The Mini Transat is a fleet of chock full of the young and keen, and full of ingenious ideas

Photos courtesy of Thierry Martinez, Sea & Co

Racing across the Atlantic in grossly overcanvassed 21-footers, the sailors the Classe Mini are sailing’s cockleshell heroes.

The Mini Transat, which goes under the cumbersome title La Charente-Maritime/Bahia Transat 6.50, started yesterday in light winds to race from La Rochelle to Madeira and Brazil. There are 79 entries this year. It is a fleet full of the young, keen and impecunious. I think of it as being like a university of ocean racing, a place to see the talents of today and tomorrow in action.

The race was established by Bob Salmon in 1977 as the poor man’s alternative to the progressively more expensive OSTAR. To restrict costs it is governed by a box rule stipulating overall length, mast height, draught and maximum beam, the idea being that it would remain affordable for amateurs or would-be career sailors starting out.

It is still a class where the ambitious amateur and professional sailor can come head to head. Being cheaper to obtain and also wet, lively and cramped, these little 21-footers attract lots of impervious twentysomethings and are brimming with technology and ideas. It was in the Mini class, for example, that canting keels were first introduced.

The fleet is divided into series production boats, which have stricter rules such as fixed aluminium mast, fixed keel and no carbon fibre structure, and the prototypes, where the open nature of the rules still sees plenty of ideas being tried out.

The protos have ultra-light carbon rigs; one has a rig recessed into the deck that can be canted fore and aft. Others have wingmasts with adjustable shrouds so they can be moved to windward.

There are keels that cant, move fore and aft, daggerboards that cant, keels that are extendable so that, when canted, the bulb can be lowered to the 2m maximum draught. There is a premium on design ideas and it’s here that young designers themselves are most apt to try their hand.

The price gap that has crept into this poor man’s race is quite staggering and it explains why 47 of the 79 boats taking part this year are series production boats, with the trend creeping upwards all the time. A second-hand production Mini yacht such as the most popular Finot-designed Pogo 2 can be had for around €50,000 and loses little on resale.

The new prototypes are costing around €130,000 with some sponsored campaigns said to be stretching up to €200,000. In a class with plenty of supporters but few true commercial sponsors it’s no wonder the prototypes are starting to taper off.

There are some interesting entries to watch out for, including David Raison in his strange looking proto Teamwork Evolution (pictured below), a design he says owes its heritage to US skiffs scows. It has a rounded bow and a bizarre push-me-pull-you look.

Teamwork Evolution

From a UK perspective, one to watch is Pip Hare, who has been blogging regularly for our website for several years since her first ever solo voyage from the Uruguay to UK. She works as a sailing coach and has been produced for us a technique series that will run in the magazine and online throughout 2012 so hers is a name we’ll be seeing a lot more of.

Pressed on how she thinks she will do in her production series Mini, Pip says she’d be very happy to finish in the top 15 of that class.

To follow her progress, or anyone else’s, you have to study the website reports and accounts made from regular VHF radio contact with the accompanying fleet of support boats. That’s because communications in this class are deliberately kept locked in a previous era. Only VHF radio is allowed on board.

Skippers say they like this ‘running dark’ aspect and have repeatedly voted to ban Iridium phones or any other long-range methods of communication. The old school skills of visual weather interpretation and map drawing are valued here, as is the preservation of true solitude.

Few corporate sponsors can understand racing into silence, Golden Globe fashion. But with no e-mails, no phone calls to shore contacts for support and technical advice at hand, the sailors are genuinely unassisted and dependent on their own resourcefulness.

You can follow the race at