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Andy’s Rolex Middle Sea Race

12 November 2007

Having spent the last few months raising an incredible amount of money for the charity, Andy Bates has now completed the final part of his challenge – sailing in the Rolex Middle Sea Race. This 680 mile race starts and finishes in Malta.  Participants sail around Sicily, through the Straits of Messina and then on past tiny islands such as Pantelleria and Lampedusa. The course also takes in two volcanoes ? Mount Etna and Stromboli!

Dubbed ‘the most beautiful race in the world’, the Rolex Middle Sea Race is also highly demanding and this year was definitely no exception.  Having survived a force 10 gale, several force 8s, a thunderstorm, a hailstorm and 20 foot waves, Andy’s boat arrived second in class.  Only 15 out of the 68 boats that started completed the course and the favourite had to abandon ship with the crew being dramatically rescued by helicopter.

Before you read Andy’s account of his epic race, all of us at Sail 4 Cancer would like to say a HUGE thank you to Andy and to his family and friends for their amazing support and fundraising efforts.

Over to Andy:

“The Middle Sea Race starts from Valetta harbour but we were based in Grand harbour marina, which is easily described as like a scene from Gladiator (but with sea) surrounded by ancient stone bastions dating back to the Knights of St John and topped with dozens of baroque looking churches.

Flying Fish & Thunderstorms  Rolex Middle Sea Race

The race started with fair winds and sunshine, but a poor start put us mid pack. All looked well however, as flying fish darted between the waves. Then as it went dark ?sea creatures? glowed as they bounced of the hull. The weather had been forecast as a force 8 later in the race but as we sailed along side Sicily the weather and waves started to build. We glimpsed Mount Etna through the rolling clouds. In the peak of the storm we resettled with the sails as we rapidly changed down to our smallest headsail and lashed down the main. Lighting shot all around us as we heeled violently over. A rope broke loose and lashed all of us on the fore deck as we were repeatedly dipped under the waves. As the sales flogged, the mast seriously started to shake putting us in danger of losing the mast; at a speed of 8 knots and less than 4 miles from land we were running short of time. We regained control but it was only afterwards in the calmer (force 7!) winds that we realised that the peak wind speed had been 62 knots (75 miles an hour).

Rolex Middle Sea Race

Helicopter Rescues

In daylight as we made it through the straights of Messina we fixed a hole in the mainsail. We also first realised how tough things had been when we saw ‘Whisper’, the Irish 90 footer, motoring back home in the opposite direction. We had no idea that Rambler (the eventual winner) had made 42 knots in a 62 knot wind whilst Loki the Australian boat had been abandoned after a broken rudder, the crew being rescued by Italian air force helicopter. Waves were breaking over Loki’s mast so the crew abandoned to life rafts to be rescued by two helicopter missions as the local lifeboat could not safely approach the stricken vessel.

Hailstorms & Seasickness

We continued to turn round Stromboli (our second volcano) where we were greeted by an extreme hailstorm. Night fell and we could see a string of lights as other racers stretched out to the horizon. Repeatedly the weather went from near calm to near force 8 then back again. Our storm sail was hauled and lowered but we never had the time or the energy to hoist the main or increase headsail size before the wind changed our mind. We had constant 15 foot waves and spent much of our time with our ?expert drivers? at the helm, typically with one other crew member helping them, with most other crew members confined below decks either to keep warm and dry or to avoid sea sickness. Naturally sleep was difficult as the boat slammed though the waves. We were probably lucky if we got three hours sleep per day. Some of us slept in our waterproofs on the cabin floor, ready to help on deck if more than one pair of hands were needed.

Rolex Middle Sea Race

Ivan Keeps Us Strong!

As the morning arrived we only had two other following boats. Through the waves we spotted the blue hull of ?Ivan?. Ivan was our nickname for the Croatian boat which became our nemesis. This provided further incentive as we hoisted the storm sail again and pulled away. As the wind died gradually, ?Ivan? responded by hoisting even more sail. Then as the squall blew in again this proved to be a mistake and we lost eye contact. We saw a medium sized cargo vessel approach lolling in the swell. We thought it was making an evasive manoeuvre to avoid us, but it actually turned 180 degrees and headed for home (gulp).

The top side of Scilly seemed endless; it was well into the early morning when we passed between the small islands to the north west where we made our turn towards Pantelleria. The good news was whenever we were hit by a wave we warmed up as the sea temperature was still 25 degrees.

Waterspouts & Dolphins

The following morning gave us a calmer wind and a red sky, we thought it was all over then suddenly in the middle distance the sea started to turn into a water spout (this is a tornado at sea; some hit Malta while we were away and the boat was damaged by one in Palma when in port en route to Malta). Fortunately it died away the wind calmed and eventually we hoisted not only our main but our spinnaker on to Pantelleria.

At night now that the weather had calmed we were escorted occasionally by dolphins, who would dart around the bow and jostle each other to be the ?boat’s friend?. Earlier in this leg our dolphin friends started to act erratically near the stern of the boat. This caused our helmsman to check the depth meter which showed a shallow 7 meters – we swung an emergency turn to deeper water! A navigational error by a tired crew could have spelt disaster, did the dolphins know our plight or was it just co-incidence?

Rolex Middle Sea Race

A Fight To The Finish?

As we continued with our spinnaker power past Panterlerea and onwards to Lampedusa off the North African coast, we got news that we were in second place in our class. Tai-Shan (the Chinese Olympic training team) was 30 miles ahead, but as it was a faster newer boat it carried a larger handicap, so we could be in with a chance of a first! We now had a full compliment of crew and our running repairs on the vang and gooseneck (vital components which hold the boom to the mast) were holding fast, so we thought we had a chance of victory. We simply had to be at the finish in Valetta by 4 pm.

The Welcome Committee

We continued to cruise at 8 knots and as daylight increased we saw the islands of Malta and Gozo. We were in spitting distance of the gap between the islands through which we were due to sail when the wind suddenly died. We were becalmed. We drifted at approximately 1 knot most of the way to Valetta harbour entrance when the wind finally picked up enough to drag us towards the line. Naturally, as we entered the ancient walled bastions which make Valetta harbour, we were shielded from the wind, so we crawled across the line at an agonisingly slow pace making it seem a million miles away from the race we were running only hours before. We crossed the line at 19:40 (noisily). Tai-Shan actually beat us fair and square as while we were slowing down they were pulling away towards the finish and gained a 16 hour lead.

The Moment Of Realisation

As we motored back to our mooring, the sound of other boats sounding their horns made us realise that something special had happened. It was only as we stepped ashore and ordered a well deserved beer (or three) that we realised we really had put 10 people in a 50 foot boat and pushed all of us for 4 days & 680 miles through nearly every type of weather (no snow) and every type of sail configuration. It’s everything you train for but never imagine you need it all in one trip. Thanks to Andy Middleton (Skipper), Tim (first mate) and the rest of the crew for making it the trip of a lifetime.”

It’s not too late to donate! Help Andy to achieve his ambitious target of £5,000 by making an online donation!

Andy’s Rolex Middle Sea Race
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