As with most of the best plans, this one started life in the club bar. The two Peters and Hilary are discussing, with Joe Cross, Arbitrator's plans for the 2003 season when Joe, who is Maltese, suggests we first escape the British winter gloom and compete in the Round Malta race. Initial concerns that sailing round a whole country as opposed to the Isle of Wight might mean we would fail to be back in the bar that same day were soon dispelled; despite a population of some 350,000, Malta is in fact smaller than the IoW and at least there won't be any tides to contend with.
A phone call to Debbie in Switzerland gives us a crew of 5 and we now faced only with the problem of finding a competitive boat. Luckily Joe's cousin Winston generously offers us his Beneteau 42s7 - a 1987 model but with an IRC rating of 105.8 - which should get us round nice and fast.
We arrive in Malta just after midnight on Tuesday, setting us up for 'race preparation' On Wednesday this is accomplished by a 4 hour lunch (of local suckling pig) at the Royal Malta Yacht Club incorporating a team meeting - something most LCSC members will relate to.
Wednesday night there is a crew briefing at the club. The gist of this is that the race will start at 9am and that 20 mins beforehand we will be informed which way round the island we are to proceed. There will, for the first time, be a mark in the course; as with the RTI race this will be an easterly cardinal, here named Munxar Buoy, but in this case marking not just a reef but also fish farms. There are, we are to learn, many such farms in Maltas's deep local waters, and whose steel cages are likely to win any battles with yachts.
Thursday we go for a practice sail, with Marco, a regular crew on the boat, there to help
us. We are well familiar with IRC ratings, which the race is run under, but less
so with racing complete with a bimini which the boat is equipped with - not something
we need in the Solent - nor with lazy jacks and optional roller reefing or a boom
which is attached not to the back of the boat but to the coachroof.
Sailing in shorts and T-shirts under blue skies makes a nice change from the winter series back on the Solent and, having done the hard stuff of practicing spinnaker hoists and gybes, we are then treated to a tour under sail of what fully justifies its name of Malta's Grand Harbour before anchoring for lunch and beers. On returning to our marina it transpires that Winston will have to work again the following day, a public holiday in Malta, so Marco thoughtfully drafts in Ivan to help with winch grinding.
Race Day dawns warm and sunny. The wind in the harbour is light and variable but forecasts are for it to rise outside the harbour and through the day. The start is a broad reach out of the harbour, likely to prove a tight squeeze for the near 30 entries, and, despite the brevity of this leg, Peter decides we will hoist our spinnaker. This ensures that we are all far too busy sail trimming to fully enjoy the truly spectacular setting, but it also means we are one of the first boats out of the harbour. Pole position is taken by Straight Dealer, a J125 and winner of the recent Middle Sea Race, who proceeds to show the rest of us a very clean pair of heels for the rest of the race.
then set off on a 21/4 hour beat to the far north west of the island, with the
wind now up to NW force 4. We round this end 7th, a position we are to hold for
the rest of the race. We have time to admire the islands of Comino and Gozo and
then set off on a fast reach along the southern coast of Malta. With the wind
now stiffening to a 5 we elect to hoist the heavy spinnaker, which keeps us busy
for a while until we can again enjoy the views, although there is much less to
see on this side of the island.
Tranquility, such as it is when surfing at over 11 knots, is disturbed by the need to effect a gybe, and then again, for the foredeck crew of Hilary and Joe, by the need to remove the no 1 genoa and replace it with the (furling) no 2. This has then to be hoisted and furled, ahead of the need to use it as we round the southern eastern end of the island. Entertainment is provided by one of the chasing pack whose spinnaker blows out, but we are in any case moving well clear of those behind.
We finally turn towards home and negotiate fish farms and Munxar Buoy. Peter Horton's first opportunity to navigate (and thereby to go down below) takes him so much by surprise that he simply does so by dead reckoning up on deck. A last beat takes us up to the harbour entrance, with the foredeck crew, still in shorts, appreciating the warmth of the water (20C) as they are now being soaked in the still stiffening breeze. We turn into the harbour to finish in 6 hours and 40 mins.
As per usual we now adjourn to the bar for some well earned beers. We learn that Christina on Wet Blue - a First 47 - had fallen overboard on the last beat, that our arch rival Sandro on Ages of Gaya, a Dehler 37 and last year's winner, has pipped us by 1min 11secs on handicap and that we were 4th in our class, with the bigger boats taking the honours
Valletta harbour (Not this race)
Saturday is Culture Day, a concept somewhat alien to Hilary and Debbie. Fortunately
Malta has lots to offer of both history and bars, and we succeed in mixing both
to the satisfaction of the whole crew. We are treated that night to a splendid
Maltese seafood feast by Marco and his wife Sandra, in their stunning conversion
of an old farmhouse.
On Sunday before our flight we finally manage the ergo challenge, set in the local gym. This sees Hilary, as should only be expected, beating all the locals, and Peter winning his age category, but with Joe retiring claiming dehydration and the two coxswains excused. From there it is a longer race back to London and the 5pm club - to relate more tall stories and plan the next trip.