Challenging the Atlantic

The Transat Charente-Maritime/Bahia, generally known as the Mini Transat 650 or MT, has been held every other September since 1977. But what began as a low-cost challenge for a handful of diehard adventurers has exploded into a vibrant, highly technical racing class, centered in western Europe, but attracting enthusiasts worldwide. To date, about 450 Mini-650 (6.5-meter) boats have been registered with the Class Association, and dozens more are currently under construction.

Despite weighing less than 1,800 lbs in many cases, Minis are surprisingly sturdy little boats with long competitive lives. At least 300 are currently active on the European circuit, but the MT itself is the big attraction — the premier event that nearly every Mini-ist aspires to race someday. Sadly, because the French Maritime Authority limits participation to 70 boats, quite a few frustrated Mini sailors were left dockside as the 2003 fleet departed.

Looking forward to next time, competition for spaces in the MT will likely be keener than ever. Although six of the 70 starting slots have traditionally been earmarked for non-European entries, high demand and revised qualification requirements (discussed below) will likely make it essential to spend much of the spring and summer competing in Europe. It remains to be seen whether the Mini 6.5s can ever become a truly worldwide class, but it’s already becoming a very tough league.

The Mini Transat course has changed a number of times over the years, but until 2001, it always finished somewhere in the Caribbean. Since then, the finish has shifted to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil &mdash a change that stretches the second leg to 2,960 nm and means that the fleet must now traverse the doldrums.

The first days of the 1,290-nm opening leg from La Rochelle to the Canary Islands have often brought severe gales in the Bay of Biscay. Indeed, this year was shaping up to be a repeat of 1999, when several Minis were abandoned and one sailor died. With a 50-knot onshore gale and 15-meter waves poised to strike within hours of the scheduled Sept. 7 start, race organizers elected to postpone for 48 hours. Minis fall well short of the 3-ton minimum for an unlimited offshore classification in France and can therefore only race trans-Atlantic under a special dispensation.

Image Credit: Courtesy Jonathan McKee
Jonathan McKee has seen impressive success racing small boats, with six Olympic and world championships in three different classes.
He will attempt to translate that experience into a win in his first Mini Transat Race.

At press time, with the race just a few hours old, American Jonathan McKee &mdash a small-boat racing ace and double Olympic medallist &mdash was vying for the lead with French favorite Sam Manuard and looks set to give the United States its strongest showing in the MT since Californian Norton Smith won the second edition of the race in 1979. McKee’s work-up to the race has gone like clockwork &mdash a sharp contrast to the experience of another American, a young New Englander named Adam Seamans who overcame an enormous setback to make the start. Interestingly, they are only the fourth and fifth sailors from the United States to compete in a Transat 650.

Image Credit: Courtesy Jonathan McKee
Jonathan McKee’s proto-class racer, Team McLube, at the start of the race.

The consummate campaigner

Seattle’s McKee is one of the finest natural sailors to come out of North America. His record includes six Olympic and world championships in three different classes, and an America’s Cup campaign with the One World syndicate. Now 42, McKee and his brother Charlie were already nearing 40 when they began racing the athletically demanding 49er skiff in which they won a world championship and an Olympic bronze. Last summer, as a break from his Mini campaign, Jonathan McKee took a week to team up with his wife, Libby Johnson-McKee, at the Tasar World Championship, which the couple won handily with a race in hand. At the prize-giving, they surprised the fleet by revealing that Johnson-McKee was several months pregnant.

Certainly the blend of experience and skill that McKee has brought to the Mini has shaken up the class during the four-month lead-up to the MT. He hit the ground running in April 2003 after buying one of the quickest Minis from the 2001 MT, a 1999 Simon Rogers design that had originally been raced by British pro sailor Brian Thompson. Although equipment problems on Leg 1 put Thompson out of contention for the overall win, he subsequently lead the fleet nearly all the way from the Canaries to Brazil, ultimately finishing a close second in Leg 2 and sixth overall.

Image Credit: Adam Seamans Ocean Racing
Adam Seamans prepares his MT 650 boat Spirit of America prior to the race start off La Rochelle.

McKee bought his Mini sight unseen, and arrived in France barely a week before setting out on a 1,000-nm, 11-day qualification sail &mdash a key requirement for MT aspirants who have not prequalified by completing an earlier Mini Transat. For most sailors, tackling an 11-day, single-handed, offshore voyage in an unfamiliar 21-footer might seem like madness, but as a veteran of the Olympic sailing wars, McKee is accustomed to dropping into unfamiliar racing venues and finding his footing quickly.

Four days after completing his qualification sail, he raced double-handed with former boat owner Thompson, placing second in the 512-nm Course du Lions. A few weeks later, racing single-handed for the first time, McKee won the 500-nm Mini Pavois by a one-hour margin, despite being penalized four hours for passing on the wrong side of a navigational buoy in fog. At this point, he had met his formal qualification requirements for the MT, but he carried on to race two more lead-up events, winning one and placing fourth in the other. Along the way, he and his shore team made extensive upgrades to the boat’s deck gear, rigging, sail inventory, steering and electronics, aided by his title sponsor Team McLube and a healthy list of secondary sponsors.

Image Credit: Adam Seamans Ocean Racing
Adam Seamans’ boat, Spirirt of America, was dismantled 300 miles NW of Bermuda while Seamans was sailing solo en route to France. The rig was repaired in Bermuda, and Seamans continued on to Europe.

