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Valletta, 28 October 2017. An old adage in yacht racing dictates that to win a race, you first need to finish. A strenuous 38th edition of Rolex Middle Sea Race, held from 21-28 October, proved an emphatic case study. Of the 104 starters only 35 crossed the finish line off Valletta, Malta having successfully conquered the 606-nautical mile race’s challenging and diverse weather conditions.
Among the yachts to display these qualities were the race’s two standout success stories. The 38th Rolex Middle Sea Race, organized by the Royal Malta Yacht Club, was won overall by Bogatyr, a Russian-crewed JPK 10.80 and one of the smallest boats in the fleet. Ten years on from claiming the race’s triple crown of line honours, overall victory and race record, George David’s Rambler 88 was first to finish on the water for the third year running. Two notable performances duly rewarded at the final prizegiving with Rolex timepieces and a place in the history books.
In truth, all those who returned to Malta did so having shown resilience and determination in one of the more punishing editions of the race in recent years. For many of those who retired from the race, the decision to abandon was not simple given the time and commitment put into the race. Certainly, though, it was one based on seamanship and pragmatic sensibility.
OVERALL VICTORY: A RUSSIAN FIRST
A total of 14 Russian yachts started the race to the sound of the Saluting Battery cannons overlooking Grand Harbour, Valletta. The third most represented country on the Race start-line behind Italy and the United Kingdom; Russian crews have become an increasing presence at all of the world’s great 600-nm offshore races. Bogatyr’s triumph is easily the most significant to date.
Offshore racing can be a question of fine margins. The race, which saw the winning boat spend over 88 hours at sea, was decided by a mere six and a half minutes on corrected time. Second overall was James Blakemore’s all-South African crewed Music. His heavy-displacement Swan 53, perfectly suited to robust conditions, held leadership of the race for a few hours on the fourth day until her dreams evaporated following the performance of Igor Rytov and his crew. Gaining ground in the final 200 nm of the race down the west coast of Sicily, passing the islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa en route to Malta, Rytov was relentless in his pursuit.
“This was the toughest offshore race I’ve done by far,” offered Blakemore. “At one point, we picked up 45 knots in a squall near Lampedusa. The rain came down and it was surreal. The boat and crew responded very well. This is a magical race. We went into it with low expectations because… this is yacht racing.”
In the end, glory and history would belong to Rytov and the crew of Bogatyr. “I sailed as a young boy in Moscow, but only started racing again four years ago,” revealed Rytov. “This is the second time we have competed in the Rolex Middle Sea Race and we have also competed in the last two Rolex Fastnet Races. We try to sail the boat as fast and as hard as we can, pushing all the time. We knew we had a chance when we started the last leg of the race, and that gave us the energy for the final night.”
Konstantin Besputin, the boat’s tactician, echoed Rytov’s indication that the crew’s approach was uncompromising. “It’s a really hard, amazing race. We worked 24 hours non-stop and really pushed. We are proud to be the first Russian team to win in the race’s history. We are kind of heroes.”
Bogatyr is not only the first ever Russian winner, but the smallest yacht to win since 2002, the first year of Rolex’s partnership with the race, when the J/109 Market Wizard co-skippered by local sailors John Ripard Jr and Andrew Calascione claimed the overall title.
LINE HONOURS: A PERFECT RECORD
George David’s American Maxi Rambler 88 started off as favourite for line honours. Having finished first on the water in all three of her previous participations, David’s clear intent ahead of this edition was to maintain his perfect record. One glance at his crew list, revealing the names of Brad Butterworth and Dean Barker, gave an immediate indication of his ambition. Fresh from her success at the Rolex Fastnet, Rambler 88 faced a number of rivals for the line honours crown. Within 24 hours the field had been whittled down. Technical issues thwarted the respective chances of two Maxi 72s, Proteus and Momo. And, while the 100-ft Maxi Leopard provided Rambler with her closest opposition, in reality David had control from the start.
“It was a typical Rolex Middle Sea Race in that we parked for six hours at Stromboli like we always do!” laughed David. “The Mistral added an extra element this year and blew hard along the west coast of Sicily. In 2007 when we broke the race record it blew even harder. We saw mainly mid 30s and some 40s. It was exciting and certainly wet. Distance races in the Mediterranean can often be like this. They are rarely in between in terms of conditions. Here we had extremes of both.”
In claiming three straight Rolex Middle Sea Race line honours, Rambler 88 equals the record of Benbow (1975-77) and Esimit Europa 2 (2010-2012). David left no doubt that he would be back to attempt to better his record. “This is the best race course in the world. It’s already on our calendar for 2018.”
THE FLEET: COMPLEX DECISIONS
The race witnessed two distinct phases. A slow, arduous passage up the eastern seaboard of Sicily, through the Messina Strait, to the emblematic volcanic island of Stromboli, was followed by a boisterous second half encompassing the northern coast, the westernmost leg down to Lampedusa and the return to Malta. Crews were faced with frequent challenges, questions and doubts.
Among the 35 finishers were the Russian doublehanded team of Dmitry Kondratyev and Alexander Grudninon Stellar Racing Team; the only two-person crew to finish. “We have spent a lot of time training together since meeting five years ago,” explained Kondratyev. “My advice for other sailors is to prepare well. Making the right decisions about details like sails and ropes can make the race easier. You need to have proper rest during the race, take on the right food and drink water. Otherwise you can get tired and lose concentration.”
Jamie Sammut, a member of the Royal Malta Yacht Club, is an experienced Rolex Middle Sea Race yachtsman. The 2017 race, though, proved a frustrating one for his crew on the 42-ft Unica who took the decision to retire. “After rounding Stromboli, we had squalls coming in every 15-20 minutes. Close to Alicudi we saw some boats being knocked down. We are here to have fun, not to go into survival mode and one thing could lead to another in a domino effect so it was the wise decision. After preparing the boat for the last two months, it hurts (to retire) but sometimes mother nature is bigger than you. We have no regrets.”
Retiring was a decision which briefly entered the thinking of the Austrian crew on the 50-ft Fidanzata. During the third night, the crew decided to seek shelter near Palermo to regroup and assess whether to continue in view of the conditions lying ahead. “We took some recovery time and made the collective decision to carry on. We are glad we completed a tough race. It was an interesting and wonderful experience,” explained crewmember Andreas Brugger.
This was arguably the toughest Rolex Middle Sea Race since 2007. Only 15 yachts finished that edition including the Podesta siblings on the family’s yacht, Elusive Medbank. Ten years on, the trio endured the elements once more, this time on Elusive 2. “The conditions along the north coast of Sicily were comparable to 2007,” explained Maya Podesta, part of the crew on both occasions. “You need to keep a level head while both keeping safe and pushing the boat. When needed you take a step back.” The importance of managing crew safety was foremost in the thoughts of Quentin Stewart, owner of the 46-foot Maverick. “You have to take responsibility seriously. When we are here as a crew we work hard on safety and man-management. We are rigorous with our watch system and have the right people on deck when things go wrong.”
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