2013 – Triumph and Tribulation in the MIni Transat

Mini Yachts with Maxi  Rigs!            copyright  Peter Marsh

Early in October, 2013 I took the train from London to Portsmouth, ferry to St Malo,  and cycled across Brittany via back roads and canal towpaths to see the solo Mini Transat race start in Douarnenez, near the north-western tip of France.  Another big fleet  of 84 MINI 6.5 meter (21′ 3″) designs had gathered there in late September. My first sight of the fleet from a bridge high above the narrow harbor confirmed what I already knew about their evolution: all modern Minis are built to the maximum allowed–beam 3m (9’10″) and draft 2m (6’6″), and have rotating bowsprits, super tall rigs, and huge sailplans.

84 Minis prepare to race from France to the Caribbean.

84 Minis prepare to race from France to the Caribbean.

Here’s some background on this incredibly successful small-boat phenomenon: since 1977, a fleet of Minis yachts has raced across the Atlantic via the tradewind route every two years, first from SW England, then moving the start to NW France . Enthusiasm for the Mini reaches all over continental Europe (and occasionally to the English-speaking world), and inspires sailors of all ages and abilities to fulfill their dream of competing in a world-class long-distance competition, for far less than any comparable event. (More than 860 Minis have been built, and good used boats can be found for $40,000 and up.)

The Transat is a major event on the European yachting calendar, and more than a hundred sailors compete for a coveted entry slots, with the fleet capped at 84 boats. A point system based on previous activity in the class is used to decide who makes the cut. There are two Mini classes: production boats called “Series” and one-offs called “Protos.” Over the years, the length has remained the same, but the rest of the rules have evolved to encourage a craft that is over-canvassed and super-wide (by any measure) and quite unlike any other.

Visits by classes of school children are a normal part of dockside activity.

Visits by classes of school children are a normal part of dockside activity.

The Series boats are strictly controlled: no modifications, no carbon, hull solid glass fiber, dacron sails, and fixed keels only. The Protos are limited only by the basic box rule length, beam of 3m (9’10”), draft of 2m (6’6″) and mast height above the water of 12m (39′). This open formula has led to a huge increase in the sail plan and made this the testing ground for many radical ideas including water ballast, canting keels, and rotating bowsprits 3.4m (11′) long to carry a giant 900-square foot spinnaker.

When I arrived four days before the start, the weather down the course was already deteriorating. Although I speak good enough French for general travel, I don’t claim to be able to conduct a full interview in French. So I was happy to learn there were six English-speaking sailors in the race, three of whom were female;  I was able to include four of them in my reports sent to NW Yachting blog in Seattle and Sailing World blog in Newport, R.I. (I also watched two films on the race, attended the press events, talked to officials, and learned all I could about this extraordinary race. )

mini diane reid canada copyright pmarshCanada’s First Woman Entrant Diane Reid Among 10 women entered, Diane Reid, 41, from Ontario was the first Canadian woman to compete in the race. She began with the Lake Ontario Short- Handed Racing Series in her Thunderbird, then caught the Mini fever and bought a Zero (Series) design in Seattle. She named it “One Girl’s Ocean Challenge,” and shipped it to France in March 2012. After two seasons of Mini training and racing, she reckons she is ready to take on the Atlantic. Her goal is “to make all the right decisions.”

British veteran Pip Hare In 2009 Pip launched her solo ocean racing career with a 7500 mile, non stop single-handed voyage from Uruguay to the UK.  This was shortly followed by the OSTAR single-handed transatlantic race where she gained an impressive 15th place overall.  In June 2010, she gained an overall 1st place in her class in the Round Britain and Ireland Race. She finished her first  Mini Transat Series class in 2011.

minis katrina ham by pmarshFirst Aussie Woman Katrina Ham, 25 In 2010, she arrived in the UK, determined to pursue her offshore racing dreams. She took part in RORC races as well as delivering yachts in Europe and across the Atlantic. I also worked for IMOCA 60 and Class 40 teams, including the Fastnet. In 2012 she raced in the UK Solent 6.50, UK Mini Fastnet, and the Mini Fastnet. She also managed to get an older Series boat to campaign towards the 2013 Mini Transat! “The Mini Transat is my objective. To me it is the ultimate test of a sailor, which is why I want to do it,” she said. Katrina is based in Lorient, France, where she works as an English teacher, while attending her own French classes.

