Two thumbs up from Richard Hewson for his RG650 mini-racer # 816. Photo courtesy of Richard Hewson
Two thumbs up from Richard Hewson for his RG650 mini-racer # 816. Photo courtesy of Richard Hewson

The Mini Transat: Caribbean Bound

Considered one of the most extreme single handed races in the world, the Mini Transat will arrive in Guadeloupe late November. Up to 80 ‘minis’, just 6.50-meters in length, (21.32ft) will race from Douarnenez, France, on October 13th, for Lanzarotte (Canary Islands) and then roar across the Atlantic to the finish line off Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe.

Since its inception in 1977, to provide affordable offshore solo racing, mini sailing has become somewhat of a cult. The Mini Transat and other, similar, events have given rise to  some of the world’s top professional racers including Dame Ellen MacArthur, Michel Desjoyeaux and Brian Thompson, as well as the majority of skippers in this year’s Vendee Globe. The racers are a tight knit, mutually supportive group and while the Mini Transat is still largely a French race, this year will see at least 18 other nationalities represented.

Some consider the race ‘mad’ and potentially dangerous. It combines the hazards of solo ocean racing in a very small boat while exposing the skipper to a grueling test of physical and mental exhaustion. With the boats potentially reaching over 20 knots, peak performance and sound tactical decisions have to be made despite snatching sleep 10-20 minutes at a time. Navigation equipment is minimal – a GPS is allowed but with no graphics or chart plotter. Ability for celestial navigation is a big plus, and the only access  to weather is from VHF and SSB receiver. Automatic Identification System (AIS) and a tracker are mandatory.

To overcome criticism, the organizers created rigorous trials and inspections to ensure minimum risk. Qualifying races involve a 1000 nautical mile passage and 1000 nautical miles of racing of which at least one race must be single handed. All of the races must be in the boat the skipper will race across the Atlantic. Shadowing the race will be four safety boats that can respond to abandonment or medical emergencies.

The event is limited to 80 boats and is split into two divisions: the production division (A.K.A. – series boats), which are approved designs and manufactured with comparatively conservative materials, and the prototype division (limited to 20 boats) that are on the extreme edge of high performance being more liberal in terms of dimensions, materials and technology, for example carbon fiber hulls and masts and canting keels.

A boat/skipper team to watch this year may be Australian Richard Hewson who is racing the new RG650 series yacht.  Designed by Argentinean Nikolas Goldberg, it is the first mini series boat to be built in the Southern Hemisphere. Hewson cleaned up in the 2011/12 Round the World Clipper Race with 12 wins and a podium place in all 15 legs.   As a result of that unrivalled performance Golberg and his marketing manager Brett Perry approached Hewson to promote the RG650 in this year’s Mini Transat.

Hewson has just completed the grueling qualifying races in the Mediterranean but is still grinning although he, like the majority  of the sailors campaigning for the Mini Transat are on very tight budgets.  Sponsorship is hard to find but the numbers competing indicates the sheer joy of the challenge. Not only will they be in boats whose innovative design and concepts have influenced that of larger boats such as the Volvo and Open 60 classes, but the very nature of the race means they must be in tune with their environment. They won’t have the battery of electronic gear so common these days but instead will have to resort to ‘reading’ the ocean and the sky for changes in currents and weather patterns. One has to know and love the sea to ‘read’ it and this is so impressive about these new-age fanatic racers.

Mini Transat racing is about as close to being completely environmentally friendly as possible and Hewson, like many of the racers, is a strong campaigner for a sustainable  ocean environment. It will be exciting to follow this race to the Caribbean and see where those who cross the finish line off Guadeloupe end up in the future.

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