A record 70 21ft Minis, with skippers from countries as far afield as Australia and Japan, will set off from the Bretagne port of Concarneau today at 1500 (French time) to cross the Atlantic in the Mini Transat race.

The underlying pre-start tension here in Concarneau ressembles that of one of the 1970s OSTARs. The fleet currently moored in the marina in the shadow of the medieval fortified town contains some of the most experimental monohulls on the water and a range of entries from the downright amateur to the most highly professional.

The smart money to win is on Lionel Lemonchois who has done three Mini Transats always finishing in the first ten (8th, 5th and 4th), and who has a brand new Marc Lombard design for the race called Mecenat Chirurgie Cardiaque (featured in Yachting World October). Lemonchois is one of the most experienced boat preparers/crews in France having worked with leading yacht racers such as Isabelle Autissier and Catherine Chabaud. His boat is nothing but immaculate. She was launched and immediately took part in the single-handed Transgascoigne race taking line honours.

Apart from Lemonchois there are roughly nine other boats in the fleet capable of winning. Among them are two Brits.

Peter Heppel, 44 has one of the best prepared boats in the race, a Mini designed by Groupe Finot and built by top Mini builders, Thierry Fagnent’s AMCO yard near La Trinite-sur-Mer. Reality was launched prior to the last Mini Transat two years ago and Heppel has been tweaking and learning to get the best from her ever since. Heppel is an engineer by trade and has worked on the hydrodynamics and sail development programmes for numerous America’s Cup projects and has applied this knowledge to the underwater appendages and sails for his boat. With Andrew Cape as crew he won the two handed Mini Fastnet race at the beginning of this season.

Andrew Cape, who has joint Australian and English nationality, earned his stripes as a navigator on IOR boats and gained notoriety as navigator on board Chris Dickson’s Tokio in the 1993/4 Whitbread Round the World Race. He has since been navigator on the America’s Cup yacht One Australia and on Toshiba in the last Whitbread. Capey is also a naval architect and designed his own Mini which was built by Neville Hutton in his home town of Lymington. The boat called Aberdeen Asset Management is narrow compared to some of the Minis, has a canting keel and a single canting rudder which is retractable, allowing the rudder area to be changed in different conditions. It will be interesting to see how both he and fellow Toshiba and One Australia crewman Nick Maloney, sailing Wild Colonial Boy (Ellen MacArthur’s Mini from the last race), fare in this rather different and no less demanding form of yacht racing.

In my top three apart from Lemonchois and Heppel would be Sebastien Magnen. Magnen, 35, is also a naval architect (he studied at Southampton University) and won the last Mini Transat in his immaculate Mini Karen Liquid, named in tribute to his girlfried Karen Leibovici who funded much of the construction of the boat and is also one of four women taking part in this race. Magnen is not one of the trim, fit sportsman types of which there are an increasing number in this race. Instead he relies on his raw talent, like leading Figaro sailor Jean le Cam. On the surface Magnen likes to maintain a laid back approach – he was one of the last to register for this race and this week has constantly been giving the scrutineers a hard time with minor infringements of the safety regulations – however beneath this his boat is superb in its development and preparation.

Magnen has been improving the boat ever since the last race – he has increased the size of the daggerboard to work in conjunction with the swing keel and added a centreline water ballast tank in an attempt to improve the boat’s upwind performance. Every piece of deck gear which can be replaced