Round the world racer Mike Sanderson has helmed Mari Char on her record-breaking Transat run, has done mainsheet aboard Oracle BMW and is now preparing for the singlehanded Transat. Sue Pelling caught up with him in Antigua where he's currently battling it out in the big boat racing class

With just one month to go before the Transat start, Open 60 sailor Mike Sanderson (pictured left) is behind the wheel of Mari Cha IV, Robert Millar’s 140ft superyacht at Antigua Sailing Week. Sanderson is racing in the Big Boat I division against the likes of Roy Disney and Hasso Plattner’s canting keel maxZ86 sleds – Pyewacket and Morning Glory – the Reichel Pugh 75, Titan 12, Farr 70 Atalanta II and a couple of VO60s including Venom, the boat that was involved in a startline incident on Monday see news story here. 

As well as his long-term involvement with the Mari Cha programme Sanderson’s talents extend much further afield including mainsheet man aboard the last America’s Cup boat Oracle BMW, making him one of the most versatile racing yachtsmen in the world.

His professional sailing career started in 1995 when, having completed the Round the World Race aboard the Maxi Ketch New Zealand Endeavour, he met up with Jef D’etiveaud, Mari Cha’s design team manager, and has been involved with the programme ever since. Sanderson then joined the Merit Cup team as watch leader in the next VOR, did the Mari Cha III transatlantic record run in 98 and then joined the boat at skipper in 1999. Sanderson commented: “We did the Millennium Cup, Sydney-Hobart and America’s Cup Jubilee Regatta in the UK and it was at this point we started talking about a new design. Myself, Jef and Mr Millar made a plan, got a group of naval architects together and came up with a design team for Mari Cha IV.

“The design of this boat was all going on while I was involved with Oracle BMW America’s Cup campaign. Sailing America’s Cup boats involves a lot of upwind and downwind two-boat testing so to have the Mari Cha project was a great little out for me; to be able to go home and think about something totally different – a 140ft reaching and running machine that’s capable of going upwind in 10kts one minute, then 13 the next, and doing 25kts downwind in 25kts of breeze. A lot of development goes on in the America’s Cup and this boat’s benefited hugely from the America’s Cup technology but in that sort of racing there are lots of rules to prevent you doing too much – in theory to keep costs down. With Mari Cha we the ‘world was our oyster’ and we were able to build everything to the extreme. It was a breath of fresh air.”

Mari Cha IV is basically a development from what the design team learnt from Mari Cha III, what Sanderson learnt in the VOR and what D’etiveaud learnt from his extensive offshore sailing. Sanderson added: “Because we have good ideas between us we were able to contribute and put the sailors’ perspective to it.”

Having, designed, built and launched her, Mari Char IV immediately succeeded in what she was designed to do – blast downwind at record speeds. Since she was launched she has crossed the Atlantic three times, including her record run and broken the Guadeloupe to Antigua speed sailing record. She’s now racing round the cans at Antigua Sailing Week. Chatting about why the team decided to take her to Antigua, Sanderson said: “Short windward/leeward races is not her forte, she was designed to break records and win ocean races. The reason we’re here is because we wanted to work on our teamwork, manoeuvres and put some hard miles on her. The racing gives us an aim It’s great for teamwork, hardwork but enjoyable. It’s also great to have the 86-footers snapping away at our heels.”

Once the racing’s over on Friday, Sanderson will be heading straight back to the UK to jump onboard his Open 60 to prepare for the Transat. In contrast to his fully-crewed recent blast across the Atlantic in Mari Cha and a week’s racing with 30-crew aboard in Antigua, Sanderson will have to mentally prepare himself for his singlehanded hop across the pond. Chatting about the pending Transat, Sanderson said: “Yes, it is different to what I’ve been doing recently but I’m actually really looking forward to it. I am however, keeping my head down as the new kid on the block of singlehanded sailing. Us New Zealanders are not famous for our singlehanded sailors, but I’ve got a great coach in Emma Richards and the boat’s coming along nicely.”

And after that? “When finish the Transat in Boston, I’ll be straight back onto Mari Cha IV for the Pacific Cup and then back again onto the Open 60 for the Quebec-St Malo fully crewed – it’s going to be a hectic summer.”