Finger in the Wind

Rolex Middle Sea Race 2011

There are so many different local effects on the course that whilst weather forecasts are always useful, the only real way to chose the right way to go at certain key points is by reacting to the actual conditions at the time. It is these unknowns that makes the Rolex Middle Sea Race different from many other races and a fascinating race to take part in.

The start in Grand Harbour is always tricky. It is a very confined space and if you are too early, it is difficult to turn back in the tightly packed fleet. The race is over 600 miles and it is important to remember that you can’t win it at the start, but you can lose if you damage the boat. It is also worth getting outside of the harbour before the start, to take a look at the conditions you will encounter.

The first part of the race is up to the southeast tip of Sicily, called Capopassero. This is fairly straight forward but the approach is the first key point in the race. Beyond the cape is Mount Etna, standing at 11,000 feet, it can throw a huge wind shadow over the racecourse. If you cut the corner too close, you risk the chance of running out of wind. Also many of the boats will reach this point during darkness and there are a lot of fishing nets to contend with.

The approach to the Messina is always a critical point in this race. The Strait between Sicily and the Italian mainland can have tide running at up to three knots, so it is important to factor that in for the passage through the narrow gap. If it’s a foul tide, then hugging the Italian mainland shore is a good option.

The leg up to Stromboli is the first real taste of racing in open ocean and there is a possibility of increased sea state to contend with. Once again, the approach to Stromboli is key, the volcano is high, over 3000 ft. Passing too close can mean no wind, it is wise to give Stromboli a good offing, maybe as much as two miles.

The leg across the north coast of Sicily to Favignana is normally a beat but it is wise not to get to close to the north shore, especially as you reach the northwest corner. Once again, the land is very high here and can cause quite a windless region, further out to sea to catch you out.

Normally the breeze is from the northwest, so after Favignana, yachts will often be cracking sheets. Whilst the race course takes the fleet to the windward side of Pantelleria, the island is a large land mass, 32 square miles, and the wind can go a bit funky around here, especially if it is during the day and a thermal breeze has developed. Lampedusa is a smaller island but it is also advisable to keep alert during the approach.

The next key part of the racecourse is the narrow gap between Gozo and Malta, the South Comino Channel. Fishing vessels and the ferry are man-made hazards and the breeze can get very shifty in the channel. The last leg of the race to the finish in Marsamxett Harbour is often a dead run, with the wind bending around the Maltese Coast. So it can pay to turn early for home but the wind shadow from the island should be considered.

The Rolex Middle Sea Race is an exciting race because of it’s many twists and turns and microclimates. There are many temptations along the way to cut corners but in my opinion, you do so at your peril. The course and the weather are often keeping you fully on your toes, which is what makes it a great tactical race. I have to say that the scenery is also amazing and I am really looking forward to competing again on ICAP Leopard.

all the best,