Author: Piers Hugh Smith
Course: Valetta-Messina Straits (Italy/Sicily) - Stromboli - Pantaleria - Lampadusa - Valetta.

The odometer on the past 12-months of racing clicks over to around 6,500 nm after a busy season with Maverick! Out of the previous five major offshore races, Maverick has been the boat for four of them, a total of 5,900 nm - I certainly had never seen this coming and am forever counting my lucky stars for being part of such a great and continuous program. Always learning and always finding new areas to improve.

This Rolex Middle Sea Race, my second, shaped up to be a lot more interesting than the first! The first, 2016, characterised by a steady drift round the scenic Mediterranean islands with little more than 12-14 knts boat speed at best, could not be further from what was in store for us this time. ‘Finally!’, a few of us thought, there has previously been an uncanny lack of conventional weather for the Maverick program,  it would be nice to see some weather. Being careful what you wish for might just be the motto here!

I can never get over the start of this race, amongst the striking sandstone scenery of the Grand Harbour in Valetta, the narrow beat through the harbour walls and then and ultra short kite leg at the start gets the blood pumping and tests our quick fire/inshore manoeuvres. A pretty gradual beat followed up the Messina straits, a mix of light wind park ups with changes from the J1 (our biggest headsail), to the MHO (our biggest masthead reaching sail), and the occasional spinnaker thrown in for good measure. Although placid, these are often pretty testing conditions for a bowman, loads of quick-fire changes, often in the dark, and it’s a real test to make sure you can consistently deliver these without locking out your halyards or, at worst, tangling them up making a change impossible. I’ve been away from the boat for a while and I think this showed here, a couple of the changes going a little awry with some halyard issues, certainly time to be gained there. However it was great to have an understanding team backing me up and focusing their energies on solving issues, rather than dwelling on errors. This has been a hallmark feature of the program and something I believe is a key ingredient of our successes. Every day is a school day, after all.

Apart from the numerous sail changes the first part of this race was somewhat uneventful, however near Palermo our test began, building breeze into a 135 nm beat, this was a good chance for some drysuit action with testing upwind sailing which is pretty tough on a skinny, 46 ft boat. It’s hard to find the groove in waves that stacked up pretty quick to a hefty swell the height of a transit van. This is where my be careful what you wish for comment earlier comes in. We soon cracked off onto a jib reach, followed by a punchy FR0 (smaller than the MHO, but a power reaching weapon of a sail) passage and a technical peel to an A3, our smallest reaching spinnaker. Change complete and trucking along at a steady 17-22 knts of boat speed I headed down for some rest, thinking how our speedy averages would see me with a pint and a burger in Valetta in no time. However from inside the boat it sounded like the world was beginning to end! A constant rush of water and huge crashes and the boat charges through waves, arcing spray over the decks with a deluge of water threatening to wash anything not lashed down into the sea behind. Our speed crept up towards 27-28 knts here as we pushed the boundaries of what the sail was capable of. Earlier in this day myself and Jorge, the mid-bowman, had been thrown back 15 ft along the foredeck, along with the 60 kg sail we were carrying, with the sheer force of water travelling along the deck- thankfully we always clip on the safety harnesses in these conditions.

But back to the A3, downstairs I hear an almighty crash followed by my body being thrown forward down the bunk, knees in my chest as I press against the keel bulkhead in front. There is a reason we always say sleep feet first in this boat, it is better to break your legs rather than your neck when this thing flies off a wave! The boat pivoted around its axis and lay flat on its side with the sound of an ‘All Hands!’ cry and all hell breaking loose on deck. This was when our much loved and little used A3 decided to part company with itself, having been torn into many, many pieces after a 40 knt gust knocked us over after pitching into a wave at 25+ knts. Halyards were cut and what little remained of the sail recovered on board before the FR0 was speedily hoisted again, this was a pretty harrowing moment with a lot of stress on the rig, the decision to cut the halyard was made to preserve the mast and stop the A3 now Sea Anchor ripping the top of our carbon mast off.

It was almost fortuitous however the breeze had continued to build and our forced change to the FR0 was the right call. The A3 would have done the same three times over as we launched off waves, our DSS foils provided immense amounts of grip that launched the boat forward at speeds more akin to an 80 ft yacht, rather than our 46 ft surfboard! Some of the wave impacts were similar to being in a car crash as the boat tore through walls of water, it was all you could do to hold on at times, your visions reduced to nothing in a ball of spray with the boat seemingly airborne beneath you. The speedo only read 6 knts as it was out the water! The highest I saw was 27, but we reportedly logged speeds in the early 30 knts if the GPS is to be believed. We dropped into preservation mode, dropping the watches from four hours on to one hour on as it’s key to keep everyone fresh and alert as mistakes at this speed could potential be seriously damaging to more than just the boat and race. It was certainly one of my most intense nights offshore. The Infinit 46R can certainly take one hell of a beating! I don’t know many other boats that could shake off such an aggressive punishment so easily.

Windspeed hung around the 20-30 knt range for the rest of the race, the occasional 40 knts in the squalls as we concluded the reaching round Lampadusa island, but in a slightly more gentle fashion on a tighter angle with lighter breeze. Dawn broke as we approached the Malta/Gozo channel, still maintaining our reduced watch and keeping the boat pushed all the way in.

We were certainly pleased to finish this one in (almost) one piece! The whole team worked really hard, pressure was kept on us and it is always great to sail with such a pedigree bunch, it really encourages you to up your game, and I am certainly looking forward to seeing them onboard again in the future.

At the time of writing we have won IRC class 1, 4th overall on IRC, 1st overall on ORC and 6th on line honours, a results I’m pretty happy with given such a tough heavy air session. Not bad for a little 46 ft boat, taking on some big teams!

So another awesome race with Team Maverick, and I’m left excited for the next adventure that comes round…

Piers

#BeaMaverick #FollowTheStory