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The 33rd Rolex Middle Sea Race

28 October 2012

On the morning of the 20th October 2012, the Saluting Battery, high up in the Maltese capital of Valletta, signalled the start of the 33rd Rolex Middle Sea Race.

A record entry of 83 yachts from 19 different countries started the 606-mile race witnessed by thousands of spectators crowded along the bastions overlooking Grand Harbour. The Slovenian Maxi Esimit Europa 2 was to take line honours for the third consecutive year. However, it would be seven days before the last yacht would cross the finish line outside The Royal Malta Yacht Club.

The fleet enjoyed champagne sailing conditions on the first day; a brisk south easterly breeze propelled the fleet across the open sea to Sicily and towards the Strait of Messina. However as the wind faded on the first night, a tactically challenging and meteorologically intriguing Rolex Middle Sea Race was developing.

Esimit Europa 2 was leading the fleet, closely followed by two Mini Maxis; Niklas Zennstrom’s Ran and Alessandro Rombelli’s Stig. However, last year’s champions, Lee Satariano & Christian Ripard’s J/122, all-Malta crew on Artie RTFX were leading after time correction. Artie RTFX rode a favourable current through the narrow gap between Sicily and the Italian main land as the leading yachts came into a grinding halt as the wind died close to Stromboli.

This was the first of many ‘re-starts’ in the race, as a high-pressure system settled over Sicily and periods of calm weather enveloped the course. Esimit Europa 2 hoisted a man up the rig, in a desperate search for breeze. Ran had become a serious threat for Line Honours in the race but the Slovenian Maxi found some wind and escaped from Stromboli with great precision.

Meanwhile the rest of the fleet were desperately seeking breeze to make Favignana, the northwest corner of the racecourse. This became a crucial part of the race, as fresh northwesterly winds would be the prize. So far, the weather had favoured the smaller yachts but only the Class 1 and Class 2 yachts were to make Favigana before the wind totally shut down. The race had turned into ‘big boat race’, especially favouring the Class 2 yachts.

On the morning of Day Two, the Slovenian Maxi Esimit Europa 2 had built a substantial lead and was just 158 miles from the finish and almost assured of line honours. However the battle for class honours and the overall crown was totally undecided, the majority of the fleet were trapped in whispers of wind trying to reach the fresh breeze to the west of Sicily.

By Day Three, Ran was flying down the western coast of Sicily, extending over 7 miles on rival Mini Maxi Stig. Ran’s great pace was rewarded, as they became the overall handicap leader. Artie RTFX could only watch as their dream of winning for the second year running were fading fast. However, South African entry Hi Fidelity and the Greek team on Optimum 3 Aspida were also into the favourable wind and looked like challenging for the overall victory.

On Day Four, The 100-ft Maxi, Esimit Europa 2 crossed the finish line at The Royal Malta Yacht Club at 01:13.15 CEST, sealing a third straight, line honours win. Jochen Schümann showered the Maxi crew with champagne dockside at the Royal Malta Yacht Club.

“That was a tough one,” explained Schümann. “We got caught up by Ran and Stig in the first parking lot at Stromboli but it was by no means the last. Our primary goal was line honours and it was impossible to relax during any part of the race. We are delighted to have taken line honours and finish off a great season in style.”

It was nearly seven hours before Niklas Zennstrom’s JV 72, Ran crossed the finish line, setting the bar for the rest of the fleet to better after time correction. Ran put in a magnificent performance to lead a highly competitive Class 1 and lay claim to an overall win but overall victory was to escape them.

In the early hours of Day Five, a massive thunderstorm and torrential rain engulfed Malta, Nick Lazos and Periklis Livas’ Farr 52, Optimum 3 Aspida crossed the finish line at 03:00 to lead Class Two and the Rolex Middle Sea Race overall. However, the Greek team’s tenure on this extra-ordinary race was very short lived. At 04:18 Eddie De Villiers, Welbourne 46, Hi Fidelity crossed the finish line to take the overall lead in the race.

In driving rain with thunderbolts lighting up the bastions, the South African crew, soaked to the skin, looked astonished to find out that they were hot favourites to win the overall prize for the Rolex Middle Sea Race.

 “We didn’t have a clue how well we were doing until we finished, it is unbelievable,” exclaimed Hi Fidelity’s owner, Eddie De Villiers. “The crew have been absolutely fantastic, I can not give them enough praise. This has been one hell of a race, we have had just about everything thrown at us. Coming through the Comino Strait there was a terrific amount of thunder and lightning, it was all around us and the wind touched 37 knots. To come through the finish and find out that we have such a great result is truly amazing!”

By the afternoon of Day Five, it became clear that none of the yachts still racing could better Hi Fidelity’s corrected time and Hi Fidelity were announced as the overall winners. The team from South Africa became the ninth different country to provide a winner of the Rolex Middle Sea Race Trophy joining yachts from Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Rolex Middle Sea Race has turned into a marathon, Esimit Europa 2 took three and a half days to complete the course but for over half the fleet, it would take double that.

In the early hours of Day Six, Josef Schultheis' & Paolo Semeraro's Xp44, XP-ACT crossed the finish line. The team had come desperately close to beating Hi Fidelity but had to settle for a win in Class 3 and third  overall. XP-ACT had three Maltese crew on board. However, Artie RTFX with an all-Malta crew became the first Maltese boat to cross the finish line and win Class 4.

Artie RTFX co-skipper, Christian Ripard spoke dockside: “We did our best, it was a great race and everybody did a great job working really hard but we just kept on getting stuck in patches of no wind, which was very frustrating. This race took a whole day longer than last year and it was really tiring mentally, you were always looking for the way out; you could never relax.”

Artie RTFX was under considerable pressure to be the first Maltese boat home. Jonas Diamantino & Ramon Sant Hill’s ILC40, Comanche Raider 2 Gasanmamo pushed them all the way to the finish, as Christian Ripard explains.

‘Comanche caught up about 20 miles on us, I was anxious watching them close the gap on us but in a way that was fantastic. There are a lot of good people doing the race this year. All of the crew on Artie are amateurs but they are top class sailors, we have had more or less the same crew for the last three races. I am the old man on the boat but they really know what they are doing and they keep me young! Many of them are dinghy champions that have got into keelboat racing and they are the future of yachting in Malta and the Rolex Middle Sea Race is a major occasion in our country and a fantastic showcase for our sport.”

On Day 7, The Rolex Middle Sea Race came to a fairy tale conclusion for the Irish Two Handed team racing Dinah. There were emotional scenes dockside at The Royal Malta Yacht Club, as Irish sailors Barry Hurley and Andrew Boyle sailed home in their 35ft yacht to win the double handed class, they finished just 25 minutes inside the time limit after seven days of tense racing.

The Grand Prize Giving for the 33rd Rolex Middle Sea Race took place at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta. Guest of Honour, Tourism Minister Mario de Marco, described the Rolex Middle Sea Race as the most prestigious international event in Malta.

A packed house applauded each prize winner with great enthusiasm, none more than Eddie De Villiers and his South African team on Hi Fidelity who were declared the overall winners of The Rolex Middle Sea Race.

Lee Satariano & Christian Ripard’s J/122 Artie RTFX were awarded The Transport of Malta prize for the top performing Maltese yacht and the award for the best performance by a three boat international team was awarded to Malta taking into account the performance of Artie RTFX, Comanche Raider II Gasanmamo and XP-ACT. This is an astounding achievement considering that 19 countries were represented in the race but only six of the record 83 entries were from Malta.