November 3, 2004 Alfa Romeo has sailed its last race in Europe, ending its second season with a win in one of the most remarkable yacht races in history. In winning the Mediterranean's classic offshore event, the Rolex Middle Sea Race, the Alfa Romeo crew suffered gastric flu, being becalmed for hours on end, a man overboard and finally being capsized and destroying over US$200,000 of sails. Despite it all, the all-star crew overcame all obstacles and brought the boat home first.
The Rolex Middle Sea Race has been held annually since it was first run in 1968.
Originally conceived as the Mediterranean's answer to the Rolex Fastnet and the Sydney-Hobart race, the 607 mile long course takes the boats from Valletta harbour across to Sicily, and up it's east coast. Here they are likely to fall into the wind shadow of Mount Etna – which at 3,350m tall is one of the world's largest and most active volcanos.
Alfa Romeo was the favourite for line-honours and was attempting to break the present course record of 64 hours, 49 minutes and 57 seconds set by Bob McNeil's Zephyrus IV in 2000. Her 21 crew included Skipper Neville Crichton, Australian sail maker Mike Coxon,Volvo Ocean Race Skipper Neal McDonald and America's Cup legend Grant Simmer from Team Alinghi. Despite the stellar line-up, illness had taken hold, and the day before the event Crichton reported, “most of the crew are 'crook' - all but three are now suffering from gastric flu”.
The event starts from Malta's historic Marsamxett Harbour. Then the boats must negotiate the course's most tactically complex part: the Strait of Messina. Located between north east Sicily and the 'toe' of Italy, here the channel narrows from 10 miles wide and 1,000m deep to 2 miles wide and 100m deep. Current, both favourable and adverse, can launch boats through this channel or stop them in their tracks.
The boats then round the island of Stromboli, where there is another active volcano, before turning west to leave Sicily and its outlying Aeolian and Egadi islands to port. They must then continue south, leaving the islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa to port before returning to Malta and the finish line.
This year the race had a record fleet of 50 entries. While the bulk of these are from Malta and Italy, others come from further afield, including the UK, USA, Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, Czech Republic, New Zealand and Croatia. “The best thing about this race is that there are lots of challenges the whole way round. No legs are longer than 100 -110 miles," commented Stead, strategist on board Neville Crichton's Alfa Romeo. "There are plenty of snakes and ladders around the course. It is like a Rolex Fastnet Race, but everything is different the whole way round.”
In the finish it was a race that contained every sailing challenge and tested both crew and yacht to the extreme.
Alfa Romeo finished her second European season as she started, with total domination and a line honours win in both the supporting races and the Rolex Middle of the Sea Race.
"This event has been absolutely remarkable," said Skipper Neville Crichton at the end of the event in Malta. "It has tested every member of the crew to the absolute limit and, as indicated by the fact that we have come back into Malta with damaged sails, it pushed Alfa Romeo beyond her limits!"
Neville Crichton had said that a decision on whether to contest the 2004 Rolex Sydney to Hobart Race would be made immediately after the completion of the Rolex Middle of the Sea Race. This decision has now been delayed pending an assessment of the damage to Alfa Romeo and the availably of replacement sails.
For the first two days of the race, the biggest issue for all the yachts competing was wind, or the lack of it, culminating in the yachts sitting stationary for nearly 12 hours north of the Italian Island of Sicily. These conditions tested the crew's ability to find what little wind there was and to position Alfa Romeo in the ideal place when the wind did arrive. "To be honest, conditions were so bad, we discussed retiring from the race," said Neville Crichton. "It seemed pointless as we were going nowhere. But all credit to the crew, looking at the weather charts and sniffing out the wind from the top of the mast, because when it did arrive, we were the only yacht to benefit from it!"
So much so that Alfa Romeo was able to pull out a mighty six and half hour lead over the rest of the fleet, as it caught a healthy 20 knot wind that came Alfa Romeo's way but ignored every other yacht. But over the last night the weather quickly went from little wind to way too much, as a massive electrical storm heralded the arrival of not just severe weather, but weather that dramatically changed from one moment to the next.
Alfa Romeo was worst affected by the conditions. Sailing under Code Zero sails in the pitch-black night, the wind dropped to 12 knots as the crew had furled the powerful headsail and were half way through dropping it when a 30 knot gust came through. The furled sail began to writhe around on deck, six crewmen unable to control it and the last to hang on to it, America's Cup grinder John Macbeth, one of the beefiest guys on the Aussie maxi, was tossed overboard like a rag doll.
