British skipper recounts experiences as he returns for 8th time

Wednesday, October 19, 2011, 10:11

‘Tough Habit to Kick,’ says Nisada’s (GRB) Skipper as he returns for the eighth time

This 32nd edition of the 606-nautical mile Rolex Middle Sea Race begins this Saturday, 22 October from Grand Harbour. Currently, there are 80 boats entered from 18 countries. Included in this number are the former overall winner, Andres Soriano on the 21-metre mini-maxi Alegre (GBR), 2010 line honours winner, Igor Simcic’s 30-metre Esimit Europa 2 (SLO), and two-time Rolex Fastnet winner, the 21–metre Rán 2 (GBR), owned by Niklas Zennstrom. And whilst, these may be considered the international fast-riding knights of race, the more foot-soldierly types who make up the bulk of the fleet deserve due consideration.

Only eight of the fleet give Malta as their country. The foreign contingent is substantial and remarkable. Few other races around the world could match such statistics. Equally interesting is that for so many of the outsiders this is not their first time competing. Even more intriguing, many are serial returnees. Peter Hopps, the sanguine, well-travelled skipper of the 15-metre Nisida (GBR) is one of the many sailors in Malta for the 2011 Rolex Middle Sea Race that has discovered a habit tough to kick. “I first did this race in 2004, and have done it every year since,” he confesses. “It’s one of those races where you just keep wanting to come back. The course and the scenery are fantastic, but it is also a challenge all the way through. This is my eighth time and I’m looking forward to it.”

Asked whether there is anything about the race in particular that drives the urge to return, Hopps hesitates, “I don’t think there is one thing…there are several things. Getting through the Strait of Messina is always a challenge, you are always relieved to get through it. Next on the way is Stromboli, a volcano that erupts about every 20 minutes or so. For people that haven’t seen it before it is an amazing sight. From there it remains interesting all the way through to the finish, and right up to the line in Marsamxett Harbour where the wind is fickle and you are not finished until you are over the line.”

With so many races under his belt, Hopps has experienced the full gamut of conditions the race can throw up, including the benign drifters like 2005 where only eight yachts managed to complete the course within the time limit. Nisida, though, was one of fifteen yachts to complete the notorious 2007 Rolex Middle Sea Race, when the American yacht Rambler smashed the course record after a two-day battle to outwit a tempest that tore through the fleet reducing it to a quarter of its initial strength. In the same race, the Australian yacht Loki foundered on the northern coast of Sicily. The crew was plucked to safety from their life rafts thanks to the skill and bravery of the Italian aircrew that risked their own lives to rescue the imperilled yachtsmen.

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For Hopps encountering storms is part of the game, “it is a tough race, it is a tough sport and you are going to get this now and again. When you go into a race you confirm that your boat and crew are fit to face heavy weather at sea. On that occasion it came home to roost and I was very pleased to finish. We’d sailed the boat 2,000 miles from the UK to be here. We were not going to
retire at the first cause of trouble, but everyone must make their own decision. Everybody who finished did well and everyone who retired in good order did well, because the first responsibility is to get everyone back to harbour.”

Hopps thinks that the 2007 edition was a turning point in recent perception of the Rolex Middle Sea Race, “ocean racing was conceived as a challenging sport, for overcoming seamanship issues and heavy weather. The Rolex Fastnet has its ’79 race when a lot of people died; the Rolex Sydney Hobart has the ’98 race. Fortunately in the 2007 race nobody died, and though the blow on there was not as strong as those other two, it was getting up to it and made for a serious ocean race. It put this race on the map as an offshore challenge more than it had been, even though I believe the first race in1968 started off in a gale possibly a portent of things to come.”

Meticulous in his preparation of both boat and people, Hopps acknowledges that the Nisida crew is always a mix of experience. Most have sailed offshore before but not necessarily in the same boat and Hopps considers it as a matter of course to keep everyone fully appraised of what is going on at any point on the racecourse. He says, though, that he finds it difficult to always get across to the newcomers what they should expect, “prior to 2007 we used to tell everybody: “oh it’s wonderful its nice light winds, its sunny, you’ll be in shorts and t-shirts” and then look what happened. But like any ocean race you can get anything at any time, and now when we talk to people about this race our expectations are not so managed in one particular way. They know they could get anything.”

Whilst a challenging course with spectacular scenery are clearly major draw cards for the foreign crews, Hopps makes mention of one other ace in the pack that sets the Rolex Middle Sea Race apart. “What can you say about the Royal Malta Yacht Club,” he smiles. “It’s a great club. It’s one of the most welcoming clubs in the Mediterranean and around. It is a fun club to be part of. This is their major race and they do a very good job. They try hard and they work hard, and this is the focus of their year. The hospitality we receive here is fantastic. There is always a warm welcome, great parties and everyone is made to feel part of the Rolex Middle Sea Race family. You really feel they want you here and now after so many years it is just like visiting old friends. It’s just like coming home.” Perhaps therein lies the true secret to the success of this truly major offshore race.

For further information, please call Caroline Furminger on 99255093





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