Australia’s Richard Hewson Has Winning Record Aussie skipper Richard Hewson’s has been sailing all his life and most recently smashed records in the 40,000 nautical mile Clipper round-the-world race. Skippering and navigating the Dubois 68 , Gold Coast Australia, with an amateur crew of 16, in the ten strong fleet, he scored podium positions in all 15 legs of the race, winning an astonishing 12 legs, and in some cases beating the rest of the fleet into port by over 24 hours.

His new Series boat was the RG 650 from young Argentinian architect Nicolas Goldenberg. With its deck and hull chines faired into a fuller bow and stern, it has performed beyond expectations. The skipper’s last success was in the Clipper round-the-world race with an amateur crew of 16–his new ride barely sleeps one!

South African Craig Horsfield (Living in Seattle)  Craig Horsfield has been sailing for over 23 years, beginning with Optimist in South Africa. He has sailed dinghies and keel boats and competed at local, provincial, national and international both inshore and offshore. He successfully  raced an Olson 30 in the NW before turning to the Mini Transat Series class for an opportunity to take his sailing to a new level.

USA’s Jeff MacFarlane’s Mini Dreams (published on sailingworld.com)

mini jeff macThe road to the Mini Transat hasn’t been easy for American Jeff MacFarlane, but that’s the way of the Mini. Jeffrey Macfarlane, 31, grew up in Michigan then spent over a decade in offshore racing, with a long stretch in Australia on boats like the well-known maxi Wild Oats. In 2012, he crossed the Atlantic twice, on the Open 60, Le Pengouin, then in the Quebec St-Malo Race with the Class 40 EDF Energies Nouvelles.

At his home base in New Jersey, he began planning his next adventure: the singlehanded Mini Transat Race, 4,000 miles from France to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Held every two years since 1977, it offers intense competition in high-performance Mini yachts, and has been the proving ground for most of the top French singlehanders.

With no minimum weight, a Proto may also be built too lightly in the search for speed. Jeff found this out the hard way in April. After winning several races, and reaching the top of the Mini points table, his mast post failed during a knockdown. The bulkhead splintered, and the keel-canting tackle broke free while he was hanging on to the keel box.

His hand was badly injured and he had to be airlifted by the Spanish Coast Guard. He returned to the U.S. to recover and had the injury examined by specialists in New York. They re-set the broken bones as a temporary solution, and like a true professional, he insisted on returning to Europe. He found a competitive boat from top designer Sam Manuard. Mini 759 had been built in Nomex and pre-preg carbon in the Czech Republic, far from the sea, and weighed around 700 kgs (1,500 lbs) without rig.

Manuard went over the boat with him, pronounced it capable, and later gave him some coaching on the water. Jeff had a new set of seven sails made by Remi Auburn in La Trinite–a main, a 110 percent (Solent) jib with one reef, roller-furled gennaker, three spinnakers, and a storm jib. He entered a few Mini races and then prepared for his 1,000-mile Transat qualifier in July. (For the second time, because entrants must qualify in the boat they will race in.)

On the first day, off the coast of Brittany, the single port shroud holding up the rotating wing-mast parted at the upper lashing. Luck was with him–the spinnaker halyard was shackled to the lifeline abeam and held the spar until he could jury rig the second spinnaker halyard. He returned to the port of Douarnenez, replaced the cord, re-started, and completed the course without further incident.

Douarnenez is also where the Mini Transat was due to start in October, so getting to the start of the race truly has been the real challenge for MacFarlane. He is the first American to have a chance at winning the race since Jonathan McKee in 2003. (McKee was well in the lead near the finish when his mast broke.)

There are no clear favorites this year with 30 other Protos entered, some 20 years old, some previous winners. One design definitely stands out: the scow-type hull of David Raison’s Magnum that took the race by storm in 2011, winning by over 24 hours. Now raced by an Italian, the tubby wing-masted boat is back and once again looking for strong winds on the beam where its extra buoyancy forward made it untouchable.

The only new launch is Stan Maslard’s Lombard design with a full chine, and a bare carbon hull that weighed only 200 kgs, compared to 300 kgs a decade ago. The mast is 6 to 7 kilos less, resulting in a keel bulb weighing 35 kgs lighter for the same righting moment required by the rules.

On October 10, three days before the start, an ominous depression approaching northwest Spain had the potential to put the fleet into survival mode and threaten safety. The organizers announced a postponement until the outlook improved. “I’m happy about it,” said MacFarlane. “It gives me more time to check the work we’ve done and make some finishing touches.”

