Proving ground

The 12th running of the biennial Mini-Transat has turned out to be a watershed event. For one thing, it’s never been so popular.

For the ’99 edition of the race, an unprecedented 125 sailors signed on to singlehand 21-foot boats across the Atlantic. Ultimately, race organizers had to limit entries to 70 due to safety and tracking considerations. Of those who got the nod, nearly half (32 sailors) hailed from countries other than France. It’s clear that this remarkable racethe traditional proving grounds for the French solo starshas finally gone international in a meaningful way, and it follows that opportunities for non-French solo sailors seem to be proliferating by leaps and bounds.

Much of the credit for these welcome developments goes to two Brits, Mark Turner and Ellen MacArthur, who teamed up to prepare for the ’97 Mini-Transat, and ultimately finished fifth and 17th respectively. Both Turner, who had led overall at times in the race, and MacArthur, not quite 20 years old at the time and the sole female entry for ’97, received a great deal of media attention. It certainly didn’t hurt that a year earlier, another British solo sailor, Peter Goss, has received international recognition for his heroic rescue of fellow Vendee Globe competitor Raphael Dinelli. Clearly, the time was ripe for single/shorthanded racing to “take off” in the U.K.

Since ’97, Mark Turner has gone into business promoting singlehanded offshore sailing and assisting would-be competitors with their campaigns. Pete Goss heads a multi-million dollar effort that is currently putting the final touches on a radical 125-foot wave-piercing catamaran for The Race, starting December 31, 2000. Ellen MacArthur has also emerged as a full-fledged sailing superstar with an enthusiastic following in France where she’s known as “La petite Anglaise.” And, interestingly, a year ago November, the Royal Yachting Association officially reversed its long-standing opposition to singlehanded racing and recognized it as a legitimate branch of the sport. Talent development programs and help with funding, coaching, etc., are now in the works.

The increasingly eclectic and international character of solo/shorthanded racing was highlighted this autumn when two major transatlantic races ran concurrently on the traditional southeast trade-winds route. One, the heavily subscribed Mini-Transat, sailed a two-leg course from Concarneau in southern Brittany to Basse Terre, Guadeloupe, with a stopover in the Canary Islands. The other was a double-handed, non-stop race called the Transat Jacques Vabre from the port of Le Harve in France to Cartegana, Columbiathe traditional route of 19th century coffee traders. This year, the Jacques Vabre was cleverly reformatted to give equal billing to the open 60 monohulls and the inherently faster 60-foot trimarans (which started a day later and sailed a longer course). Fittingly, the Jacques Vabre boats were sailed almost entirely by Mini-Transat graduates sailors who had earned their stripes in the harshly demanding little 21-footers. Unfortunately, both races ran into exceptionally wicked weather (although at different points on their courses), causing extensive attrition from both fleets and the loss of one life. Although transatlantic passages are have become so commonplace that some sailors dismiss them as “trips across the pond,” the reality is often very different.

Mini-Transat ’99

For more than half the Mini sailors, most of whom had devoted at least a year of their lives to simply reaching the start line, the grand adventure was over almost before it began. The opening 350 miles of the race from South Brittany across the Bay of Biscay to Cape Finesterre was expected to be difficult due to frequent autumn gales and heavy shipping traffic. However, the ’99 race set out into the teeth of a particularly vicious low pressure system that brought 35- to 40-knot southwest winds and towering seas. Close-hauled in a Mini, these are near-survival conditions. Three of the 70 entries chose to postpone their starts, and within 24 hours another 15 had limped back to Concarneau or to nearby ports with a wide assortment of problems.

Eleven Mini sailors activated EPIRBs and nine were rescued by helicopter after their boats were rolled and dismasted, lost keels, or collided with floating objects. Ultimately, only six sailors managed to start on time and complete the brutal first leg without interruption. Thirty-eight others eventually reached Lazarote in the Canary Islandsno longer in contention for the overall prizes, but still keen to make their presence felt on leg 2.

To better appreciate the extreme difficulties these sailors had confronted, it helps to know a bit about the Mini class boats they sail. These highly tuned seagoing “skiffs” come in two flavors: “prototypes,” which are developmental boats conforming to a simple box rule, and “series” or one designs. There are two recognized one designs in the Mini 6.5m ranks, but the old-fashioned “Coco” is seldom raced anymore. The Series class in ’99 consisted of 15 “Pogos” high-performance production boats based upon the winning proto from the ’93 race, but with simpler gear, heavier construction, and no moveable ballast.

The protos conform to a simple box rule that prescribes a maximum hull length of 6.5 m (21 feet 4 inches), maximum beam of 3 m (10 feet 2 inches), minimum average freeboard, monohull configuration, maximum draft of 2 m (6 feet 7 inches), and a vertical measurement from top of mast to bottom of keel not exceeding 14 m (46 feet 3 inches). There are also limitations on moveable ballast, measured righting moment at 90° heel, and the number/type of sails. Carbon construction is the norm for hulls and foils, but it is prohibited in spars. There’s a long list of required safety equipment, including Argos positional beacons. However, Minis compete without any outside assistance such as customized weather routing, and skippers are not privy to the position data from their competitors’ Argos beacons. Making good strategic decisions and sticking to the game plan is crucial but very difficult, with no feedback on fleet position while suffering near-total sleep deprivation.

