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IMA Mediterranean Maxi Offshore Challenge 2023-24 to set sail with Rolex Middle Sea Race

The International Maxi Association’s 2023-24 Mediterranean Maxi Offshore Challenge starts this Saturday (21 October) with a huge, top quality maxi yacht line-up as part of the Royal Malta Yacht Club’s Rolex Middle Sea Race.

In the 44th edition of this ‘classic 600 mile’ anticlockwise lap of Sicily, starting and finishing off the Maltese capital Valletta, 17 maxi yachts of 60+ft LH are entered. In addition is Alexia Barrier’s outright line honours favourite, the MOD70 trimaran Limosa, sailed by her all-women’s Jules Verne Trophy (non-stop round the world record) team The Famous Project. They return to defend their title – in 2022 Limosa was Riccardo Pavoncelli’s Mana.

Among the monohulls, the scratch boat is Bryon Ehrhart’s Lucky, a boat which knows the way for as Rambler 88, under her original owner George David, she won line honours on five consecutive occasions between 2015 and 2019. Ehrhart has kept the majority of David’s crew, led by America’s Cup and offshore legend Brad Butterworth.

Personally Ehrhart holds a perfect track record in the Rolex Middle Sea Race – in 2010 he entered it in his TP52, also named Lucky, and impressively won overall under IRC on his first attempt. This will be his first time back. He says: “In 2010 it was such a tough race through every condition possible. Truly the race is a great test of sailing skill and we look forward to the test again this year. Thanks to Royal Malta Yacht Club and Rolex for keeping this event so strong for so many years. It is a classic!”

The longest maxi competing this year is the 107ft Paprec Sailing Team (aka Spirit of Malouen) skippered by Stéphane Névé. This started life as Sir Charles Dunstone’s Wallycento Hamilton, was then acquired by Thomas Bscher, extended to 107ft and renamed Open Season. She was sold to present owner Jean-Luc Petithuguenin, who has evolved her into being an offshore racer.

The 100ft Leopard 3 returns to Valletta at the end of the 2022 Rolex Middle Sea Race – photo © Kurt Arrigo / Rolex

The 100ft Leopard 3 will be one to watch. Under original owner Mike Slade, Leopard 3 was transformed from a racer into a race cruiser. Under her present Dutch owner she has been transformed back. In a massive refit earlier this year her rig was replaced with one 350kg lighter, permitting bigger, longer luffed, jibs. The central part of her deck (mast back to main winch) and cabin top were replaced so she now has a tighter sheeting angle for her headsails. She has a full new winch package. In total she is now five tonnes lighter.

The mods are working as Leopard 3 won both line and overall honours in July’s Aegean 600. For the Rolex Middle Sea Race skipper Chris Sherlock says they have bolstered their crew, including re-recruiting Volvo Ocean Race skipper Neal McDonald as a watch leader. Tied to the nav station will again be Will Best.

Sherlock is impressed with this year’s maxi line-up: “It is a pretty hot fleet and there’s a lot of good guys on all the boats.” As to the conditions he says that the big breeze originally forecast for the first day is now passing through on Friday. After the start it is currently looking light and upwind: “Our routing is telling us we will be on our J0 and J2 for near on 90% of the race, so a lot of upwind stuff and light-medium, which is also good for Bullitt. But everyone is going to have their good spots in this race where they go really well, but the boats are so diverse, it will depend on how much of that ‘good stuff’ you get for your boat.”

Andrea Recordati’s Bullitt has also been under the knife. Compared to how she was last year, the Wally 93 is more powerful with improved downwind performance thanks to a longer bowsprit, increased mast rake and increased sail area. She also now has a fixed keel drawing 6m with the bulb further aft producing a more bow-up trim, further augmented by the two tonnes of water ballast she now has each side.

Making her Rolex Middle Sea Race debut this year is Roy P Disney’s Pyewacket 70 VO70, originally the 2011 vintage Telefonica. She was subsequently turboed when she was Peter Harburg’s all-conquering Black Jack, before Disney acquired her in 2019.

Wild Joe will be heading off on her 12th Rolex Middle Sea Race – photo © Kurt Arrigo / Rolex

Disney, and his father Roy E before him, are and were enthusiastic Transpac competitors who pioneered the West Coast maxi sleds (ULDBs), then the maxZ86s. Roy P has personally raced 26 Transpacs… “My father for years and years had this on his list,” he says of the Rolex Middle Sea Race, a race his father ultimately never sailed. “It is a very romantic race. Everyone who does it talks about the beauty of it, all the way around and the finish is just amazing. I finally decided to close the loop. Now my boy is off to college, I have the time…” And Stromboli (the volcanic island the race passes) is a character from Pinocchio.

Aside from her success in the Transpac and other races on the US West Coast, Pyewacket 70 proved she is competitive by winning this spring’s RORC Caribbean 600 outright. “Because it is a Volvo boat, it gets more comfortable the more breeze there is!” Disney continues. “We are up against some 100 footers so we may not win on the water, but I think in the light air we are going to have them. Reaching we should be at least up with them.”

Surprisingly it will also be a first Rolex Middle Sea Race for Pyewacket 70’s legendary navigator Peter Isler (who started the heavy weather race in 2007 aboard Tom Hill’s maxi Titan 12, but then retired). “My expectation is to see a volcano, get the through the Strait and beat Lucky!” His forecast is similar to Sherlock’s: “It is a good navigator’s race. It is looking like it will be a broadish reach about half way to the Strait [Messina] and then a front goes through and once that clears it turns on the wind in the Strait with a fair bit of punch and then it’s westerly all along the top of a lot of Sicily. So a lot of upwind.”

In addition there are the usual array of former Volvo Ocean Race boats including the VO70s Ocean Breeze and Green Dragon and the VO65s Ambersail 2 and Sisi. Among the hot 60s are is the DSS-equipped Wild Joe sailed by Marton Jozsa and Guido Paolo Gamucci’s canting keel Mylius 60 Cippa Lippa X. For Jozsa and his largely Hungarian crew, the race will be their 12th Rolex Middle Sea Race.

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