The 44th edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race, organized by the Royal Malta Yacht Club, begins on Saturday, 21st October 2023, bringing 130 yachting competitors from around the world to Malta. The exciting 606-nautical-mile race gets underway in Valletta’s majestic Grand Harbour and has grown from modest beginnings in 1968 into a splendorous international yachting event.
Rolex Middle Sea Race
Malta’s geo-marine central Mediterranean position has, through the centuries, attracted invaders and militaries eager to claim administrative power over the islands. But since its independence in 1964, this began to gradually modify. Today, although still strategically important, the islands of Malta and Gozo have become a coveted mooring destination for family and local boating activity as well as spectacular annual international yacht races, like the Rolex Middle Sea Race.
This Mediterranean offshore classic is an iconic 600-mile offshore races, often mentioned in the same breath as the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race and the Rolex Fastnet Race. Steeped in history, the race takes sailors counter-clockwise from Malta and around the island of Siciily. Featuring two active volcanoes, a host of other islands, and the start and a starting point in Malta’s magnificent Grand Harbour, the course is as thrilling as it is picturesque.
The current record for the completing the race stands at 47 hours, 55 minutes and 35 seconds, set in 2007.
A Sailing Competition’s Modest Beginnings
The originally race sprung to life thanks to a friendly rivalry between members of the British Royal Ocean Racing Club and the Royal Malta Yacht Club in 1968. British yachtsmen Alan Green and Jimmy White and their Maltese sailing brethren Paul and John Ripard. Alan (who would go on and become Secretary of the Royal Ocean Racing Club) suggested an exciting sailing race between Malta and Sicily, alternating the starting point of the race each year between the two islands.
However, Paul Ripard insisted that Malta be at the centre of the race and the course was set. Thus the 606-nautical-mile race starts and finishes in Malta and takes the fleet counter-clockwise around the island of Sicily, including Lampedusa, Pantelleria, Egadi, and the Aeolian Islands.
The inaugural edition attracted a limited number of entrants from Britain, Malta and Holland, with the Italian navy entering its training yacht, “Stella Polare”. In total, there were less than ten yachts. First past the finish line was the yacht “Stormvogel”, helmed by the Dutchman Cornelius “Kees” Bruynzeel, with John Ripard the overall winner in the small yacht, “Josian”.
The awards ceremony was a black-tie affair, with island celebrities in attendance, including the then Governor General, the Prime Minister, the Archbishop, and Malta’s yachting fraternity. The Guest of Honour was Sir Francis Chichester, who was fresh off the heels of his single-handed round-the-world voyage of 1966–1967.
The race and his presence undoubtedly put Malta on the yachting map and over the following decade, it grew with in reputation and appeal to world-class sailors. In 2001 a revitalized Race Committee targeted a more aggressive marketing strategy, determined to find the backing of an international sponsor.
Rolex Comes Aboard
Rolex SA came on board as the sponsor in 2002, and for the following two years was involved in the Malta Rolex Cup. This was the starting point for a race that would flourish with international fame. In the years since, the race has witnessed a remarkable increase in entries, the quality of crews and vessels, as well as near-global appeal.
For many years, the record number of entries was 34, set in 1974. In 2002, that record was finally broken, with 42 yachts setting sail. The number steadily increased each year, doubling by 2012 and breaching the seemingly impossible barrier of 100 in 2014, a new record of 130 entries. was set.
Apart from 2020, when for Covid reasons only 50 yachts entered, the race has consistently seen more than 100 entries each year.
According to the Royal Malta Yacht Club, the 42nd edition of the Rolex Middle Sea Race was one of the most spectacular and challenging, especially for the smaller boats, due to gale-force winds and tumultuous seas that battered the fleet.
Last year’s 43rd edition’s fleet saw boats ranging in size from 30 feet (9-plus-metres) to 100 feet (30.5 metres) and included some of the most powerful monohulls and multihulls competing on the international racing circuit.
Meet You in Malta
Last year, the heated contest saw Riccardo Pavoncelli’s Italian MOD70 Mana crossing the finish line less than a minute ahead of French sister ship Zoulou and ten minutes before the Italian Multi70 Maserati. Joost Schultz’s Dutch entry, the 30.48-metre (100 feet) maxi Leopard 3 secured monohull line honours, while Eric de Turckheim was a very popular overall winner under IRC with Teasing Machine, the French NMYD 54.
Each year the competition becomes more intense and without doubt, come 21st October, the Rolex Middle Sea Race is just one exhilarating reason to visit Malta this fall.
BeSeeingYou In: Malta
Good To Know: This is a great spectacle to see from start and finish.
WOW! Factor: The skills and extreme competition of sailors and their yachts.
Tip: Grand views of the departure and return can be obtained all along the northern shores of Malta and Gozo. To get a good look at the boats up close before the race, head to Pieta’ Yacht Marina
Author bio: Albert Fenech
“We have gone to sea.”
Yes, gone to sea for relaxation leaving all our troubles behind us and making them more complex.
Photos courtesy of Rolex