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The Return of the Mediterranean Odyssey This Weekend
The Return of the Mediterranean Odyssey This Weekend
On the 22 October, Malta will once again host the Rolex Middle Sea Race, a decades-old celebration of seamanship, dedication and camaraderie, inviting sailing crews from around the world to compete for one of the most sought-after trophies in competitive yachting
On 22 October this year, a fleet of highly skilled yachting crews will set sail from Malta’s Grand Harbour, between Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens and Birgu’s Fort St Angelo, proceeding north-east to circumnavigate Sicily in an anti-clockwise direction. The route passes Capo Passero on Sicily’s south-east coast before proceeding through the Straits of Messina to Stromboli, a volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea just North of Sicily. Following this, the fleet will pass the charming island of Favignana, located close to Sicily off the island’s north-west coast, before progressing past the small Italian island and commune of Pantelleria. As the race draws to a close, the competing yachts will pass first round Lampedusa before making their way back to Malta via the South Comino Channel, crossing the finish line located at the entrance to Marsamxett Harbour.
Notable for being a longer race course than others typical of the region, the Rolex Middle Sea Race first took place in 1968, and was founded by Maltese sailors Paul and John Ripard and British yachtsmen Alan Green and Jimmy White. The event found enthusiastic support early on from the Royal Malta Yacht Club (RMYC), and it was decided that Alan Green would oversee the running of the event in addition to competing. Discussing the unique qualities of the event, the yachtsman later described how, “The qualities, challenge and attraction of sailing the seas of classical history with spectacular scenery including two active volcanoes, the only tidal strait in the Mediterranean, and the friendly island base of Malta with its British heritage — and not least the warmth of the water in autumn — contrasted sharply with [the] experience of offshore racing in northern waters. In matching the length of the Fastnet, Bermuda, and Sydney Hobart races, I was sure we had a winning formula.”
Inaugurated in the spirit of friendly competition, from its first year the race found logistical support from various quarters, including both private and governmental entities. This included the use of Fort Manoel in Marsamxett Harbour to host the start of the race and provide control services throughout the event, as well as saluting howitzers from the Royal Malta Artillery. The Malta Electricity Board and British Navy collaborated to install telephone and power lines and provide lighting, with publicity provided by the Malta Tourism Board. The race’s trophy was designed and produced by the leading contemporary Maltese artist, Emvin Cremona (1919–1987), whose earlier work in church decoration, landscape painting and postage stamp design had brought him to local and international attention. Famously, the race also found assistance from the British and Italian Navies, whose warships stationed on the course route aided with position reporting, while Britain’s Royal Air Force provided aerial photographs of the event through the use of reconnaissance planes.
Maltese competitor and race co-founder John Ripard claimed victory in the event’s first edition, with the prestigious prize-giving ceremony welcoming Sir Francis Chichester — the pioneering British sailor notable for being the first person to achieve a successful solo circumnavigation of the globe via the Great Capes between 1966–67. The race continued annually until 1983, following which a hiatus of thirteen years took place before the event resumed in 1996. Since John Ripard’s iconic win in 1968, competitors from Malta have claimed victory eight times, with other winners hailing from various European countries as well as the USA and the British Overseas Territory of the Cayman Islands.
The race gained even more stature in 2002 when Rolex SA joined the event as sponsor, lending the event the additional prestige of their globally recognised brand — one synonymous with quality, expertise and maritime dependability — as well as providing auxiliary financial and logistical support.
Over the years, competitors have faced difficult battles against the elements, often braving extreme weather conditions while navigating challenging coastal and open waters. In 2007, for example, numerous boats were forced to take shelter along the eastern side of Sicily, while in 2017, adverse conditions around the straits of Messina compelled over half of the fleet to retire. Last year, the 42nd edition of the race, also encompassed severe difficulties, with competitors facing gale force winds in their journey around the course.
Despite these incidents, however, the successes of the 606 nautical mile race continue to outweigh any challenges it has faced, with 2006 registering an unprecedented 68 entries and 2021 seeing the establishing of a new course record when American skipper Jason Carroll completed the race in 33 hours 29 minutes 28 seconds in the trimaran class multihull boat Argo. Triumphs such as these serve to both inspire the next generation of sailors, as well as reiterate the importance of such events as enduring legacies of mankind’s continued struggle against the elements. Those present in Malta during October would be well advised to attend the opening of this iconic race and enjoy the anticipatory atmosphere infusing the event. Indeed, few sights may be considered as rousing as an intrepid fleet of vessels setting sail to brave the elements and the limits of human resilience in pursuit of that most sought-after prize: victory.