Mighty Minis

With a rich history, interesting group of competitors and ever-evolving boat designs, the Mini Transat 6.50 class is not to be missed  (published July 2014)

Sailing small boats across vast swaths of ocean is nothing new. Actually, venturing offshore in small sailboats is a worldwide and age-old tradition that has touched almost every society with a close connection to the sea. Whether it was to discover and explore new lands, to simply find sustenance in the fruits of the ocean, or merely as a means for adventure, the call of the sea has tempted many. So too does it tempt those who choose to race across oceans alone in 21 foot boats.

The Mini Transat Race, the boats that have evolved from it, and the sailors who participate in it is one of the most fascinating, yet seemingly unknown secrets—to those in the U.S. anyway—in the world of offshore sailing. With a storied history and cast of characters that clings to the rich tradition of the race and fleet, Mini sailors are a loyal group with a passion to simply sail alone on the ocean.

Conceived by Bob Salmon in 1976 as a direct break from the bigger boats and money associated with solo ocean racing at the time, the Mini Transat was a way for amateur ocean racers to test their mettle offshore. The first Mini Transat Race was in 1977 and took competitors from England to Antigua via the Canary Islands. The only condition for entry into the race was that the boats had to be 6.50 meters (21.3 feet) in length.

Run every odd year since that first race, the start of the Mini Transat moved to Brest, France in 1985 when it came under the organization of Frenchman Jean-Luc Garnier and the 6.50 association. It has traveled to various French ports since. A stop in the Canary Islands or Madeira has always made up the first leg and the second, and final, leg has been either to the West Indies or Brazil, with the most recent being Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe. The overall length of course has sailors racing 4,000 miles or more.

The current incarnations of the Mini Transat have a cap of 84 boats and it is a historically tough race to become eligible for, as competitors have to prove truly able by passing a series of rigorous qualifiers.

by Bernard Gergaud - Les Sables-Les Acores 2012 - Gergaud - 4
by Bernard Gergaud – Les Sables-Les Acores 2012 – Gergaud – 4

Simply referred to as the “Mini,” there are a number of different Mini Transat 6.50s built and sailed throughout the world today. Designed and built to fit into a strict “box rule” to keep them all basically the same, the boat cannot exceed a length of 21.3 feet (6.50 meters) and cannot be any wider than 9.84 feet (3 meters). Other restrictions including draft, cabin top shape, and mast height come into play when the boats are designed. Safety features are also incorporated into the designs such as an escape hatch, positive flotation and righting moment. Also, because the design of the boats has constantly evolved since the first race in 1977, they have greatly influenced production boat design and a whole generation of ocean racers including Open 60s and Volvo 70s.

Though modern Minis are built within the box rule, the boats are separated into two distinct classes: prototypes and production boats. The prototypes push the limits of the box rule and are allowed to use exotic building materials, such as carbon fiber, for the spars, hull, deck, bowsprit and rudders. This allows the boats to carry more sail area and have a deeper keel, while keeping the overall displacement relatively low. Also, the prototypes are seen as a testing ground for what is to come with the larger ocean racing fleets.

The production boats—including the famous Pogo 2, designed by the Finot/Conq Architect Group—are not allowed to use exotic materials. The hulls and decks are built with polyester resin and the spars are all aluminum. While this makes them appreciably different than the prototypes, they are still able to carry quite a bit of sail and are very fast.

Being that the Mini Transat fleet has always been about design innovation, the most striking design shakeup to the class, and maybe to the future of offshore sailing as whole, has been that of the rounded, almost scow-esq bows. First on the scow-bowed Mini scene was French engineer David Raison, who won the 2011 Mini Transat in his self-designed boat, Magnum/TeamWork Evolution. The latest to delve into this type of design is Italian Giancarlo Pedote aboard his prototype Prysmian ITA 747. He has already won Mini 6.50 series races in the boat and is expected to be a top competitor in the next editionof the Mini Transat.

BB-Mini-Select-2013-Arrivée-1   The Mini Transat 6.50 class is hugely popular amongst sailing fans in Europe, especially France, and what makes the class so intriguing to follow is the unpredictably of what is going to happen, coupled with the sailors who choose to enter the race. Pitting a lone racer in a 21-foot boat against the likes of the Atlantic Ocean is a tall task that leads to some exhilarating sailing footage and, unfortunately, some damaged or lost boats. But even though the French historically dominate  the fleets, it is truly an international group of personalities who choose to compete, with many of them going on to launch campaigns in larger ocean racing classes. But it is really the unpredictable nature of the race that makes it so fascinating for those following at home.

The 2013 Mini Transat, for instance, was beset by weather delays that saw the fleet re-start in Sada, Spain weeks after the original start date. From mainland Spain they passed through a gate near the Canary Islands before setting off across the Atlantic. Several competitors were forced to retire due to breakages, which is not unusual.

The 2015 edition of the Mini Transat Race is again set to depart from Douarnenez, Brittany, France with a stopover in Arrecife, Lanzarotte and a finish in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadaloupe. With class action heating up in Europe, this could prove to be one of the most competitive international fields ever.

But it is not just the Mini Transat Race that is worth following. Between Mini Transats there is a series of races throughout Europe designed to build intrigue for the class and to help competitors hone their skills and test their boats. To learn more about Mini Transat 6.50s and to follow the racing action, visit www.classmini.com.

Author: Blue Water Sailing