Sixty-eight professional and corinthian entries set off for Sicily in the Rolex Middle Sea Race 23/10/06

Saturday 21 October saw the only doublehanded team in the Rolex Middle Sea Race lead the 68-strong fleet out of Marsamxett Harbour on a beautiful sunny morning in Malta. The 34-foot J/105 Slingshot, raced by British duo Shaun Murphy and Ric Searle, shot out of the first of six staggered starts and led her division comfortably around the Rolex turning mark at Tigne Point, just under a mile out of the start.

The Harbour startline with its spectacular backdrop is narrow and so the race committee phased the fleet into six divisions, starting with the smallest and graduating up to the Maxis who started 50 minutes after the likes of Slingshot.

The Maxi start was one of the closest, with Paul Cayard steering Thuraya Maximus into pole position, crossing the line less than two seconds after the 25-pound field guns, operated by the Armed Forces of Malta, sent the last of the fleet on its way. Alfa Romeo is regarded as the most potent SuperMaxi in the world and despite a slightly more conservative start, Neville Crichton’s boat had already drawn level with Thuraya Maximus by the Rolex buoy. An hour after starting Alfa Romeo had eked out a half-mile lead on the other SuperMaxi. Indeed the sleek 100-footer had overhauled every other yacht in the fleet, even those that started 50 minutes earlier, some 6 miles after the St Paul’s Bay turning mark.

As the boats headed away from Malta, the wind built up to 20 knots and propelled the fleet along at high speed on a broad reach towards Sicily.

Mike Sanderson, skipper of the Volvo Open 70 ABN AMRO ONE, commented before the start: “It’s not looking good for an ABN AMRO victory. The Rolex Middle Sea Race was never in our design brief for this boat, and VO70s really aren’t special in 7 knots of breeze. We need breeze. On this course Alfa Romeo is the undisputed favourite. Neville has done a fantastic job with his campaign. The boat is very narrow, with a big rig. She’s a rocketship in light airs.” Cayard admitted much the same, saying that Thuraya Maximus would need strong winds to stand a hope of beating Alfa Romeo around the 608-mile course.

The pre-race favourite Alfa Romeo seized the lead soon after the start but Neville Crichton spent the first night locked in a close battle with two other canting-keeled SuperMaxis, Morning Glory and Thuraya Maximus.

After a day of good wind, which sped the 68-boat fleet away from Malta towards Sicily at record-breaking pace, the breeze became a good deal more fitful as the fleet edged its way up the eastern coast of Sicily yesterday, Sunday 22 October.

Bouwe Bekking reported from Hasso Plattner’s 86-footer Morning Glory: “We were within half a mile of each Alfa Romeo and Thuraya Maximus, in a bit of a park-up. Alfa sailed for the Sicilian coast, we chose the mainland coast. Alfa found a puff of wind and they disappeared over the horizon, and we did the same to Maximus. Alfa could be 20 miles ahead of us now. It looks like a case of the rich getting richer.”

However, being 14 feet shorter in length than her two 100-foot rivals, this represents excellent progress for the German yacht Morning Glory. Bekking was predicting a slow but steady day of progress along the northern coast of Sicily. The breeze is from the south-south-west right now,” he commented just before noon yesterday. “We expect it to move round to the west, so we will stay on port tack as long as we can until the wind shifts, then we’ll flop on to starboard. We’re expecting 5 to 10 knots of wind all day, so it won’t be that fast.”

Alfa Romeo rounded Stromboli, the active volcano which marks the most northerly point of the 608-mile course, just after 1100 yesterday morning, with Morning Glory around 15 miles astern with Thuraya Maximus another 5 miles back. Lying in 4th place was Volvo Open 70 ABN AMRO ONE, and then a gaggle of yachts that includes last year’s winner Atalanta II, the Irish Cookson 50 Chieftain and two Swan 601s.

Chieftain skipper Gerard O’Rourke reported a north-westerly wind direction – very different to Bekking’s reading aboard the German SuperMaxi – and which would confirm Bekking’s belief that currently the ‘rich are getting richer’. However, for a 50-foot yacht O’Rourke is keeping very good company, with the 70-foot Atalanta II just half a mile ahead and the 60-foot Swan Moneypenny about a mile and a half behind.

The match race between Moneypenny and the other Swan 601 Spirit of Jethou has continued since the start, although the Americans currently hold the advantage. Moneypenny’s navigator Mark Rudiger reported: “We’re inching our way up the hill. Jethou is about 5 miles behind. It was good to have the breeze Saturday, a bit more than we expected, and the direction was surprisingly southerly. But the wind has been off and on all night. We got a little breeze until dawn and then it died.”

While the larger yachts have made it through the challenging Strait of Messina relatively easily, the bulk of the fleet has yet to negotiate this narrow and very tidal stretch of water. Spirit of Jethou made it through early Sunday morning, and it wasn’t easy, according to navigator Nat Ives, “Messina was very tricky with heaps of counter-current and ferries everywhere. Anyhow we did a mediocre job of it and got through OK. Our merry band of yachts is now all within a mile and we are on course to Volcano No.2, Stromboli.” Ives was pleased to have closed up again a little on Moneypenny, but concerned to find the smaller boats profiting from the fickle conditions. “Congratulations must go to the few smaller boats who obviously found good breeze offshore in the night and are near us in the morning – especially the guys on our little sister ship, Swan 45 DSK Comifin. Great to see them doing so well – if a little annoying!”

With the lack of wind, the smaller and slower yachts in particular will be relying on favourable currents to wash them through. At least the slow progress has given sailors ample chance to watch bright orange lava oozing down the steep sides of a fulminating Mount Etna, thought to be a fairly inactive volcano but which appears to have fired up for the Rolex Middle Sea Race.

Nat Ives commented: “The scenery Saturday night was very impressive with a big streak of glowing lava flowing down the side of Etna whilst listening to what we think were bats pinging their echoes off our sails. Very strange to see the lava pointing straight towards the houses and industry below and to think about the people who live every day in the shadow of this imposing threat.”

Skipper of the Maltese Grand Soleil 40 Aziza, Sandro Musu was equally awestruck by this show of strength from the volcano: “The lava flowing down Etna’s slopes was a magnificent sight. It seems that this volcano never gives up showing off. After the spectacular start of yesterday and a fantastic crossing to Sicily, we have had a moonless night with dolphins, perfectly clear sky with millions of stars, lots of shooting stars, lots of phosphorescent plankton in the sea. We have had wind conditions ranging from zero to 20 knots of wind. Up to now we have already completed 23 sail changes. We are becalmed in front of Taormina and heading slowly for the straits of Messina. The wind is calm, the sea flat, and the sun is shining.”

At 1600 CET yesterday approximately two thirds of the fleet had passed through the Straits of Messina. The Italian entrant Aquaranta is lying in last place halfway up the eastern seaboard of Sicily. With around 380 miles to go the record remains in sight of Alfa Romeo, but the average speed that needs to be maintained is creeping over 10 knots.