The 50ft classes of the Transat are home to some of the most interesting individuals - like Mike Birch
With their intimidating structures and imposing liveries, the giant 60ft trimarans and their monohull cousins are the crowd pleasers of the Transat. Further along the pontoons, though, the neighbourhood changes. The boats are older – as are the skippers – the money less evident. This is the domain of the adventurer sailor, most partly or even wholly self-funded, and is the race’s entry level class. It’s also where you get some of the most interesting individuals and stories.
The Class 2 skippers of the 50ft multis and monohulls gathered this morning for their press conference. It’s a small group, with four monohulls and six multihulls of various ages. Some skippers, French Open 50 sailor Jacques Bouchacourt for one, have worked so hard to cobble together the funds that they say they count it as victory just to get here.
There has been slow but steady growth of interest in the IMOCA monohull class in the US and three of the four Open 50s this time are skippered by Americans. Kip Stone, a 43-year-old entrepreneur has the newest: a quick-looking Owen Clarke design which he sailed back New Zealand earlier this year after her launch.
The most interesting news is Mike Birch’s late entry in the Transat in a 50ft trimaran, Nootka. Birch’s name is synonymous with the OSTAR, the Route du Rhum and high-tech multihull development in general: he first did the race in 1976 and came second in his diminutive 32ft trimaran Third Turtle, finishing just a day behind Eric Tabarly in Pen Duick VI (73ft), despite some big storms.
Now 72 years old – though he most certainly doesn’t look it – Birch is still going strong. He has done a lot of work to the 15 year old Nootka, the most dramatic being to saw off the sterns to fit the 50ft class. He has made some rigging changes, too. “It seems to sail better and be more balanced,” he says. Unsponsored, he disdains the razzmatazz and is 100 per cent his own, self-effacing man.
Birch is, as one observer has said, “the new Mike Richey”, but make no mistake: he is a serious competitor and in Nootka there is a real chance of a class win. That is his aim. “I would love to be able to do the race as well as I did in 1976, but 1976 was a surprise,” he says.
His history in the race gives him a unique perspective and he made some interesting reflections at the press conference. “It was a very different race in 1976. When I think now about the amount of stuff you need to do the race Then it was super-simple. A liferaft was something on an airplane. Often you didn’t know where you were.
“You didn’t know how you were doing. You were cold and wet and you thought you were doing badly but you didn’t know how others were doing. Now it’s such a different sort of race.”