The Malta-Sicily Windsurf Race - 21 years on
"Of all races I've ever done, including the Olympic Games, this one was physically the most difficult. It took me three days to recover." Race winner Bruce Kendall vividly remembers that race...
In early May 1989, I was taking part in a windsurfing rally in Palermo when I was introduced to Wilfred Sultana who, after a short chat, asked me if I would consider taking part in the Malta-Sicily Windsurf Race, a 53.4nm marathon he was organising and running.
My Sicilian friend, Paco Wirz, who raced for Italy at the 1988 Olympics, was also invited for the race. The idea was instantly appealing to me. What an adventure... quite a big distance and clearly visible on the globe.
All expenses were covered and there was the chance of winning prize money, too.
But first, my plans had to be altered and I also had to fly to France to purchase the necessary equipment and fly it all back to Malta.
My plans went well until I tried to get the five-metre masts from Paris to Sicily. They were too long and had to go by freight. Due to the wasted time at the airport, I missed my flights and had to stay another night in Paris.
After two weeks of constant phone calls from Palermo and various towns, driving around Sicily with Wirz on the way to Malta, all my equipment made it to destination the day before the event. We also had to clear customs but with the help of Sultana and his team all things fell into place even though I ended up receiving this new and untried equipment the morning of the race - May 28.
I was fortunate that on the morning of the race, the weather conditions suited me perfectly. It was a light swell from the southeast with a chop on top and a steady 10 knots from the northeast. Not exactly great for breaking the record of 5hrs 56mins 35secs, but good for my chances of winning with the equipment I had.
There were 10 competitors invited from 10 different countries.
Each sailor was designated a support boat. Mine, I recall, was Maid of Arundel, skippered by Anthony Demajo.
We started at 9 a.m. The fleet spread out pretty quickly due to the different tactical choices.
I quickly took the lead and after one hour I had already lost sight of land and sailing in the straightest direction possible towards Sicily.
The wind had dropped to about seven knots and the seas became smoother. At five hours I was only able to see two other competitors and I was concerned that the sailors I could not see could have passed me without my knowledge.
As we had been on one tack the entire time, the prolonged strain on my body was beginning to take its toll. My only consolation was that I knew I was probably in a better shape than the others having finished the Olympic Games with a gold medal eight months before and not stopped training.
But I was at my physical end.
I could see land and knew the finish was close. The wind had dropped to about three knots and had veered almost to the south east.
Wirz was now a few hundred metres behind and, like me, was also pumping his sail as hard as he could. My hands were blistered and bleeding and the soles of my feet had worn through... I felt exhausted.
Suddenly, I lost control of my rig and it fell in the water. I remember trying to pull it back up but to no avail. All the sacrifice, effort and money to do this event and win the Lm800 prize-money was in jeopardy after a total breakdown of my energies.
My support boat crew was urging me on but all I could do was sit on my board and wait for a recovery that would be enough to pull the sail out of the water and make it home.
Fortunately, before Paco got within 100m of me, I was able to haul the rig and make it through the finish line without any more dramas - finishing in 6:49.42.
Wirz was second in 7:05.38 and John van der Starre (Netherlands) third in 7:34.18.
Of all races I have ever done, including 24-hour solo windsurfing races and the Olympic Games, this was physically the toughest. It took me three days to recover.
Fortunately, when I returned to Palermo, I was able to sell the equipment and pay back the money I had borrowed.
However, I still feel privileged to have experienced this story and come out on top. Due to the equipment issues, I spent more time with Sultana than normal and getting to know him was also a great pleasure.
I remember, in my first meeting with him I asked questions about Malta one of which was "On which side of the road you drive?
With a persuasive look he answered 'in the shade'.
I asked no further and learned the real answer when I arrived for the crossing, yet recalling the episode still brings a grin to my face.