, hailstones and sheet lightning wreaked havoc on the Rolex Middle Sea Race fleet.

“It was like the Doldrums, with more lightning than I’ve ever seen,” described Magnus Woxen, an experienced Swedish round-the-world racer and Black Dragon helmsman, of the wind that would rise dramatically from single figures to 30 or even 50 knots in a matter of minutes sending the crew scrabbling to drop sails.

Worst affected by the conditions was Neville Crichton’s Alfa Romeo. Sailing under Code Zero in the pitch black last night the wind increased to 12 knots and the crew had furled the powerful headsail and were half way through dropping it when a 30 knot gust came through. The furled sail began to writhe around on deck, six crewmen unable to control it and the last to hang on to it, America’s Cup grinder John Macbeth, one of the beefiest guys on the Kiwi maxi, was tossed overboard like a rag doll.

Macbeth was recovered after 12 minutes in the water. “The guys on the boat all knew what to do and I had full confidence in them. They did a great job,” Macbeth said later. “When I was in the water, I kicked off my shoes and wet weather gear and waited for them to come back. All credit to them, they picked me up very quickly and I never really felt in danger at any time.”

More drama was to come two hours later for the Alfa Romeo team when sailing along in 8 knots the wind suddenly piped up to 30 and then 58 knots, knocking the boat flat under full mainsail and furled Code Zero.

“It was very quick,” recounted owner Neville Crichton. “We tried to run with it, but it was hopeless and we lost control and it went straight over. The boom and the rig was in the water and dragged it sideways. It took us 15 minutes to get back upright on its feet and probably another three hours after that to tidy the boat up and get everything operating. In the crash we destroyed the mainsail which was Aus$150,000 and two spinnakers, so it was a $200,000 fall over.”

On Black Dragon they were more fortunate. Rounding the island of Lampedusa and the final turning mark of the Rolex Middle Sea Race they broke the top batten in their mainsail and pulled into the lee of the island to drop the mainsail and replace it. “Just as we did that all hell broke lost,” described racing skipper Jesper Radich. “Hail, 46 knots of wind and we were doing 20 knots of speed downwind under jib. Fortunately it wasn’t chaos on the boat. We had Magnus [Woxen] on the helm and we continued with only the jib on for two and half hours averaging 12 knots.”

Earlier Black Dragon had also experienced a full wipe-out as they tried to drop their 370sqm heavy spinnaker in a 39 knot gust. In typically Doldrums-like conditions the wind then dropped to just 8 knots. En route back towards Malta and the finish line the breeze picked up to 25-28 knots and Radich said they had experienced near perfect blast reaching conditions, boat speed hovering around the 23 knot mark.

For the Italian maxi Damiani Our Dream the conditions were no less extreme. Vasco Vascotto said: “I started this regatta aged 35 and now I feel like I am 62 – the lightning helped me with that,” after last night’s incredible display of sheet lightning.

In the big conditions they broke the foreguy – holding the spinnaker pole away from the forestay – on three occasions. Damage to the Italian maxi occurred as they were approaching Lampedusa in marginal conditions. “Whenever I said ‘ready to drop’ the wind went down,” recounted Vascotto. “And after three hours of that, we had 55 knots and it was too late.” They attempted to drop the mainsail and in the process created a 3m tear in the leach (the back of the sail) and another big T-shape rip in the body of the sail. They spent five hours with the mainsail down below repairing it and were able to rehoist it for the final hours of the race.

Alfa Romeo cruised across the finish line within Marsamxett Harbour at 10:01:49 local time her mainsail’s leech hanging off and three of its five battens broken. She was followed by Black Dragon just half an hour later at 10:32:25 and Damiani Our Dream at 14:07:36.

The Greek Farr 52 Optimum 3 of Nikos Lavos and Pericles Livas arrived at 16.25.01 and currently leads overall on IRC handicap.