The Russian Transpac 52 took line honours against the 78ft Italian Maxi in the Malta Rolex Cup 20/10/06

The Rolex Middle Sea Race is set to go tomorrow, Saturday 21 October, and the Russians are on form. On Wednesday this week the Russian Transpac 52 Rusal Synergy took another victory in the final coastal race of the two-race inshore series, the Malta Rolex Cup.

Alexei Nikolaev’s crew enjoyed an incredible boat-for-boat contest against the 78-foot Reichel/Pugh Maxi yacht, Damiani Our Dream, and the smaller yacht nudged across the finish line ahead of the Italian Maxi after almost five hours of close racing.

The Volvo Open 70 ABN AMRO ONE crossed the line a few minutes earlier, but not by the sort of margin worthy of such a powerful yacht. The light to moderate breezes were never likely to suit this ocean-going beast, but the real problem was breaking the start line too early as the fleet sailed out of Marsamxett Harbour in the morning. A second sound signal told the fleet that one or more boats had started early, but it took a full 15 minutes of upwind sailing before skipper Sébastien Josse spun the wheel of ABN AMRO ONE back towards the line.

By the time the VO70 restarted the Maxi and TP52 were almost over the horizon, and it took until the halfway point of the race, the turning point at the small isle of Filfla, before ABN AMRO ONE finally pulled clear of the duelling yachts.

Top Maltese yacht in the race was First 45F5 Elusive, owned by Arthur Podesta, the only man to have competed in all 26 editions of the Rolex Middle Sea Race since it was first held in 1968.

Local J/125 Strait Dealer started the race today, but David Franks turned back towards Marsamxett Harbour after less than an hour’s racing. “We were just checking a few things out today,” said the skipper. “We’ve done a lot of training and testing in the build-up to the Rolex Middle Sea Race, so we didn’t feel the need to do the whole race today.” The carbon-fibre 41-footer won the race in 2001, although Franks acknowledges there is some tough competition in this year’s record entry of 72 yachts, not least from the enormous SuperMaxis such as Alfa Romeo, Thuraya Maximus and Morning Glory.

However, winning the race remains a distinct possibility for Strait Dealer. Skipper David Franks said: “I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. There is a strong lottery element to the weather, so if things go our way then we stand a chance.” Franks would prefer strong Mistral winds to help lift the boat into planing mode, when the J/125 is capable of speeds up to 26 knots, a phenomenal pace for a 41-footer. “Unfortunately the forecast looks like it’s shaping up to be similar to last year,” he said. “I just hope that forecast is wrong.” In last year’s 608-mile race, the wind disappeared and Strait Dealer was the only Maltese boat to finish.

The X-40 XL, owned by Simon Camilleri, is another local contender worth watching. Skipper Timmy Camilleri has won the race four times, the first occasion in 1982 when he was just 18 years old, then in 1995 and two consecutive victories in 2001 and 2002. He is relieved to see such a large entry this year. Timmy Camilleri said: “We thought maybe that last year’s race would dent the reputation of the Rolex Middle Sea Race, but now we see more boats coming here than ever before. It’s getting a name as quite an intriguing race,” Skipper Camilleri works as a doctor in Malta and said: “You get people who never show any interest in sailing all year, until this week when they will look out for the results and follow the race on the internet. Everyone in Malta knows someone who’s doing the race. When I do my housecalls I get people wishing me good luck.”

Camilleri is well prepared but says the competition is tougher than ever. “The race is getting more difficult to win with a conventional boat, because of all the hi-tech, carbon fibre boats that are coming now. They are so fast they can create their own wind, but having said that anything can happen in this race. We have as good a chance as anyone.”

The Rolex Middle Sea Race 2006 starts from Marsamxett Harbour, Malta, on Saturday 21 October 2006.