Saturday, May 5, 2018

How the J/122 STELLAR RACING TEAM won the Rolex Middle Sea Race

(Gzira, Malta)- The J/122 STELLAR RACING TEAM won the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2017 in the IRC Doublehanded Division, racing around Sicily and a set of Mediterranean islands in the famously grueling and challenging 650nm race.  Recall that nearly 80% of the fleet retired due to mountainous waves and a 25-40 kt “mistral” whipping the Med into a hellish maelstrom.
J/122 Stellar Racing team
The real heroes of that race were the two Russian sailors that felt like they had been to hell and back on their J/122 STELLAR RACING Team.  Here is their remarkable story, as told by Alexander GRUDNINA and Dmitry KONDRATIEV, to YACHT RUSSIA magazine and published in their December 2017 issue.

YACHT RUSSIA: In your opinion, what led to your amazing success on the race? Did luck play a role in the game? And, was there a Russian millionaire oligarch that wanted to sponsor you and say- “Get everything ready, shall we go?”

AG: If we were only to be so lucky! Everything depended on us and on the boat (said Alex laughing).

Our boat was very fast and strong! But, we were still afraid, can she (their J/122) survive in such difficult conditions?

So, we tried hard.  We changed our sails in time. The waves were huge, five-meters high! It was crazy!  True, the instruments did not always work. When one of these giant waves crashed over us, all the instruments and electrics went out. To be frank, it became scary.

But, our J/122 took the punishment, she flowed beautifully through the waves, and we kept going!

We did not intend to leave the race! But, our thoughts were, when would these storms end? And, will we be able to sail in quieter weather?

YACHT RUSSIA: Nevertheless, it looked like the unified battalion of eight Dueling Hammers from Hell were trying to force you from the dance?

AG: Probably! But, we wanted to win more than others.

DK: To finish off the race, one must have the power of forging strong determination and a will to win. Of course, we survived, both for the boat and for each other!

You have to know, both of us are “Persians”, we do not like something that has not worked out! And, if we do something, it's either good or not! And, we were sure that we would cope and persevere!
J/122 Stellar Racing team - Rolex Middle Sea Race winner doublehanded
YACHT RUSSIA: Overcoming yourselves or the extremes of nature and the elements- what was harder for you to do?

AG: I had doubtful questions about myself. For me, it was my first 600 nm offshore race in the Mediterranean in such insane weather.  And, I would not go into it without great faith in ourselves and abilities to overcome adversity. There was hope for us. I, myself, doubted whether I could come up with the strength to do it. But, I did it. I did not want to disappoint my teammate!

DK: We were going to chase our dream and enjoy it. Somehow.  It may seem crazy, what pleasure is there in the storm conditions? For us, this was an invaluable experience and provided unforgettable impressions for life.

YACHT RUSSIA: What was your preparation for the race and how long ago did your team come together?

AG: We met in Dima in September 2013.  Then, the next year we had two 600-mile races- the Caribbean 600 Challenge and the Newport to Bermuda Race. We had a training session in April this year, we went to the race around Malta on a 40-footer, not our current boat. But it was only 55 miles, just a day race.

DK: ...and yet it became clear, we must pay special attention to preparation and strategy.

J/122 Stellar Racing Team- finishing Rolex Middle Sea RaceYACHT RUSSIA: How are the duties divided, changing sails, making tactical decisions?

AE: We made all decisions together. Strategy and tactics were developed on shore, before the race, and we tried to strictly follow the strategic plan- to win!

And, almost everything we saw was as expected in our scenario/ strategic planning.  Only, a little more than the expected, as we stayed awake the entire first night off the coast of Sicily.

We changed and furled sails.  We took turns, of course, steering and changing sails together. How else? On the morning going around Sicily and the Straits of Messina, when the wind was a steady 30 knots, we began to change from the #3 jib to the #4 heavy weather jib.  But, after two or three attempts, when we were both swept across the deck by huge waves, we realized that we could not change sails going upwind!  Far too dangerous!  So, we turned downwind and changed sails.  With the reefed main and #4 we could get back on course— that took us about 40 minutes!

YACHT RUSSIA: Did you have a much more difficult race than boats with full crews?

AG: Yes, much harder! For example, you cannot change sails quickly, since you do not have 10 people on board. No one will help, except your partner!

JK: Yes, the race doublehanded is much more difficult. It depends on clear planning, slower processes and longer time for operational decisions. The higher the speed of work, the faster the yacht. Sasha and I worked well together, and at times, we even thought that we were not two on a yacht, but a whole team! Often, without even discussing, one look at the knotmeter or wind gauge, and we knew what to do and how.

YACHT RUSSIA: Understood. So, what was the most difficult part of the race?

AG: For me - it was the overall experience. Will the body and spirit stand up to the punishment? The J/122 is strong, an amazing boat.  Even though we had “older” sails, we were still fast in a big breeze. The boat was not difficult, just the sailors were having trouble!

DK: For me, the hardest part was getting myself to rest. When the elements got rough and violent, I sat at the helm for exactly 10 hours. Time seemed to stop. I was like bewitched. But, this euphoria had the opposite side. Going down into the warm cabin, you realize that there is no more strength. But, even when resting, we did not forget to monitor the speed of the yacht; any change in the wind, the character of the wave, the roll, was under constant control by the helmsman. You can feel that even while sleeping or resting down below.

