Rolex Middle Sea Race prepares in Valletta

The 2018 golden jubilee edition of Malta’s most famous yachting event promises to be the biggest ever. The Rolex Middle Sea Race, which this year marks the 50th anniversary of its founding, will again start from the historic Grand Harbour, in the capital Valletta, on 20 October. Cannon fire from the Saluting Battery perched high above will launch the fleet on a 606-nautical mile adventure around some of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful yet challenging waters.

This year represents a significant milestone for Title Sponsor Rolex, marking six decades of partnership at the pinnacle of the sport. The Rolex Middle Sea Race, organized by the Royal Malta Yacht Club, has been an integral part of the Swiss watchmaker’s yachting portfolio since 2002. That year, the event welcomed a then record 43 boats. Today, it regularly attracts over 100 entrants, with 2014’s field of 122 being the mark to beat. And, with 149 yachts already registered, a record entry is in prospect if all these cross the start line.

TRUE TO TRADITION
Similar to the 600-nautical mile offshore events that influenced its creation – notably the Rolex Fastnet Race and the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race – the Rolex Middle Sea Race was conceived in 1968 as a Corinthian challenge between like-minded sailors. The first edition attracted eight boats and was won by the Swan 36 Josian. Yacht design and construction material and technology have changed dramatically over the past 50 years, but the spirit of adventure – a willingness to brave the elements and confront the many mental and physical challenges – remains a constant among dedicated crews. It is a classic test of seamanship for professional and amateur sailors alike.

Since 1978, the Rolex Middle Sea Race course has run anticlockwise around Sicily. Frequent ‘corners’ create identifiable course segments and expose the fleet to famously changeable sea and weather conditions that make it especially challenging. Competitors are drawn to a wealth of features: the dramatic setting for the race’s start against the backdrop of Valletta’s distinctive architecture; views of two active volcanoes, Mount Etna and Stromboli; passages around rugged, sparsely populated islands; and encounters with a wide variety of wildlife, including seabirds, dolphins and whales. Renowned American yachtsman Ted Turner referred to it as “the most beautiful racecourse in the world”, a view endorsed by countryman and race legend George David.

A TIME TO BEAT
As well as the number of entrants, other notable records could fall at the 2018 race, the 39th edition (no races were held from 1984 to 1995).

David could seal a record fifth monohull line-honours win as owner of Rambler. His current Rambler has finished fastest at the past three editions, and in 2007 he set the race record of 47 hours, 55 minutes and 3 seconds. Conditions in subsequent races have rarely provided the frontrunners with an opportunity to challenge that time. Only Mike Slade’s 100-foot (30.5-metre) British Maxi ICAP Leopard has come within six hours of Rambler’s sub 48-hour benchmark, finishing a little over 30 minutes outside the record in 2009.

INTERNATIONAL INTEREST
The race’s global stature is reflected by the 30 countries represented in the 2018 entry list. Italy has the biggest contingent to date, with 27 yachts registered, followed by the United Kingdom (18) and Russia (14). Rambler will sail under the United States flag, alongside Blue Jay III and Hermes from Canada, Anita from Chile, Tilting at Windmills from Australia, and Hurricane Hunterfrom the Philippines. German Maxi 72 Momo, winner of the past two Rolex Maxi 72 World Championships, and E1 (Switzerland) are expected to be among Rambler’s closest challengers for line honours.

At 115 feet (35 metres) Nikata will be the largest entrant in race history, while Giovanni Soldini’s foiling trimaran Maserati Multi 70 and the MOD 70 PowerPlay are set to spearhead the multihull fleet. The Swan 65 King’s Legend, a famous ocean-racing competitor from the mid-1970s, will remind racegoers of the yachts that were typical in the event’s early years.

The race’s most coveted prize is overall victory under International Rating Certificate (IRC) handicap. Freccia Rossa, winner of the 2017 Rolex Giraglia offshore race, has the credentials to add further Russian success following Bogatyr’s triumph at the Rolex Middle Sea Race last year. Bogatyr is returning this year, with owner Igor Rytov planning on competing double-handed. Not since 1980 has a crew successfully defended the race title.

Ten Maltese yachts are registered. Six local crews have tasted overall success at the event, the most recent being Artie in 2014.

SPECIAL CELEBRATIONS
The RMYC has organized an exciting social itinerary to mark the race’s 50th anniversary.

Participating dignitaries include two of the race’s co-founders, Alan Green and John Ripard, as well as Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, a competitor in 1970 who is celebrating his own 50-year milestone since the start of his single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe, a voyage he completed with a Rolex timepiece as a trusted navigational aid.

Valletta is European Capital of Culture in 2018 and the Rolex Middle Sea Race will feature strongly in that programme’s calendar of events.

For the race organizers, the RMYC, Title Sponsor Rolex, owners and sailors, this will be a Rolex Middle Sea Race to remember, one that will honour the event’s rich heritage and traditions.