Mini 650s come in two varieties, the more radical protos (prototypes), such as McKee’s, and the series boat &mdash approved production boats that conform to class rules but with less draft, no moveable ballast and a bit less sail area. Modern protos are all nearly 3 meters wide (about 10 feet, the maximum allowed) because, as in the Open 60/50s, increasing form stability has a multiplying effect on the supplementary stability that can be obtained by using moveable ballast. Most recent protos have canting keels, while the older boats typically featured water ballast. However, McKee’s Team McLube is unique in having a canting keel that also slides fore and aft about 2 feet 8 inches, as well as a retractable canard (daggerboard) that tilts to remain vertical when the boat heels. With a rig nearly 38 feet high and nearly 1,000 square feet of downwind sail area, protos are quite prone to nosediving when surfing in strong winds. The sliding keel shifts weight far aft to improve control in these conditions. Obviously there are structural challenges and a possible drag penalty associated with having a slot in the bottom over 4 feet long. However, after three years of sailing, this novel Mini design has met the test, and there’s growing interest in sister ships now available through Ovington Marine in the U.K.

McKee would rather not be seen as a hot favorite for the Transat, and he counters such suggestions by listing off a half-dozen French sailors with much more time in the class and more extensive single-handing résumés. Still, having won or almost won in every Mini race sailed to date, there’s no question he’s a strong contender in the main event.

The Adam Seamans saga

Even top sailors like McKee at the “professional” end of the Mini spectrum can, at best, hope for logistical support and equipment sponsorships, but little or no direct financial remuneration. At the other end of the scale are those who buy an outdated boat, pay everything out of their own pockets and approach the race strictly as a personal challenge.

Adam Seamans from Beverly, Mass., falls somewhere between these extremes. The 25-year-old professional seaman serves as third mate aboard a research ship operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Raised on dinghy and coastal keelboat racing, he now hopes to use the Transat 650 as a stepping stone to other ocean-racing projects. His campaign has not gone smoothly so far, but it certainly exemplifies the indomitable spirit of the typical Mini enthusiast.

Seamans is racing a Pogo 6.50 &mdash until very recently, the fastest of the series Minis. To qualify for the production class, a single builder must have produced at least 10 hulls to acceptable one-design standards. Moveable ballast is not allowed for series boats, and draft is restricted 5 feet 3 inches, as opposed to 6 feet 6 inches for the protos. With less stability to work with, they carry slightly less sail, but are still remarkably quick for seagoing boats of their size, and they often hang in with the protos upwind.

Seamans bought Pogo #175 from Hervé Favre, who raced it to a sixth-place class finish the last MT. By November 2002, the new owner had successfully completed a 1,200-nm solo qualification sail from Maine to South Carolina. Wintering in Charleston, Seamans and a handful of friends performed a comprehensive refit that included a brand-new mast.

Early in 2003, the Grand Pavois Organisation, which conducts the MT, issued an unexpected change to the qualification requirements. In past races, a limited number of wildcard entries from non-European countries had been allowed to qualify for the main event by having sailed documented qualification passages and acceptable offshore races in their home waters. Following the change, up to six “foreign” skippers, selected on basis of their sailing CVs, would be granted a Derogation to the Calendar of Qualification (DQ). However, the DQ would merely give these overseas sailors some extra time to sail at least two Mini-class qualifying races in Europe. It did not exempt foreign skippers from this requirement, as had previously been the case.

Seamans, like McKee, was issued a DQ, but he still needed the two European races to complete his qualification. In any case, he’d been planning to sail the boat to France himself to gain more experience single-handing. He left Charleston on May 10, expecting to complete the trans-Atlantic passage in 30 days &mdash just enough time to make the Mini Fastnet qualifier starting on June 15.

The plan changed dramatically on the night of May 18, while Seamans was beating to windward some 300 miles east of Bermuda. As he reported by satcom, “Last night at 2330, I was hit by kind of a freak wave that picked up my port side (I was on port tack) with triple reef and storm jib. The wave kind of lifted me up a little bit, then a second wave came under, picked up the boat and just rolled it. After the roll, the rig was gone and of course the whole inside of the boat was completely trashed.”

Seamans reached Bermuda after three days of downwind sailing under jury-rig, but it now appeared there was no hope of reaching Europe in time to qualify. He remained remarkably upbeat, however, having already decided to soldier on to gain experience for the 2005 MT. In Bermuda, several local sailors, including Around Alone competitor Alan Paris, helped Seamans splice together a shortened rig from pieces of the broken mast.

Following an 18-day passage under permanently double-reefed main, Seamans and his sailing buddy, Dan Loutrel, arrived in the Azores, where they received an email from the Grand Pavois Organisation. The unexpected message suggested a last-ditch option for meeting the Transat requirements: back-to-back qualification races, first in the Med and a few days later on the Atlantic coast of France.

Seamans’ supporters rose to the challenge, and when Spirit of America made landfall in western Spain on June 29, a rented trailer and new mast were on hand for the 700-mile road trip to Port Camargue in southern France. Re-rigged in time for the 500-nm MiniMax race on July 5, Seamans and Loutrel placed first in class. From there it was another road trip across France for the 600-nm Transgascogne race, where Seamans finished 11th out of 35 series Minis, and more important, completed his qualification for the Mini Transat.

How is Seamans likely to fare in the MT? He’s a skilled, determined sailor who has put 5,900 miles on his boat in just a few months, but some of his rivals in the production class have been campaigning their Pogos for years. As well, two hot new designs have recently qualified for series status: the Pogo 2 (say “Pogo deux”) and the Naus 650. Five of these newer boats have qualified in the hands of experienced Mini campaigners. On a positive note, two days into the race, Seamans was lying 18th among series boats, about 21 miles behind the class leader aboard a Pogo 2. And with 4,000 miles of racing still ahead, there will be plenty of chances to gain (or lose) ground.

Contributing Editor Sven Donaldson is freelance writer and former sailmaker living in British Columbia.

By Ocean Navigator