British sailor Ollie Bond is one to watch in a fleet of keen young solo racers
For an event that has spawned so many great names in sailing, it is surprising that there are only three British sailors in the Mini Transat this year. But those three – Oliver Bond, Andrew Wood and Keith Willis – are expected to do well.
This is Ollie Bond, the 29-year-old skipper of Artemis, a Pogo 2 production boat. He counts as one of the favourites in the series class. He says he’s quick downwind – so the breezy downwind start forcecast should suit him nicely – and has been training with two other leading skippers this year in identical boats to improve his all-round speed.
Ollie probably fits the typical profile of a Mini class star-in-the-making, if there is such a uniform thing. He has worked in the marine business since university, sailing on big boats and as mate on a 90ft cruiser, and has assiduously built up contacts and experience in the sort of projects I daresay he’d like to graduate up to.
For example, he has been working on Dee Caffari’s Aviva shore team and, more recently, racing on one of Artemis’s IMOCA 60s. He has been partially taken under the wing of OC Group, which is now managing the Artemis campaign, and Artemis has given him some help with the Mini project.
By making contacts through work and ploughing some of his earnings back into his largely self-funded Mini he is attacking grand prix solo sailing from both angles.
The Mini circuit is still the most affordable solo class in which to make your mark. When Bob Salmon first concocted the idea back in 1977 it was as a poor man’s alternative to the OSTAR. But carbon boats and textile rigging and fancy engineering have long since crept and it is no longer cheap by any stretch of the imagination. A top mini project now costs around ?150,000-200,000; at the bottom you’d still need ?50,000 for a boat.
But one thing has not changed: since the days when the likes of Loick Peyron, Ellen MacArthur, Sam Davies, Isabelle Autissier, Bernard Stamm, Nick Moloney, Thomas Coville, Yves Parlier (the list goes on) cut their teeth here, it has been the breeding ground of top solo sailors.
So the Mini Transat remains a must, as a career stepping stone and as a personal ambition. If you can succeed here, you look like you can succeed anywhere. The boats are so small and so powerful (they have more sail area per foot than any open class monohull) that they are a challenge to sail fast; the competition in such a large fleet is intense; and the lack of any form of communication other than VHF radio means the skippers are very much on their own in terms of fixing things and forecasting weather.
“It forces and puts pressure on you to study the weather beforehand and to develop an understanding of it visually. When you get forecasts you have to draw weather maps and it’s good to learn that way,” Ollie says.
You could also argue that the ready availability of a shore crew and suppliers at the end of a phone line counts as a degree of outside assistance; this the Mini fleet are utterly without, so the skippers must be even more resourceful and mentally tough.
It is largely a young man’s game, and no wonder. There’s barely length for Ollie to stretch out in his Mini. The autopilots are said to struggle when carrying a big kite in windy downwind conditions, which means plenty of handsteering and little sleep. There is hardly any protection and it is, Ollie says, very wet and uncomfortable. At full chat, it’s a long way to Brazil – a true test of the depth of a sailor’s ambition.