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November 11, 2005 7:42 pm

Becalmed off north Africa

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Not a sign of wind or even a zephyr. The speed dial on Constanter, our Swan 62 foot yacht, showed zero, zero, zero as the sails cracked helplessly in the rolling swell.

Our bottled water and most of our food was finished. Even the cake had run out.

Eleven of us, including an Americas Cup helmsman, two multi-millionaire bankers and five professional sailors had been at sea for nearly six days battling to finish the 607 nautical mile anti-clockwise course around Sicily that makes up the most famous long distance yacht race in the Mediterranean – the Rolex Middle Sea Race.

On the first day of the race, which sailors compare with the Sydney-Hobart and the Fastnet, we had stormed over the start line in Malta’s stunning Marsamxett harbour first in our class. In a sprightly Force 5 wind we were soon leading the record field of 58 yachts. Although we were overtaken by the maxi super yachts in the early evening, we made good time past mount Etna and powered through the Strait of Messina in fifth place.

Our luck turned in the Tyrrhenian sea, north of Sicily, when we became ensnared in light winds for over 36 hours off the volcanic island of Stromboli. The splendid eruptions lighting the night sky helped to lift our gloom. But we never really encountered good sailing conditions again and life became a constant round of sail changes as we tried to eke out any tiny increase in speed.

Now here we were on Day Six of a race we had expected to complete in under four days, completely becalmed, less than 50 miles from the North African coast where Hannibal’s great Carthaginian empire once stood. With just over 30 hours of the race left to run before automatic disqualification we had dropped to ninth place.

Quite a few of the crew were beginning to wonder whether we should quit because they feared we would not finish in time to qualify because of the lack of wind.

In my mind there were no doubts at all. We should fight to the last.

For the last three days an intriguing battle had developed against our main rival, the J/125 Strait Dealer. A brave run inshore right up against the cliffs of Pantelleria island to find a stronger breeze had paid off for us at first, but after that, always just a short distance over our stern quarter, was David Franks’ 40 foot racing yacht, sticking to us like a limpet. Being of racing pedigree, much shorter and lighter than us she would undoubtedly beat us on handicap, but surely we were honour bound to fight her to the finish for line honours.

Over the radio came the news that Carlo Puri Negri’s Farr 70 Atlanta II had just pipped Steinlager II, the Whitbread Maxi ketch, to the finish post and scooped all the major race prizes.

The rest made dismal listening. In what turned out to be the lightest winds since the race was launched in1968, yacht after yacht began to throw in the towel and motor back to Malta. The doubts in the minds of our crew deepened.

As night gave way to dawn on Friday the wind improved to 2knots.

“Give it up - it’s not money,” said the sardonic and highly competitive Drew Freides on the helm, asking the man on the spinaker sheet to pay out the rope a little more in the hope that we might be able to squeeze even half a knot extra speed out of the boat.

No such luck. The wind dropped back to zero.

Our race tactician Campbell Field had forecast storms for the latter stages of the race, but one look at the cloudless African sky put paid to any such hopes.

I had just gone off watch when Willem Mesdag, the owner of the sleek $2.5m Swan yacht of which we had all become so fond, called “All hands on deck “ to announce that unless there was a unanimous opinion to the contrary we would be switching on the engine and heading straight to Malta.

Even a paltry three or four knots of wind would have been enough to get us back to the island to complete the race by the 8am qualification time on Saturday.

Not one of the other members of the yacht crew spoke up for staying in the race.

The engines were switched on.

“I suppose you think we bankers are a load of wussie quitters,” said Drew.

As a matter of fact I did not. I was deeply disappointed, but I realised they had not become millionaires by sticking with deals that looked to be turning sour. In their highly competitive financial world they seemed to know just when to cut their losses.

But were they right in this sail race?

Said Georges Bonello DuPuis, Commodore of the Royal Malta Yacht Club, which organised the race with Rolex : “Never in the whole history of the Middle Sea race has it taken so many boats so long to reach the finish line. To have had 49 yachts retire was incredible, a nightmare. We did not know whether to laugh or cry.”

At the last, however, fortune really did favour the brave, just as it had done for the convoys steaming from Gibraltar through these very waters to break the siege of Malta in 1942. The wind picked up just enough for Strait Dealer to make it to Valletta under sail and on time to qualify. She came in ninth on Friday evening and won the prize for the first Maltese boat to finish the Middle Sea race. By then every other yacht, including us, had retired.

For me the only consolation was that I managed to hitch a lift home to London in a private jet the moment I stepped ashore.

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