Little boats with a big history

Published on September 21st, 2015

by Brian Hancock
This past Saturday the Mini Transat started from the tiny town of Douarnenez located in Brittany in the northwest region of France. There are 72, yes 72 boats competing, an enormous fleet of futuristic boats all headed for Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe with a stop along the way in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.

It’s 1,250 nautical miles from France to the Canary Islands, and 2,770 miles from the Canaries to the Caribbean for a total course distance of just over 4,000 miles. The Mini Transat is raced in highly strung, over canvassed boats that, by race rules, cannot be longer than 6.5 meters, or in American terms, just over 21 feet.

Now you would be correct in assuming that most of the competitors are from France because hurtling down huge waves in tea-cup sized boats with all sails up is a uniquely French thing to do, but in this edition they have 15 different nationalities competing. It’s truly an international event but sadly there is not a single American entry and I am sure that the race will receive minimal, if any coverage in the US whereas the start will be broadcast live on French television. Such is the difference in attitude toward sailing in Europe when compared to the US.


Funky bow and foils are just a part of the latest innovation – photo credit Jacques Vapillon

I have sailed a mini, I have sailed in Europe and I have sailed in the US so I have some perspective on this and I can see why there is little appeal to the average American sailor. When we go racing over here in the States we like to go out in well tricked out boats, we like to race hard, and then we like to return to the dock for beer and a variety of rum drinks.

The idea of climbing aboard a boat barely bigger than the SUV parked in our driveway, loading it with freeze dried food, setting off to sail across the Bay of Biscay just as the early autumn storms are starting to gather, and knowing that for the next few weeks you will be soaking wet and mostly terrified holds little appeal when you stack it up against a nice prime rib and bottle of red at the yacht club to end your days racing.

The Mini Transat was started by an eccentric British sailor by the name of Bob Salmon. I met him in ’85 when I was racing the Whitbread on Drum and he was the skipper of a maxi boat by the name of Norsk Data. He was passionate about the idea of an affordable race and lamented the escalating cost to compete in an event such as the Whitbread. I never did get to ask him how he felt about the cost of an entry in the Volvo Ocean Race but I am sure it gave him plenty of heartburn.


Not much room below – photo credit Jacques Vapillon

The original intent of the Mini Transat was to have an event that many could afford to participate in. The boats were small and with just a single crew it was uncomplicated. The first race was in 1977 and started from the south coast of England sailing to the Canaries then on to Antigua. The fleet was all cruising boats less than 21 feet in length and to make a point Bob Salmon himself competed. In fact he competed in the following race and managed the event for another two races before handing things over to the French journalist Jean-Luc Garnier.

Once in French hands the event exploded and has now grown to become one of the preeminent events on the French sporting calendar. It has given a start to many French sailors who are now household names in Europe among them Yves Parlier, Yvan Bourgnon, Thierry Dubois and two time Vendee Globe winner Michel Desjoyeaux. It was also where Ellen MacArthur got her start as well as Mark Turner who is head of OC Sport, the company that manages the Extreme Sailing Series and created and managed Dongfeng Race Team in the last Volvo Ocean Race.

There have been many mishaps in the nearly four decades since the race was founded including one fatality when Pascal Leys went missing in the Bay of Biscay, but despite various setbacks the race has flourished. In 1999, for the first time in the history of the race there was a waiting list to get an entry. For this years race I scanned the entry list but did not see a single name that I recognized but I am sure of one thing; down the road not too far some of those names will be household names, not here in the US but certainly in France if not the whole of Europe.


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Report by race media.

Background: For the 20th edition and for the second time, the Mini Transat – Îles de Guadeloupe returns to its origins with a start from Douarnenez (France). The Breton harbour will see the fleet of 72 solo sailors set off on September 19 to Lanzarote (Canary Islands), where the Mini 6.50 will complete stage one of the race. The second stage will start on October 31, taking the fleet across the Atlantic to finish some three weeks later in Pointe-à-Pitre (Guadeloupe). The 2,700 nautical mile race from France to the Caribbean is the longest solo race for the smallest of boats.


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