Sailing: Kiwi Crichton chases another victory

On track to complete a midnight raid on the still-glorious fortress that is Valletta's Grand Harbour, Neville Crichton's 94-foot Alfa Romeo was expected to round off an all-conquering open season by winning the Rolex Middle Sea Race last night.

The first day of the 609-mile race was less than promising as a 44-boat fleet went north from Malta and anticlockwise round Sicily and Lampedusa. Light conditions meant slow progress, but last night the record of 64hr 49min 57sec set by Robert McNeil's Zephyrus V in 2000 was under threat.

Crichton, a Kiwi who made good importing cars in Australia, also won the Sydney to Hobart Race and pipped McNeil in this year's Rolex Fastnet, the third blue water classic backed by the Swiss watch company as it expands into sailing sponsorship worldwide.

It is also bidding to take America's Cup sponsorship from the French luxury goods maker Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy. The venue for the next America's Cup defence is expected to be announced at the end of next month.

The benevolent conditions meant a drama-free progress for the rest of the yachts and there were no reports of any of the refugees from sub-Saharan Africa making their way north in small boats from Libya to Italy having to be given assistance. But the winds were too light for Britain's Tony Bullimore, who languished near the back of the fleet in his 100-foot catamaran, Team Pimsic.

For David Bedford, the skipper of Charles Dunstone's Enigma, there was the hope of beating Alfa Romeo on handicap, but for the smaller boats a turnaround to westerly gales was forecast for their final 24 hours on the water.

The Middle Sea Race began life 35 years ago but was not held between 1983 and 1996. Now Malta hopes it is firmly back on the international calendar as it prepares for full membership of the European Union next May. While the George Cross island does not have the budgets of Dubai or Qatar to back profile-raising major sports events, Malta is investing in major waterfront regeneration, for which the Middle Sea Race is a showcase.

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