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Race Review: Palermo to Montecarlo 2023

Mike joined the Austrian Ocean Racing team on their VO65 Sisi for the med classic offshore, Palermo to Monte Carlo.

By Mike
The Palermo to Monte Carlo Yacht Race is more than just a race; it’s a yearly rite of passage for Med offshore racers. In August, I was invited by Austrian Ocean Racing to join their team for this epic offshore. This year, the race had outdone itself, attracting a diverse fleet and providing the drama and spectacle that this race is famous for. But what made this year’s race particularly electrifying? From a remarkably challenging course to the blend of youth and experience among participants, this review delves into the intricate facets of this iconic event.

History and Background

Founded in 2005 by the Circolo della Vela Sicilia, in collaboration with the Yacht Club de Monaco and Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, the Palermo to Monte Carlo race has rapidly ascended the ranks to become one of the most esteemed yacht races on the Mediterranean circuit. What began as a contest to bring together the best Mediterranean sailors has transformed into an international event, attracting teams from around the world.

The Course

Starting from the turquoise waters of Palermo, Sicily, the race first heads to a gate off Purto Cervo, Sardinia. Teams then have the option to pass either side of Corsica before finishing off the breakwater for the glamorous Port Hercules, Monaco. The course is famed for its tactical complexity; teams must navigate a mix of open-sea passages and narrow straits, contending with fluctuating weather patterns that can shift from balmy Mediterranean breezes to tempestuous storms in a matter of hours. From the Straits of Bonifacio’s turbulent waters to the calm allure of Sardinia’s coastline, the course offers a rollercoaster of emotions and challenges, making it a race that captures the imagination and keeps spectators and participants alike on the edge of their seats.

Participants

The line-up of 44 teams for the 2023 edition of the race was a strong one. Not only were previous race winners and offshore podium regulars Ker 46 “Tonnerre de Glen” lining up to challenge for the title, but there was an impressive range of eight double-handed and 36 fully crewed teams joining from 11 countries (including maxi Black Jack, coming from Australia). Teams are split into three divisions: IRC, ORCi and Multihull, with additional prizes for Line Honours, Double-Handed, IMA Maxi and Class 40 categories. Aside from the yachts themselves, crews came from a wide range of amateur and professional sailing backgrounds, including olympic, ocean race and Americas Cup legends.

Life on Board VO65 Sisi

Joining the Austrian Ocean Race crew aboard their Volvo Ocean 65, “Sisi,” was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Having previously raced on VO70s, I was particularly keen to contrast the offshore experience aboard a VO65 — and despite the unassuming light breeze, the experience was anything but disappointing. The first aspect that captured my attention was the ease with which the VO65 could be handled. Granted, hoisting the sails required a hefty application of muscle power, but the yacht proved astonishingly forgiving once underway. From a helming and trimming perspective, the canting keel and daggerboards maintained an extraordinary balance, allowing the crew to prioritise the Velocity Made Good (VMG) without trepidation. Moreover, trimming the VO65 felt akin to commanding an oversized dinghy. The yacht responded promptly to weight redistribution fore and aft, and the subtlest tweaks to sheets and tacks immediately translated into changes in sail shape and performance. When it comes to comfort, let’s be candid: one scarcely associates race boats with luxury. The challenge lay in finding a spot to lie on deck without incurring a numb limb and in coming to terms with the head that forgoes a door in favour of a weight-saving shower curtain.  As for food, the culinary strategy was spartan: “freezies” throughout, supplemented by snacks during watchs. A tip for the uninitiated: the essence of fitness in this context defies conventional wisdom. It isn’t about brute strength or agility; rather, it’s about rapid recovery and the mental fortitude to persevere when the going gets tough. Staying hydrated and eating before catching some shuteye off watch proved invaluable for resilience during subsequent stints on deck.

Atmosphere and Experience

Racing in the Med is always special. Not just for the great competitions and beautiful scenery, but also for the hospitality shown by the host clubs. In this case, the hosts in Palermo and Monaco certainly didn’t disappoint, and I think the regatta wrap-up video sums it up very well.

Highlights of the 2023 Race

In the lead-up to the race, the only thing the wind forecast models agreed on was that it was going to be a very light wind race. Although not unusual for this part of the Med, the hope of some significant breeze for the leaders of the fleet was dashed when the possible formation of a mistral vanished! The light breeze issue was evident from the start, as it took three attempts to get a clear start – without any recalls. From their, the race through the gate at Purto Cervo and onto Monaco was an emotional and physical rollercoaster. Here are my highlights:

The Start

I pride myself in my ability to start in the right position on the line and at speed. However, offshore races are more of a marathon than a sprint, so teams normally opt for a more conservative approach. Not in Palermo! I think the fact that there were had 2 general recalls in a fleet of just 44 speaks for itself. Every team was really gunning for the line, ourselves very much included!

The Maddalena Archipelago

I’ve trained an raced around this tiny archipelago before, but navigating this tight gap in an offshore race setting was something special. With a building breeze, we overtook cruising superyachts and charter guests on passing motor yachts stopped to take photos of our slick gybes.

Full Send Mode

Although the winds barely reached 15kts throughout the race, the VO65 has exceptional performance across the wind ranges, meaning that our boat speed was rarely lower than our True Wind Speed. Not only was this uplifting when wind speeds were sub 3kts, as we were still able to make progress, but once the breeze was above 10kts, the boat really came alive.

The Finish

Crossing the finish line in Monaco may have taken longer than expected, thanks to the wind dropping from 16kts to less than 1kt for the final mile, mooring up outside Yacht Club de Monaco was something else! As soon as we’d docked, the yacht club team made sure we all had a drink, showed us where the showers were and gave us access to an amazing buffet to refuel after a few days on freezies! Thank you to Austrian Ocean Racing for inviting me to join the team for this very special race.