The start of the Mini Transat is less than a month away. Sue Pelling caught up with British hopeful Nick Bubb aboard his new Rogers design, Whittlebury Hall

It’s two years ago since Frenchman Armel Tripon sailed Moulin Roty, a 1995 Finot-Conq, Mini 6.50 design to victory during the last singlehanded Mini Transat from La Rochelle to Brazil. In that time this development class has undergone several rule changes including the introduction of wind instruments but the most significant change is the introduction of carbonfibre rigs.

Not surprisingly most of the top entries to this year’s event, which starts from La Rochelle in just under a month’s time (17 September), have gone for the carbonfibre option. Because this particular rule change came into force just after the finish of the last event two years ago, this has allowed plenty of time for rig development.

Two years of development maybe, but why would anyone want to sail a 21ft boat 4,000 miles across the Atlantic with not much more equipment aboard than on a National 12 racing dinghy? While it’s difficult to extract an answer from the many former Mini Transat sailors, the underlying reason is the thrill of challenge, not just in the sailing but in the development of the class as well. To some, the thought of the singlehanded Mini Transat is horrendously frightening but there’s no denying the fact that, despite its inherent dangers, it does hold a bit of a challenge and, personally, it’s not difficult to understand why this race draws such a huge following.

Just like any restricted class which has a set of box rules to comply to there’s a certain amount of freedom within those rules to allow for gradual change and development. The challenge here is to exploit the rules as far as possible in an effort to find that extra bit of speed and have the edge over your rivals.

Nick Bubb, one of the two British entries, in this year’s event is a classic Mini competitor who’s effectively devoted the last four years the challenge. Starting off racing dinghies Bubb (now 26 year’s old) made the transition into the Mini class just after 2001 Mini Transat with a Faroux design. However, he soon realised that to compete seriously he needed a newer design. So, together with local boatbuilder Nigel Waller, built a Seb Magnen design to seriously campaign for the 2003 Mini Transat. However, despite completing all the qualifying races and being top of the entry waiting list Bubb failed to secure an entry. Disappointed but still full of Mini Transat hope, Bubb sold his pride and joy to fellow British sailor Phil Sharp (who’s also competing this year) and set about his next challenge – a newer and more of an all-round design.

The positive side of not securing an entry gave Bubb the perfect opportunity to watch and learn, and to weigh up exactly what designs he should be looking at for the next [2005] event. It wasn’t long however, before he decided on the new Simon Rogers design that seemed to have the edge. Jonathan McKee who, not surprisingly with his world-class dinghy racing experience, sailed the boat to perfection during the race but disaster struck when his mast broke just 400 miles from finish line when he was leading. Bubb commented: “I was so impressed with the Rogers design I immediately signed up for the sistership. The only difference is that mine has a carbon wing mast. The main differences with this boat over the other designs is the keel that slides fore and aft as well as canting, and that the hull is slightly narrower at the transom.”

While nipping the design in a bit at the transom means he’ll be a bit faster upwind, he’s had to sacrifice a bit of speed on beam reaches. But according to Bubb this is not such a big deal. In fact it should prove to be advantageous. “On the race there’s a real mixture of conditions. Added Bubb. “The first leg should be quite a lot of upwind and a bit of fetching. As we go away from the Canaries we go downwind onto starboard tack, and some port-hand reaching down the coast of Brazil and then upwind. She’s much more of an all-rounder compared to my previous boat which was more of a downwind flyer.”

Not only has Bubb gone for a carbonfibre rig on his new boat ‘Whittlebury Hall’ but he’s opted for a rotating wing mast. “Thankfully we’re had two years to develop it. We pretty much needed those two years.” Said Bubb, “I think we’re there now. The whole design of the mast was tied in very much with our sail plan. I have one spreader on the rig which is very short, and I have an overlapping genoa which I can also fly from different positions on the bowsprit. So basically we’ve done a lot of development on the rig, and work on the sail plan. John Parker from Quantum Sails has been doing the work and he’s coming out to do the Prologue [pre-Mini Transat] with me.”

According to Bubb since the introduction of carbonfibre rigs there’s been a lot of breakages during development with those pushing the designs to the extremes, but this is all part of the development process as Bubb explains: “This is quite predictable because people went a bit too far. To save weight they opted for bolt ropes with luff grove bonded to the back of the mast instead of sliders but these pulled away from the back of the mast. However, I think most of these problems have been resolved now.”

Interestingly Bubb had a slight interlude from his Mini Transat campaign earlier this year when he was invited by Tony Bullimore to sail the Oryx Cup aboard Daedalus It was a big decision to take time out of his campaign but weighing up the situation he decided it was too good an experience to miss and signed up straight away. “Yes, I was indeed a bit nervous about sacrificing my Mini Transat campaign,” continued Bubb, “but because there was quite a bit of money involved I was able to pay someone to finish off refitting my boat and put her in the water ready for my return.

“It was perfect for me in that I just flew out to Qatar, hopped on the boat the day before and set off round the world, a bit mad but perfect timing. The advantage was that we had a lot of talented crew aboard who, as well as the sailing, were good at fixing stuff! We broke a lot of things but managed to fix the lot. We could have gone round the world again. Also I have to say that Tony [Bullimore] was great at managing the project and a great guy to sail with. People tend to forget all the development he did with the trimarans in the 1980s, it’s very interesting to hear about all his experiences. He was also very pleased that he’s finally been round the world non-stop.”

Not surprisingly Bubb learnt a great deal from his round the world experience and says that he feels it’s really helped him with his Mini Transat sailing. He says it’s actually taken the pressure off because he feels he’s done something other than the Mini Transat sailing over the past two years. “To me the Mini Transat is the race, whereas the Oryx Cup was the experience.” Chatting about what he learnt during the round the world trip Bubb said: “I think the biggest thing I learnt was about personal management; looking after yourself and keeping yourself healthy and not getting too tired. For example I never wore gloves but I learnt during the trip that that’s pretty stupid actually. You can go on for about a month or so but after that, with unhealed blisters and so on, you don’t perform as well as you should. I’m now much more careful, also about keeping my stuff dry, not rushing on deck in my thermals, trying to be a bit more sensible and prepared. And it was good to learn from the other guys that sometimes you have to be a bit more cautious and sail at say 90 per cent rather than 98 per cent. Also we had two guys on the boat who’d done the Mini before: Ian Munslow and Mike Englis and, although I’ve sailed quite successfully against them, they’ve got a lot more experience at this sort of racing.”

So, after four years of living and breathing Mini Transat yachts how does Bubb rate himself? Modestly he said: “There are a few guys who are quicker than me but I’m up there and probably one of the more experienced people in the race. I’ve done something like 16,000 miles in the Mini and it’s only a 4,000 mile race!”

Bubb was planning to leave Hamble today and head to Falmouth on his delivery trip to La Rochelle for the start but the current low-pressure system sweeping across the country has forced him to postpone. Chatting to Bubb this morning he says that the worst of the strong winds should have gone through in a couple of days and has rescheduled his departure for Friday. “Friday’s the deadline. I need to be in La Rochelle by 1 September to give me plenty of time to prepare for the start. Instead of heading to Falmouth I’m now sailing directly to France.”