The Mini class rule results in a lightweight (1,600 lbs), skimming dish with an upwind sail area on par with the typical 35-footer and a very long, swing-out spinnaker pole that allows asymmetrical chutes up to 800 square feet and big masthead gennakers to be flown. If you picture the modern Mini as a boat that’s a yard shorter and a foot wider than a J/24 but with about half the displacement and twice the sail area, you won’t be far off. Righting moment is augmented by either water ballast (maximum 200 liters per side) or a swing-keel arrangement, and opinion is sharply divided between these alternatives. The swing-keel boats end up being a little heavier in downwind mode and less efficient upwind, but they are lighter and presumably quicker on reaches. To improve tracking and balance across a wide range of sailing/sea conditions, daggerboards ahead of the keel and retractable running skegs aft are often fitted. Indeed, some Minis have sprouted as many as six underwater foils, including the usual twin, transom-hung rudders.

The spectacular progress of autopilot technology is nowhere more evident than in the Minis, which routinely plane under spinnaker at speeds of 10 to 15 knots while under autopilot control.

Mini class rules permit sailors to use stores and equipment as extra moveable ballast. Matossagethe brutal process of re-stacking hundreds of pounds of gear while doubled over in a cabin less than four feet highis an integral part of every tack or gybe and a unique feature of sailing these little boats.In addition, a skimpy freeze-dried diet, constant wetness, and relentless, violent motion contribute to the overall experience.

Time and again, it’s been demonstrated that meticulous preparation and endless practice are the keys to success in the Mini-Transat. Certainly this lesson came through again in ’99 when ’97 winner Sebastien Magnen was first to finish leg 1, sailing the self-designed boat he had raced two years earlier. Over the past year he had refitted her completely, trimmed away additional weight, and raced extensively (placing first or second in each of three qualifying races making up the European “Mini Circuit”). Second place on leg 1 went to New Zealander Chris Sayer, who had put 12,000 practice and qualifying miles in his year-old mini, Navman. Despite his vast experience, Magnen’s first leg passage was no picnic. Problems with his autopilot and rudders and a torn jib nearly forced him into port at one point, but he managed to patch things up and push on to reach Lanzarote with a seven-hour lead. Similarly, Sayer had some rough moments, including sail problems and the loss of a turnbuckle that nearly cost him his rig.

The last of the leg 1 finishers straggled into Lanzarote less than a day before the scheduled October 19 re-start, and at the request of all competitors, the resumption of racing was delayed for 48 hours. Immediately after starting, the fleet split decisively with a minority of skippers diving south in hopes of picking up the trades sooner, and the rest electing a northerly rhumb line course toward the finish at Guadeloupe in the French Antilles. Seb Magnen and three-time Mini-Transat veteran Lionel Lemonchois chose the southern route, while the northern pack was lead by Erwan Tabarly, a talented young Frenchman with plenty of mini miles to his credit.

Soon after leaving Lanzarote, two skippers came to grief in surprisingly mild conditions. Sebastien Josse, who placed fourth on leg 1 (only 10 hours behind Magnen), lost his canting keel, which tore loose from its pivots and was left dangling from the adjustment tackles. Then Diane Gélébartone of just two women still in the racewas rolled and dismasted. Both were promptly rescued by larger vessels.

Midway into the leg, Magnen got his tradewinds and began to gain back miles on the northern leaders. Reeling off a series of 200-plus-mile days in a brisk following breeze, he pulled abreast of Tabarly and into a narrow lead. Also well placed for overall honors were Pierre Yves Moreau (third in leg 1) and the Kiwi Sayer, who remained in striking distance for an overall prize. Meanwhile, British sailor Peter Heppel, although well behind after struggling through leg 1, was lying in a close third for the final sprint into Guadeloupe.

But with three days to go Seb Magnen’s pace began to falter, and Tabarly drew ahead. Hours before the finish, Heppel slipped into second, although Magnen’s third-place time secured his overall victorythe first repeat winner in Mini-Transat history. His success seemed all the more remarkable when the source of his speed problem was revealed: a mast broken clean off around the level of the second spreaders. He’d sailed the closing three days with an undersized, patched-together mainsail and short-hoist storm jib.

Amazingly, three of the next five finishers also crossed the line under jury-rigs. Pierre Yves Moreau, Lionel Lemonchois, and Chris Sayer, like Magnen, were all dismasted as the fleet passed through a series of violent rain squalls. Nevertheless, Moreau and Sayer managed to sort things out in time to finish second and third respectively in the overall scoring. Erwan Tabarly’s 2nd leg winning time moved him up to fourth in the combined scoring, while another UK sailor, Alex Bennett, placed fifth overall. Never before have two non-French sailors finished a Mini-Transat in the top five.

