Ed. Note: The Mini Transat with a revised route with no stopovers, is into its eighth day. While several more boats have stopped for repairs in the Canary Islands or dropped out altogether, the majority of the fleet is soldiering on across the Atlantic. Northwest sailor Craig Horsfield is having a tremendous race, currently standing in 10th place.
Since 1977, a fleet of 6.5m “Mini” yachts have raced across the Atlantic via the tradewind route every two years, first from SW England, then moving the start to NW France Over the years, the length of 21′ 3″ has remained the same, but the rest of the rules have evolved to encourage a craft that is over-canvassed and super-wide, and quite unlike any other.
The race has always managed to cross the Bay of Biscay in late October and reach warmer weather without much difficulty. The big boat races follow this course in November, so it was generally assumed to be a routine matter–until this year. When I arrived in Brittany by bike four days before the start, the weather down the course was already deteriorating.
I enjoyed myself walking the dock looking for all the different ways the boats were rigged, and talking to half a dozen English-speaking skippers. I also watched two films, talked to officials, and learned all I could about this extraordinary class. Then, when the big day arrived on October 13, the start was postponed because of the approaching bad weather.
Instead, the fleet raced around the bay in light airs, and I rode out in a photo boat to watch. I soon had my first view of their huge mainsails covered in logos, and saw the super-long bowsprits deployed and giant headsails flown. However, I had no hesitation in riding away at the end of the afternoon to continue my tour of Brittany, sensing that I wouldn’t be missing much.
On Again, Off Again
I was right–one depression after another blew through, forcing the start date to be repeatedly delayed. 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, it is quite likely that many of them were cruising through their races to avoid breakage or because they don’t have the desire or skill to push harder.
Mini Boats, Maxi Problems
Anyway, the facts show that many boats soon began to encounter problems of every kind. On the start line, in 12-15 knot winds, Annabelle Boudinot of France on Agro650.org–a prototype built in 2010–appeared to be unaware of the racing rules and collided with U.S.-based South African Craig Horsfield on his production Pogo 2 Naked Retreats, built in California.
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.
After only 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…..
The Mini Saga Continues
The leg was officially abandoned after a big storm in the Bay of Biscay came in sooner than expected, causing the race organizers to direct the fleet to seek shelter in whichever port they safely could. The majority of the boats went to Gijon, north Spain while the lead boats made it to Sada on the NW Spanish coast.
By this time, with boats back at the start, in two Spanish ports, plus two drifting off shore, I found myself beginning to doubt the Mini’s carefully-maintained image as a low-cost way to enjoy friendly, fair, safe competition and achieve your dream of racing the Atlantic.
A Critical Look at “Mini Madness”
In the three weeks since I left Dournanez, I have been pondering the nature and reality of this fantastically successful class with 860 boats registered. Commentators on the Mini and its epic bi-annual Mini Transat Race tread very carefully. No writer likes to point out anything negative–especially about the fastest boats in the super-competitive all-carbon “Prototype” class with the canting keel.
Generally they focus on the amazing endurance of the sailors and the high speed features of the boat like the huge sail area they set on a towering rig, the bowsprit half the length of the boat. These of course result in very high speed reaching, which also makes good pictures and copy. No one ever discusses how the Mini goes to weather in a chop..or doesn’t!
Well, I think it’s time someone did! But never having raced a Mini myself, I will stick to facts, starting with the experience of four English speaking sailors I met in Douarnenez. This is how they fared in the aborted first leg:
Jeff MacFarlane (US): He was rated #1 Mini sailor earlier in the year. I talked to him on several occasions for about an hour. In his first proto, the mast bulkhead collapsed around him, badly injured his hand. His second proto broke 38′ wing-mast after 2 days, the boat is still drifting somewhere in Bay of Biscay
Katrina Ham (Aus.): She let me sit in her tiny cabin and really get the feeling of claustrophobia it can induce. As the fleet convoyed around Cape Finisterre, her boat was rolled by a breaker at the mouth of the Ribadeo inlet, NW Spain, which I visited last March. She was picked up by an escort boat, treated in hospital and released. Her boat was damaged and is not seaworthy.
Richard Hewson (Aus.): He showed me his new RG 650 boat and I was impressed enough to choose him as my top pick in the series fleet of 56 production boats. . He was leading the first leg when it was abandoned, so his time does not count.
Craig Horsfield (South Africa): When the first leg was abandoned, Craig still didn’t see how he could make all of the necessary repairs to the collision damage and tow the boat to Spain in time–so he flew home to Seattle. When the race announced the new start on Nov 12th from Sada, Spain direct to Guadeloupe, Craig thought he could make the necessary repairs and drive to the start line. “It is a crazy plan for what has been a crazy race!” he said. As I write this Craig was on his way by road to catch up with the fleet.
I think that all four of these sailors were seriously let down by their boat or by the race organizers. Of course they are not going to complain. As far as I can tell, no Mini skipper has ever gone public with any criticism of the class or race. This is nothing new, the “Mini Mania” is really cult-like in its absolute belief in the boat, the course, and every pronouncement the class makes. Since they either hope to graduate to bigger boats, or they become lifelong Mini addicts, they can’t afford to step out of line.
The media is partly to blame; the focus on the first boats to finish has created an arms race in the high-tech Prototype class, where boats can cost over $100,000 and are often built super-light without proper oversight. They may not last through a single tough race and some suffer catastrophic failures every season. Their 38′ tall carbon masts go over the side with monotonous regularity, their canting keels also snap occasionally….
If more attention was paid to the series boats with reliable aluminum masts and fixed keels, more top sailors would race them and avoid the potential disappointment and expense of building a new design. However, there are plenty of issues with the series Minis too….
1) As many as five big cruising yachts 50′ and up escort the Mini fleet across the Atlantic to provide help, repairs or rescue–what does this tell you?
2)With seven sails allowed, only one working jib with a reef is carried, to allow several big downwind sails. Tear the jib and you are out.
3) While it might seem convenient, trailering a Mini is not that simple. It is OVERWIDTH by 18″, stands nearly 10′ off the ground, and the mast overhangs the stern by 10 feet or so. How come the rules didn’t make the boat easier to transport or fit in a container with an 8′ beam and a lifting keel?
4) There is no sleeping space on most boats–I mean zero place to stretch out, and just a single burner camping stove hanging from the roof. Skippers talk blithely and routinely about crashing in the cockpit for half an hour for several days–this in northern Europe in the fall.
5) If a 21′ boat with a transom nearly 10′ wide is such a good idea, how come no one else has adopted it?
6) A long bowsprit was called a “widow maker” on down-east schooners. What do you call a bowsprit that is more than half the length of the boat?
7) The shortcomings in the design rules saw a real “breakthrough” in the last race when a round (or scow) bowed hull won easily. It was leading the race again this year. (If that is progress, you can keep it!)
8) The skippers reckon it costs at least $40,000 to buy a used series boat with decent sails and instruments. Add at least another $10,000 minimum for the cost of a campaign to qualify, including travel to and around France, trailering the boat, and hotels stays since you really can’t sleep on board.
9) Don’t forget the cost of shipping it back, because no one seriously wants to sail back to Europe. $50-60,000 to race a 21′ boat to the Caribbean is not affordable for most of the people the class was originally aimed at..
10) Despite all the advanced gear used, the class rules forbid the use of electronic displays for the GPS, insisting on paper charts only, the surrender of all cell phones, and no communication with anyone beyond VHF range. Go figure.
You can check on the race’s progress, and its failures at www.minitransat.fr (Click on the English flag in the top right corner)