After three years of prepping for a dream, American Clay Burkhalter counted the time remaining to the start of Mini Transat 2007. "A state of disbelief" is how he described the feeling as the clock wound down to Sunday.
And, after many years of living the dream, the designer of Burkhalter's Mini, Rod Johnstone, could look back and believe that he's moved the ball in the world of sailing since that long-ago time of building a boat in his garage. You know, the one that became the prototype of the J/24.
It's been a mutual journey. Burkhalter is Johnstone's nephew and helped build good ole Ragtime, J/24 number one, and he crewed aboard in the breakthrough season of racing that followed. This Mini thing? Well, it's worth wondering how many of his Mini competitors in a field of 84 also have J's in their background, somehow, and even though that's hard to survey, it's a good bet the answer is—a lot of them.
But imagine the mindset. Most of us when we dream of crossing oceans picture ourselves surrounded by a bulwark of a boat (not necessarily in terms of length overall) between us and the sea. The Mini sailor? Not that. At a length of about 21 feet, Minis are bathtub-sized hotrods, a box rule-governed development class that has pioneered innovations that later appeared on larger boats. A partial list: Canting keels, water ballast, and asymmetric daggerboards for monohulls.
The class has been a launching platform for many of Europe's now-celebrated shorthanded sailors. Ellen MacArthur, Bruno Peyron, and Isabelle Autessier, for example. And even though we wouldn't say that it "launched" two-time Olympic medalist Jonathan McKee, his performance in the last Mini Transat (dominating until a dismasting 700 miles short of the finish) went a long way toward leading McKee to Estrella Damm for the doublehanded Barcelona World Race later this fall.
Just to make the Atlantic crossing is a lot. To race a Mini is more than most sailors would ever attempt. You can feel a current of tension as Clay writes in his most recent journal at Team Acadia, "I feel the intensity level, and for that matter, the anxiety level, ratchet up slightly every day. By evening I am rather burned out, so I have dinner, read the paper and read a book; I reserve the early morning hours, when I can be alone, for concentration on the little details, things that ultimately may mean the difference between a good or a bad finish. At 7 a.m., I head out the door for one hour of exercise…"
And the details must be managed, remember, in a foreign country, in a foreign language, and in a port—La Rochelle, France—where tides rise and fall by as much as 20 feet. It's a bigger set of logistics than getting a dozen sandwiches made in a hurry at the local deli before the Saturday race.
USA 575 will be first American-designed Mini to enter the European Mini Proto fleet since a Tom Wylie-design, American Express, won in 1979, the second time the race was run. Mini racing has been mostly a playground for Europeans and probably will remain that way. But the exclusivity is breached.
Just the facts, ma'am
2007 marks the 30th edition of the Mini Transat. The race runs 4,230 miles from La Rochelle Francis to Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, with a stopover at Madeira Island off the coast of Portugal.
Leg one is 1,000 miles. Leg two includes a waypoint in the Cape Verde Islands.
The Mini fleet includes both prototypes and series-production boats.
Prototypes are permitted carbon, canting keels, and water ballast. Series boats have fiberglass hulls, aluminum spars, and fixed keels.
Clay Burkhalter and Acadia are racing as a wildcard entry. Even though Clay spent the season in Europe racing and building his program, he broke the mast in the Les Sables-Azores Race in August and thus failed to automatically qualify by distance sailed. His memory of that awful moment:
"We are off and running, surfing at 13 to 14 knots, flying over a smaller wave that we catch up to, then over the next, and finally down an average-size wave with a steeper face. As we approach the bottom of the wave Acadia starts to head up, as if going into a broach. I fight this with the helm, trying to bear off. I glance at the spinnnaker pole and see that it is bending like crazy. I wait for it to break. Just as I'm getting control and the boat begins to bear off, I hear a lboom. I think, damn, there goes the spinnaker pole, then I watch in complete amazement as sails, rigging and pieces of carbon fill my whole view. 2/3rds of the mast, the spinnaker, jib, and most of the main are now in the water, forward on the leeward side... "
And with that memory, our Clay prepares for his next adventure. From the Editors of SAIL, may best fortune ride with all.