During our delivery to Gibraltar I find myself with time to reflect upon what made this years Rolex Middle Sea Race such a special and memorable event for myself, Deep Blue Racing and the team. This year has provided many of us with some emotional gut wrenching lows but has climaxed with an incredible journey and a story taking Quokka to the finish line, overlooked by the Medieval City of Valetta in Malta.
In the inaugural season for the team at Deep Blue Racing the future and success of the campaign has been tested to the limits by various issues beyond anyone’s control. At times the problems have appeared insurmountable and I have been left questioning whether the project will succeed. The catalogue of incidents has left us bemused, stunned and tearful at times. Knowing how I have felt at times I cannot begin to understand what Peter Rutter, the owner, must have been going through.
On Saturday 22 September at 0015 (it is bad luck to start a delivery on a Friday, a superstition that was soon to become ironic!) Quokka quietly slipped her mooring in Hamble en-route for Gibraltar. The problems of 2012 were history and the project was alive and kicking.
Sunday 23rd September was a big day for me, I had been training all year for the London Triathlon which was the reason why I was not onboard Quokka for the first part of the delivery. At 0730 the gun sounded as I started the 1500 metre swim in London Docklands.
It was a tough event and it ended on a high, I was ecstatic that I had finished in the top 20 and beaten the time I had posted in my only previous attempt (20 years earlier). The pain during the run was not quite what I expected and something I hoped not to have to experience again in the near future. Little did I know that the very next morning the emotional pain I would feel far exceeded the physical pain of the arduous London Triathlon.
The euphoria of the previous night that enticed me into a deep and content sleep evaporated in an instant. The moment I checked the tracker on-line I knew that something serious had happened. The wind in the Bay of Biscay had been blowing at 40 knots through the night and since midnight, whilst I was blissfully sleeping in pure ignorance, Quokka had been making progress at an average speed of one knot toward France, the wrong direction.
My fears were confirmed shortly after I awoke when the phone rang and ‘Quokka’ appeared on the screen. Peter never has been one to waste time on the phone with small talk. True to his endearing and efficient manner the conversation was short, informative and matter of fact. “Philippe, good morning. We need a new rudder and it will need delivering to wherever we end up (Quokka was 200 miles from nearest land). Can you sort it and get the show back on the road please? I want you to project manage it.”
I did not even have time to enquire as to the well being of all aboard, but even if I had it would have been a stupid question as it was plainly obvious that they must be going through sheer hell. As Peter hung up the reality of the challenge ahead quickly sank in. Normally it would take two months for a new rudder to arrive after ordering it. We probably had just over a week to have a new one built!
Once again, the campaign was in serious jeopardy and more importantly my friends and colleagues were in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, at the mercy of an Atlantic depression that was forecasted to last for another four days. I was more than concerned for their safety but helpless to do anything. To take my mind of it I instantly set about the massive task of doing everything I could to ensure that when they did eventually land there was a plan in place to get Quokka to Malta in time for the Rolex Middle Sea Race.
I was fully aware that getting Quokka to Malta relied heavily upon three fundamental issues. Impressive and impeccable seamanship from Peter and the crew was highest on the list to get Quokka safely ashore and in good shape. Next was the goodwill, hard work and willingness of Key Yachting and Grand Soleil to embrace the project and build a new rudder in the tight timescale and finally meticulous project management was required to ensure seamless logistics.
What was meant to be a routine delivery to Malta had now become one of the biggest logistical challenges of my life. In an instant I decided I would take the bull by the horns, defeat was not an option and Quokka would be in Malta in time for the 0900 team breakfast at the Royal Malta Yacht Club on Monday 15th October that had already been planned.