AG: But, we did not sleep much on the day when the bad weather came; we only rested for two or three hours. That was enough. Once we were in the big storm (mistral) and crazy, breaking waves, you could rest a few hours at a time.  That was the hardest part, not getting enough rest.
Rolex Middle Sea Race course for J/122 Stellar Racing team
YACHT RUSSIA: And, how was the food on board?

AG: Everything was prepared on shore. Cooked pasta, rice, podlivka and all the sauces for them. Then, it's all vacuum-packed and put into the freezer. On the boat, it was only necessary to put the food in for an hour in the oven, or boil water to heat the food bags.  We always had a pleasant appetite and great meals! Even in the big waves, the J/122 is comfortable enough to cook! We had breakfast at about 0800 hrs, dinner was about 1800 hours. Dima would announce “food’s on!” He did it perfectly, and my task was not to interfere and just sail the boat!

YACHT RUSSIA: What was your first reaction when you found out that everyone in your IRC Doublehanded Division quit racing/ dropped out, except you?

AG: What's wrong, we wondered? We were sailing our J/122 just fine! We realized how bad the weather was for other boats when we saw our class leader with a badly torn mainsail, it was terrible to watch! He flew past half a dozen meters from us. At that moment, we ourselves went towards the nearest island, to hide from the monstrous waves.  We decided to make a minor repair to our mainsail and change from the #4 jib to the storm jib in the lee of the island.  It was a good move.  We then returned to the race, losing only an hour.  The RMSR Race Committee once again confirmed our position in the race and made sure we were “OK” and they notified us that we were the only boat left racing from our IRC Doublehanded Division. That is how it remained until we reached the finish line.

DC: It was a very unusual feeling, both joyful and sad. We felt we were competitive and, at the time the other boats dropped out, we knew we were in the top 1st or 2nd position in our class.

YACHT RUSSIA: To participate in the regatta, you raised funds with “crowd-funding” on the Internet.  Was that easier than finding a sponsor?

DK: We worked in both directions, looking for sponsors, offering partnerships, looking for support among sailing enthusiasts, our friends and acquaintances. Sponsorship on such a scale, when it is only one small race, is not very attractive for sponsors.  And, to get support from the sailing audience would be hard, very few people knew of us and our successes offshore.  Even when we returned from getting a 3rd place in the 2014 Newport to Bermuda Race- that went unnoticed and we did not get much press, if any. Russia and the Russian Sailing Federation need victories!! Then, publicize them, too!

YACHT RUSSIA: What is your greatest dream- is it to keep sailing?

AG: I'm not too attracted to offshore racing, ironically.  And, if six years ago I was called to sail the Volvo Ocean Race, I would think about that a hundred times. That would be a challenge!  But, today?  For me the highlights are fun, but brief.  To win the World Sailing Cup in some prestigious one-design boat, that would be great!  As for Dima here, he thinks otherwise, I am sure.  He likes long offshore passages, it’s special for him.

DK: For me, the big dream is to go on a long offshore race, maybe singlehanded.  For that, it might be worthwhile to dream a little more ...

YACHT RUSSIA: How is it possible to combine sailing and a normal lifestyle? Are there other hobbies that you might enjoy and share with family or friends? What is it, Alexander?

AG: Me? I love mountain skiing. And fishing, when there is time. In fact, we have an annual trip with friends to fish on the Volga! Huge catfish, sturgeon, too, maybe some with caviar! Plus, I love table tennis.

YACHT RUSSIA: And, for you Dmitry?

DK: In my “normal life”, I love snowboarding and hiking in the mountains. And, I adore spending time with my wife and children- I have two of them, a little boy and a girl. In general, I love the sea and the things associated with it- work, people, sports, and nature. Sailing is constantly evolving, so there is always room for improvement.

YACHT RUSSIA: Thank you both for taking the time to chat with us and sharing your incredible experience winning the Rolex Middle Sea Race IRC Doublehanded Division.  A truly amazing feat of seamanship!  Good luck on your future endeavors!

J/122 Russian team- Dmitry KondratieveDmitry KONDRATIEV
He’s been sailing since 2001. He accidentally learned that there was a sailing school at the Moscow Institute, and immediately decided to go racing.

Commented Dmitry, “There, for the first time, I saw how the skipper/solo cruiser yachts compete. At that moment, there was a push for such a unique format to get more sailors into it. A few years later, I already had two wins in singlehanded races, and I wanted something more complicated.

In 2008, I took part in an offshore crossing on a yacht of the Voytor-Osear class and learned a lot from a skipper from New Zealand. This year in Malta was my ninth 600+ mile race with the role of captain. It just so happened that I did not get a podium finish in any race, except Bermuda. In general, I graduated from one of the Russian Sailing Federation schools, then worked for several years, teaching people to sail. Now, I teach sailing with regards to racing, specifically with a focus on offshore racing.”

Alex GrudninaAlexander GRUDNINA
"How did I get into the sailing? I think it was in 1986, though not entirely sure why, like many of those times in life decisions and experiences!

A teacher came to our school, who turned out to be a “Saratov Sailing Merit” expert in Russia.  He recruited children for the sailing section in Saratov.

At first, I was not going to participate, because I was more attracted to team sports. However, he looked me in the eyes, and began to convince me that I really should definitely go! He was nice and a wise man, and I agreed!  Then, I grew up, grew and grew, to become an International Master of Sports in the Russian Sailing Federation. Among my personal achievements, I now have three victories in regattas that were sponsored by ROLEX- Rolex Middle Sea Race, Rolex Newport Bermuda Race, and Rolex RORC 600 Challenge Race. Not bad for a kid from Saratov, right?!”