The Transat Jacques Vabre

Nearly four weeks after the Minis began their arduous trek across the Bay of Biscay, 11 open class monohulls left Le Harve bound for Cartagena, Columbia, followed a day later by seven 60-foot turbo-trimarans. The monohull fleet included nine up-to-date open 60s, most with plans for the Vendee Globe solo round-the-world race next September. But unlike the Vendee, the Jacques Vabre is a double-handed race, and one that therefore sees the boats sailed closer to their full potential.

For the Jacques Vabre, 22-year-old Ellen MacArthur teamed up with the famous French skipper Yves Parlier aboard Aquitaine Innovations, the first open 60 to be equipped with deck spreaders and a rotating wing mast. They were joined by six all-French teams with new-generation open 60s, and two British teams, also in late-model boats. A pair of open 50 entries rounded out the fieldone sailed by two young Englishwomen who had raced aboard Tracy Edward’s Royal Sun Alliance in a promising, but ultimately unsuccessful Jules Verne record attempt. Again, it would appear that the new emphasis on single/shorthanded racing in the UK has been quick to bear fruit.

The trimaran field was, as usual, all Frenchno great surprise considering that the budget for one of these high-tech monsters could finance several 60-foot monohulls. The man to beat, as usual, was Loïck Peyron, finishing off a final season with his “old” Fujicolor before starting the next millennium with a new, state-of-the-art boat. Peyron’s crew, Franck Proffit, has sailed full-time with him for the past seven years, making them a well-honed team.

Just four hours after the multihulls left Le Havre, Alain Gautier and Michel Desjoyeaux aboard Brocelinde capsized while leading the race under full main and a large gennaker. Winds were about 25 knots at the time with steep, building seas. The two elected to stay with the inverted boat, which was eventually towed to harbor and righted successfully, albeit with some damage.

Over the next few days, a horrific storm pummeled the fleet as the tail end of Hurricane Irene swept across the central Atlantic. By good fortune, the Mini-Transat boats that had survived the pasting in the Bay of Biscay were departing the Canaries as the storm passed, and were far enough south to avoid it. Loïck Peyron reported some of the worst sea conditions he’d ever seen: “wind gusting to 60 knots and the waves 10 to 12 meters high. We are under bare poles and have some difficulties driving the boat under the wing mast alone. Sometimes the boat is lying [supported] only on one floater.”

At the height of the storm, about 300 miles northeast of the Azores, Groupe André, another 60-foot trimaran, capsized with the loss of 42-year-old Paul Vatine. His co-skipper, Jean Maurel, belowdecks at the time, was rescued by a third trimaran that had broken a centerboard earlier and was proceeding to the Azores for repairs. Vatine, known as the “King of the Jacques Vabre,” had won the race twice and crossed the Atlantic some 30 times. He did not trigger his individual EPIRB, suggesting he may have been stunned by the violence of the capsize. Although he was wearing a survival suit and self-inflating life vest, aircraft and surface searches turned up nothing.

In some respects the monohull fleet fared better than the multihulls, although five boats elected to withdraw rather than risk serious damage. Aquitaine Innovations nearly lost her rig, and limped along at idle speed for three days until repairs could be made. The two women aboard the 50-foot Pindar managed to rebuild a damaged upper forestay tang and reattach the forestayan amazing feat in very difficult conditions. However, neither managed to rejoin the lead group.

From the start, Catherine Chabaud and Luc Bartissol aboard Whirlpool-Europe 2 had paced the monohull fleet, and during the storm they extended their lead. However, in the closing stages of the race Whirlpool sailed into lighter winds, and the next three boats quickly closed to within striking distance. After a nerve-wracking four-way gybing duel for the final 150 miles into Cartagena, Sodebo, Savourons la Vie, sailed by Thomas Coville and Hervé Jan, took the lead with just two miles to go. At the same time, Team Group 4, raced by Mike Golding and Edward Danby, overtook Sill Enterprises to give Great Britain third spot on the monohull podium. A couple days earlier, Loïck Peyron had led the four remaining trimarans into Cartagena, securing the win and another overall Ocean Racing Multihull Association title. All four trimarans suffered significant damage during the unusually grueling crossing.

Where are the North Americans?

Clearly, when it comes to the fully sponsored 60-footers, it’s no surprise that North American entries are few and far between. On the other hand, it’s less obvious why sailors from our side of the pond have not appeared more often in the Mini-Transat. In fact, the second Mini race, held in 1976, was won by a Californian, Norton Smith, who sailed the first water-ballasted Mini, a boat called American Express, designed by Tom Wylie. But two years later, the locus of Mini-Transat had shifted to France, and “foreign” participation dropped to virtually nil.

Amateur single and shorthanded sailing is thriving in parts of the U.S., particularly the West Coast. However, there are formidable hurdles to clear in making the transition to the more serious and “professional” European scene. Nevertheless, one U.S. sailor, Jeffrey Wargo, was officially accepted as a wild card entry in the ’99 Mini-Transat; he was apparently unable to make the start. However, over the course of the next decade, it’s entirely likely that North American sailors will again play a larger role the solo racing game, just as British, Italians, and New Zealanders have lately managed to do.

Contributing editor Sven Donaldson, a former sailmaker, is a marine technical writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

By Ocean Navigator