To cut a long story short, Peter and Quokka arrived safely in La Trinitie Sur Mer five days later and must be applauded for their gutsy and inspired achievement (read the full story in this months Practical Boat Owner). Key Yachting of the UK and Grand Soleil of Italy pulled out all the stops to get us a new rudder. The French boatyards in La Trinite and Antibes were magnificent and worked tirelessly to help, the German truck driver responsible for transporting Quokka across France were superbly professional, Peter the owner demonstrated an incredible loyalty and Scot and Sophie’s support and work were invaluable, not to mention Sophie’s mother and sister who became a big part of the team by helping deliver Quokka the 600 miles from Antibes to Malta.
After 348 man-hours involving over 30 people (not including sailing time) Quokka finally arrived in Malta. For me I am not entirely sure which part of the journey provided me with the greatest emotion. There are several high/lows to choose from. Was it the initial shock of the breaking news, the emotional and nervous goodbye as Quokka departed La Trinite on the back of the truck or the joyous sight of her safe arrival in Antibes? Or could it have been the successful re-launch in Antibes or the jubilant welcome we received on the pontoon in Malta?
What I do know is that the sense of achievement of arriving against all the odds in Malta at 0817 on Monday 15thOctober provided an overwhelming sense of pride. A pride shared with Peter, Scot, Graham and Malcolm who started the journey and a pride enjoyed and appreciated by the twelve crew members who were eagerly awaiting their steed on the pontoon after monitoring our progress through the final night. What is more, after everything we had been through Quokka had arrived in Malta with 43 minutes to spare! Against all the odds we were actually on time for the team breakfast and Quokka and the team were out sailing by lunchtime!
The rest, as they say, is history and without a doubt the Middle Sea Race was no ordinary offshore race for us. It was a project plagued with obstacles, which continually provided mountains to climb! By the time Quokka crossed the start line at 1100 on Saturday 21 October she was the best prepared I have seen her this season.
Thanks to the hard work of the race team during the week, led by Ash whose enthusiasm and energy was infectious, not only did we achieve all our training objectives but Quokka had been meticulously race prepared and there was not one job left undone on the long list.
I think it is fair to say that the trials and tribulations of a somewhat unusual year bought us all closer together. Peter’s loyalty financially, emotionally and in a supportive role was impressive to say the least. Getting to the start line for this race was the teams biggest achievement and I believe that this allowed us to enjoy and appreciate the race in a different way.
The Rolex Middle Sea Race has long since been my favorite offshore race and this edition did not fail to deliver. It provided us with everything I had raved about to the team, except wind when we wanted it. The scenery lived up to expectation, the warm welcome and hospitality of the Royal Malta Yacht Club, as always, was unparalleled and the sailing, whilst frustrating at times, was simply wonderful.
Half way through the race I became aware that I was enjoying the race more than any other offshore race I had previously participated in. The team I was sailing with were a pleasure to race with. Their keenness, humour, sheer hard work and determination was inspiring. As fate dealt us further blows, or dare I say it we made tactical blunders, the prospect of a top result was gradually slipping away. Unperturbed we just got on with it and were motivated to try harder and push further.
Digging deep until the end we did hold our heads high, filled with more emotion, pride and a real sense of achievement. As the horn sounded from the clubhouse, as we passed the yellow tetrahedral Rolex inflatable mark, I beamed a smile that I am sure could be seen from the clubhouse. The tumultuous journey had drawn to a close and we achieved way more than any of us had set out to achieve. We had given it our all and could have done nothing else, we had learnt much on the way and the bond amongst the team was exceptional, these are all qualities that are sometimes worth more than a top result and something that will make us stronger in the future.
So to answer my opening question, I cannot conclude with a precise answer. I feel it has to be a combination of the extraordinary journey, the sense of achievement, the pride that we all carry having been a part of the experience and the friendships that have been forged and consolidated. We have a race team, a team that as Peter Rutter puts it, has been transformed from an un-honed but enthusiastic group into an efficient race team that we are proud of. My vision for Deep Blue Racing is making more sense to everyone and coming to life. The Rolex Middle Sea Race remains ‘unfinished business’ and we will be back next year!
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