Macbeth was recovered after 12 minutes in the water. "The guys on the boat all knew what to do and I had full confidence in them. They did a great job," Macbeth said later. "When I was in the water, I kicked off my shoes and wet weather gear and waited for them to come back. All credit to them, they picked me up very quickly and I never really felt in danger at any time."
More drama was to come for the Alfa Romeo team two hours later when sailing along in 8 knots the wind suddenly piped up to 30 and then 58 knots, knocking the boat flat on its side under full mainsail and furled Code Zero. "It was very quick," recounted Neville Crichton. "We tried to run with it, but it was hopeless and we lost control and it went straight over. The boom and the rig were in the water and dragged the yacht sideways and deeper into the water. “It took us 15 minutes to get Alfa Romeo back upright on its feet and probably another three hours after that to tidy the boat up and get everything operating. In the crash we destroyed the mainsail which was $150,000 and two spinnakers, so it was a $200,000 fall over!"
On Black Dragon, the yacht over which Alfa Romeo had built up a six hour lead, they were more fortunate. Rounding the island of Lampedusa and the final turning mark of the Rolex Middle Sea Race they broke the top batten in their mainsail and pulled into the lee of the island to drop the mainsail and replace it. "Just as we did that all hell broke lost," described racing Skipper Jesper Radich. "Hail, 46 knots of wind and we were doing 20 knots of speed downwind under jib.
Fortunately it wasn't chaos on the boat. We had Magnus Woxen on the helm and we continued with only the jib on for two and half hours averaging 12 knots."
Earlier, Black Dragon had also experienced a full wipe-out as they tried to drop their 370sqm heavy spinnaker in a 39 knot gust.
In typically doldrums-like conditions the wind then dropped to just 8 knots. En route back towards Malta and the finish line the breeze picked up to 25-28 knots and Radich said they experienced near perfect blast reaching conditions, boat speed hovering around the 23 knot mark. For the Italian maxi Damiani Our Dream the conditions were no less extreme. “I started this regatta aged 35 and now I feel like I am 62. The lightning helped me with that," described tactician Vasco Vascotto of last night's incredible display of sheet lightning.
In the big conditions they broke the foreguy - holding the spinnaker pole away from the forestay - on three occasions. Damage to the Italian maxi occurred as they were approaching Lampedusa in marginal conditions.
"Whenever I said 'ready to drop' the wind went down," recounted Vascotto. "And after three hours of that, we had 55 knots and it was too late." They attempted to drop the mainsail and in the process created a 3m tear in the leach (the back of the sail) and another big T-shape rip in the body of the sail.
They spent five hours with the mainsail down below repairing it and were able to re-hoist it for the final hours of the race.
But despite all the dramas of the night, Alfa Romeo cruised across the finish line within Marsamxett Harbour at 10:01:49 local time, her mainsail's leech hanging off and three of its five battens broken.
She was followed by Black Dragon just half an hour later at 10:32:25 and Damiani Our Dream at 14:07:36. Elsewhere in the fleet eight boats retired having suffered damage in the windy conditions of the last 24 hours.
In the days following the race, the disappointment of the loss of $200,000 worth of sails was compounded further when Alfa Romeo skipper Neville Crichton found a change to international shipping schedules had ended his chances of competing in the 2004 Rolex Sydney to Hobart race, and capturing the boat's 75th win since its launch in 2002.
"It really is very disappointing," says Neville Crichton, who captured the line honours win in the 2002 Rolex Sydney to Hobart. "There was just one ship that could get Alfa Romeo back to Australia in time for race and even then with little time to properly prepare for what is one of the toughest and most demanding yacht races in the world. But that ship has now pushed her schedule out another ten days and that has ended any hope of getting Alfa Romeo back to Australia in time for the race."
"All our efforts are now focused on the 2005 Rolex Sydney to Hobart," says Neville Crichton. "Construction is now well underway on the successor to Alfa Romeo, which will be as advanced over Alfa Romeo as she was over her predecessor. We plan to launch the new yacht in July next year and we have set ourselves the target of beating the record set by Alfa Romeo, 74 line honours wins in two and half years."