The 44th Rolex Middle Sea Race fleet was sent on its way today. The start of a 606 nautical mile adventure around Sicily and back to the finish in Malta.

110 yachts representing 26 nations crossed the start line, their 1000 plus crew from close to 50 countries fired up and ready for whatever lies ahead. An already mixed weather forecast played hardball, with each class experiencing often wildly different conditions during their start. The most important detail, though, was that all yachts left Grand Harbour safely. The 2023 Rolex Middle Sea Race is underway.

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By 1600 CEST, the MOD70 Limosa with its stellar crew led by The Famous Project founder Alexia Barrier was making great strides north. Parallel with Syracuse having passed through the transit point at Capo Passero, some 55 nautical miles into the race, at 1430 CEST the French trimaran was trucking along at 20 knots. The other two multihulls were doing their best, but such is the power of Limosa, Jacopo Bracco’s American Banuls 53 Finn is already some 50nm in arrears, with Aldo Fumagalli’s Italian Rapido 40 Adamas a further 12 miles back. Hitting speeds of 30 knots or more at times, Barrier and her crew had been fair licking along, possibly benefiting from the wind reality being different to that predicted. While the forecast north westerly continued its approach into the course area, it was slower than expected and the eastern seaboard of Sicily had enjoyed an unexpected strong southerly.

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In the monohull fleet, the highest rated yacht, the 27m Lucky owned by Bryan Ehrhart (and former five-time line honours winner Rambler 88), was leading on the water, but only just ahead of Pyewacket 70. Roy P. Disney’s modified Volvo 70 made a bold move just over an hour into the race to separate from the other maxis and go north of the rhumb line, presumably to get to the correct side of a wind shift. Taking a hitch to the west, which seemed to be adding distance to the course, Pyewacket 70 was soon heading direct at Capo Passero matching Lucky for speed, but with less ground to cover. With about 15nm to the transit on the southeast corner of Sicily, Lucky held slender lead over her American counterpart seven miles to the west, with the yachts matched for speed. Last year’s line honours winner Leopard 3 was just behind Lucky, with Bullitt and Paprec Sailing Team (Spirit of Malouen X) off the starboard hip.

Among the IRC 2 competitors, the German Carkeek 47 Störtebekker led by Katrina Westphal, one of eight female skippers in the race, also made a move northwest, while the rest of the class continued to the northeast. Roll forward two and a half hours, and the group was almost back together, with Störtebekker’s move having been less effective than Pyewacket’s. On the water, Max Klink’s Botin 52 Caro from Switzerland had the edge and was leading the Italian Mylius 60 Cippa Lippa X and the Hungarian Reichel/Pugh 60 Wild Joe. According to the race tracker, James Neville’s Ino Noir, launched in 2023 and on her second 600 mile classic of the season, was leading in class and overall. With 550nm still to go, it will have been a nice fillip to be doing so well early on, but no one onboard will be taking anything for granted.

The two Ker 46s, the French Daguet 3 and Italian Lisa R have made an extraordinary start to the race and four hours in were ahead of supposedly faster boats.  Although all boats in the class have remained south of the rhumb line, those that kept closest have done well. The Swedish Ker 40 Swee, with another female skipper – Birgitta Elfversson – was holding the IRC 3 class lead over Maltese entry Artie III on IRC time correction according to the tracker.

Again, according to the tracker, the Podesta family’s two-time race winning First 45 Elusive II from Malta was the IRC 4 leader ahead of the Arkas Sailing Team racing the MAT1220 Blue Moon from Turkey. Elusive II leads for now, but the Turkish team skippered by Serhat Altay was showing faster on the water and was eating away at the lead. Andrew and Sam Hall’s British J/125 Jackknife was going well, locking horns on the water with Conor Doyle’s X-50 Freya from Ireland.

Two JPK 1180s were battling it out at the top of the IRC 5 leaderboard. Per Roman’s Garm from Sweden and Richard Fromentin’s Cocody from France were leading the class on the water and after IRC time correction. Roman on Garm reported in that: “We had a great start to the race despite the light winds, and are now in a close fight with Cocody. It’s a long way to go, though.” Two Maltese yachts were disputing third place. Jamie Sammut’s Solaris 42 Unica was the only team north of the rhumb line, with Jonathan Gambin’s Dufour 44 Ton Ton Laferla within sight of her countrymen.

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Among the smallest and slowest yachts in the race, Guido Baroni’s Italian Sun Fast 3600 Lunatika had made a great start to the race to lead IRC 6 on the water and after time correction. Just a few minutes behind was Seb Ripard’s J/99 Calypso from Malta, racing double-handed with Sam Pizzuto. Calypso was the only boat in this group north of the rhumb line. The class leaders were about 25 miles from Capo Passero, which they should pass after sunset.

The weather forecast for the start had been confusing on Friday night, and as the race began to unfold on Saturday morning the confusion only heightened. The air was warm, but the sky overcast and laden with moisture. The multihulls set off with the wind from appearing to be from the south in the first part of the start area and from the north by the time Limosa was halfway down the harbour. The MOD70 put on a display of raw sail power taking off and leaving the two more cruising-oriented trimarans in her wake, as she sped down Grand Harbour clearing the breakwaters at the entrance without breaking stride.

Ten minutes later and promising conditions were turned on their head as two gradient winds fought it out for supremacy and left the start line virtually windless for the two biggest departures of the day. The Croatian Sun Fast 3300 Munjek RS skippered by Dusko Tomic certainly made the best of the first monohull start and led the way out alongside George Greer’s American entry Kiboku Tatu which, despite Greer’s protestations ahead of the start about being a fully Corinthian crew, had put on a truly professional display. The wind then really began to drop off and the third start was delayed for 10 minutes. Worse still it started to rain. Not heavily or enough to dampen spirits on the crowded bastions, but enough raise concerns about where things were heading. The Comet 45S Timeriesci made the best of it to exit first.

The pair of Swan 42s, Valentin Oeru’s Lions Story from Romania and Renzo Grottesi’s Bewild from Italy were able to clear the pack in the next start, as the rain began to clear, and the sun made an effort to poke through. The wind was still light, but enough to keep the group moving throughout. The next start saw the French Ker 46 Daguet 3 do well at the Fort St. Angelo or pin end of the line, and hang on to exit ahead of Lisa R. The penultimate start was in fresher breeze and the Italian Neo 570 Carbonita skippered by Monolis Kondylis made an unexpected, but impressive jump from the line at the Valletta side, matching the slightly bigger and more experienced, in terms of the Grand Harbour, Marton Josza’s Wild Joe from Hungary. Bob Pethick in the American Cookson 50, Testacuore Race, also made an impressive debutante start.

Reserved for the largest and fastest monohulls, the last start was a wholly impressive affair. The breeze had filled in and the maxis fair leapt off the line. Lucky made a conservative departure, but was soon using its powerful sail plan, including a massive masthead 0, and its canting keel to launch up the harbour, bow lifting and overhauling anyone with the temerity to have hit the line earlier. It was a dramatic and spine-tingling conclusion to the start procedures and surely merely an hors d’ oeuvre for what is to follow.

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