84 Boats Trapped in Port

The race has always managed to cross the Bay of Biscay in late October and reach warmer weather without much difficulty–until this year. Well before on October 13, start day, the weather down the course became so windy that  the start was postponed. Instead, the fleet raced around the bay in light airs, and I rode out in a photo boat to watch.  I was able to observe how much sail the boats can fly in light airs, and how fast they could go with the breeze less than 10 knots.

That evening I set off for Lorient on my way to Normandy and Le Havre for the other fall event: the Trans-At Jacques Vabre. For the next two weeks, I watched as the weather brewed up a series of depressions in the Atlantic that produced rain and strong winds in Brittany, and kept the fleet in port for an astonishing four weeks!

When they left on the traditional course Douarnenez-Canaries-Guadeloupe, more delays ensued, until the Canaries stop was dropped altogether. But what really astonished me was the number of disasters large and small that befell all six English speakers by the time they reached western Spain. This began when Craig Horsfield was holed shortly after the start and had to withdraw from the race.

Horsfield Holed on Start Line – Craig was trying to avoid a starboard tacker when a particularly bad gust hit and he couldn’t complete the tack. The other boat, skippered by Annabelle Boudinot,  had the right of way, and she was able to continue after repairs.  I would place much of the blame on the Mini’s design, which results in slow handling when heeled over, and the large number of boats at the start.

mini scofield damageCraig’s boat was too damaged for a quick repair. So he packed up the boat and flew home, planning to have it fixed over winter. But new storms scattered the fleet and the race committee made the virtually unheard of decision to abandon the first leg of the race. Three sailors had to be rescued, abandoning their boats.

Craig’s own boat with a huge hole in the side, was too damaged for a quick repair. He arranged to have the boat fixed over the winter and flew home to Seattle to lick his wounds. But new storms scattered the fleet and the race committee made the virtually unheard of decision to abandon the first leg of the race. Back in Seattle, Horsfield found a message from the race secretary on his phone shortly after his plane landed. He was welcome to rejoin the race!  So he was on a plane again the same day…….

After two weeks, the weather delivered a 100 mph storm that blew down trees and power lines from Brittany to southern England–and made my cycling and camping trip very challenging! But this seemed to clear the skies, and the race finally started 16 days late. The skippers had all qualified for the Transat by completing a demanding series of long races and a 1000-mile non-stop voyage, which appeared to ensure that they were all extremely capable. However, when the gun finally fired,  many entrants learned that they were really not prepared for rough weather.

Mini Boats, Maxi Problems

Sadly, Horsfield estimated the time to repair the damage would cause him to miss the weather opening and decided to abandon the race. Within a few hours, Bert Bossyns of Belgium abandoned with a torn headsail, and Bruno Simonnet of France, aged 51, after losing the use of one of his arms. The Spaniard Carlos Lysancos returned to port with a broken autopilot following a collision and retired. Stan Maslard in Sefico Group (the newest boat in the fleet), broke an autopilot driver just before departure and had rigging problem two hours later.

Man Overboard!
After eight hours sailing, Arthur Leopold- Leger of France in a 2011 prototype was dismasted. According to L’Equipe, France’s sporting newspaper, he fell overboard while harnessed and trying to clear the wreckage, and was suffering from hypothermia by the time he managed to haul himself back onboard. He switched his distress beacon on and a 54m French patrol boat picked him up and treated him on board.

The next to abandon ship was Henrik Masekowitz of Germany on MERLIN-SOFT Sailing who lost his keel, and was picked up by a passing cargo ship. Then the only American Jeff MacFarlane broke his mast and was also picked up by the patrol boat.  All three Minis were still adrift on the Bay of Biscay a week later. (A skipper must obey the decision of an official escort boat when rescued, even though it means losing his boat.) Several others were badly battered on the aborted leg. T

Katrina Ham Wrecks on the Ribadeo Bar

There was another dramatic casualty on the way along the Asturian coast of Spain after the cancelled leg 1. Katrina Ham was involved in a shipwreck while under tow into a port on the north coast of Spain by an official race security boat into Ribadeo. She was kept under observation in a hospital and by the time she was allowed to return to the shore, her  boat was” literally shattered into a million pieces” along with her dreams of the 2013 Mini Transat.”

(Luckily, she received continued support from Pantaenius Insurance of Australia, enabling her to compete in the Classe Mini season in 2014. Needless to say, she was back in the thick of the class again in 2014, with the ultimate goal of completing the 2015 Mini Transat.) www.katrinahamracing.com/blog

The complete damage report will be added soon.


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