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Middle Sea Race 2005

And we thought the Fastnet was a drift....

Our crew (Ed: i.e. those LCSC members racing with Peter Hopps and Hilary Cook) has become well practiced in the art of racing on new and different boats this season. Having lost Innovation K2 just before the start of our Fastnet campaign, we've sampled racing on two other Volvo 60s, a Farr 65, a Sigma 38 and a 1720. All good training then for racing one of the other 'classic' races - the 610 mile Middle Sea Race - on a very newly acquired 52 ft one-off yacht, Nisida.

Nisida - spinnakering along
the coast of Malta

Leaving an autumnal Britain for the warm shores and welcoming bars of Malta is always a great treat. And so our crew of 12 gathered excitedly in Marsamxett Harbour to view our latest toy. Unfortunately when I arrived she was still perched on stilts out of the water without a mast, awaiting a new bit of rod rigging to be flown in from Antibes.

Life looked up when finally, on Monday evening, Nissy was craned into the water right between Patches (a TP 52 sailed by Olympic medallists Shirley Robertson and Ian Walker) and the bar. Patches crew used our home-made gang plank for easier access to their own boat and (as befits an Irish owned boat) were hugely friendly. By comparison to their sleek and organised boat ours looked like a building site - but two flat out days of rigging later we were just about ready for Thursday's practice race. Meanwhile alas poor Patches was back out of the water with a crack in her hull and was to miss the main race.

The pre-race party overlooking the start and Valetta is one of the many highlights of the MSR. The stars of Patches crew had by now flown home, but I met the crew of Aera ( recent winner of the Sydney Hobart) including one Ben Ainslie. Aera may be similar in length to Nissy but, pathetically tongue-tied, I couldn't think of any other comparison between Ben's campaign and ours and anything of note to say to him. I couldn't even this year boast of racing on a Volvo 60 while, unlike Patches (who came 3rd), the Channel Race possibly hadn't been near his personal radar screen.

Friday was a whirlwind of preparation and boat acquaintance. Unlike any boat most of us had ever sailed on, Nisida has both asymmetric and symmetric spinnakers with both pole and bow sprit. We'd used only a symmetric spinnaker in the practice race and, come Saturday and race morning, we were trying to wool and pack the asymmetric. None of us understood the Italian words penned on the various ends and Chris W-I had the foresight to ask an Italian boat their meaning (history does not record the crew's reaction to our level of understanding of our race boat). But we had the boat and spinnakers ready and packed in time for a cappuccino ashore before setting off for the 11am start.

spinnaker work
Fiona peacefully trimming
the asymmetric

The first day saw a market contrast to last year's slow start and, after a spinnaker run down the Maltese coast, we shot off towards Sicily on a close reach with our asymmetric spinnaker the right way up and working well. Come the morning we were beating off the south-east coast and seemed to be in good company in the form of Fenix, an 80ft Swan. Life seemed to be going pretty well as we had lunch on deck overlooking Sicily, hiking out in the sun in shorts and T-shirts. We averaged 8.5 knots for the first 28 hours, but then the good news stopped.

It was neap tides this year and, even in a fast dying wind, the tidal gate at the Messina Straits only actually stopped us for an hour or so. But soon other boats were hoving back into view as the tide turned in their favour and we wallowed in virtually no wind. We drifted off towards Stromboli, and counted no fewer than 26 boats the following morning (only 58 had started the race) in what was to prove an all-day parking lot. Two boats managed to escape, but for the rest of us this was to be the story of the rest of the race.

looking for wind
in Stromboli's parking lot

Our first concern that we really might not finish within the time deadline of 7 days (!!!) came another day or so later - when we were all re-parked south west of Sicily. By then we'd introduced food rationing although, in contrast to other boats, we did at least still have plenty of water. We'd had one superb night of spinnakering down past the Egadi Islands, remembering again the joys of gybing an asymmetric as we were in a rather busy shipping channel, but the rest had been drifting at best and the weather forecasts were now distinctly unpromising.

Come the sight of Pantelleria on day 5 there were still 26 boats in view but the first retirals were starting. Speeds of over 1 knot seemed fast and the sea had taken on a glassy appearance. Thursday morning we'd finally rounded that outpost of Italy and were down to 23 boats. Then Joe received phone calls from a nearby (and big rival) boat saying that they and many others were off for lunch and re-fuelling. Subsequent phone calls describing the menu in detail added to the torture as we faced an evening meal of tinned meat-balls. But with only 170 miles still to go and 40 hours to race there seemed still a very good chance we could make it - if only we got some wind.

sunrise off Pantelleria

And finally that evening the wind did pick up, bang on the nose but enough to get our speed back up to over 7 knots. The 100 degree turn at to home at Lampedusa should free us onto a reach and we could almost start to smell the beers at the finish line.

But all in vain. Friday morning saw us slowly rounding Lampedusa (the most southerly part of Europe) with our speed back down to 2 knots and the wind shifting towards the north east - our route home.

By then we were down to a pack of 5 of us, with 90 miles to go and 20 hours left. We learned that 8 boats had finished from class 1 with a further two, from our class, still racing ahead of us. Strait Dealer - a J125 and former winner - finished that day but when we heard that Constanter had retired 40 miles nearer home we realised that our chances of finishing looked slim indeed. Our required 'run rate' crept up all day, and finally at 1020pm, with no wind anywhere and the finish line still over 70 miles away, we and the others switched on our engines and motored home.

peter hopps
let's go to Ibiza instead

We got a toot from the long suffering finish committee as we crossed after the deadline at 815 am - in recognition perhaps of our perseverance. We just had time for a shower and clean up before heading off to the prize giving, with the very welcome prospect of as much free food and alcohol as our shrunken stomachs and cleansed livers could cope with. (Following favourable comments from other halves on return home, Peter is now marketing the Rolex-Hopps de-tox diet).

There was no sign of Ben Ainslie at the prize giving, by when I might have had some stories to share. Aera finished in only 4th place (out of 9), taking nearly 5 days, so he may have been pretty hungry too.

Hilary Cook

Copyright © London Corinthian Sailing Club 2005