Saturday 22nd September 2001 saw 60 21ft high tech ocean racing boats begin their epic singlehanded race across the Atlantic. After a last minute naming ceremony for British entrant Brian Thompson’s Boat, formerly I Must Be Mad, and re-named Lighthouse Life Foundation after BT Challenge competitor Annee de Mamiel’s cancer charity. Hundreds of family and friends were there to wave off loved ones on the race. The start was at 13:33 GMT at Fort Boyard in 15 knots of North Easterly breeze. A beat to the first mark saw French favourite Ronan Guerin take the lead followed closely by British entrant Simon Curwen, then Yannick Bestaven, and Sam Manuard, with British favourite Brian Thompson in fifth. All five boats were clearly out in front of the rest of the fleet who were left in a close pack following behind. The Minis then gybed around a buoy near the old port of La Rochelle, put up their spinnakers and were off heading out into the Bay of Biscay, next stop Lanzarote.
However, the smooth start turned to carnage the first night as three boats lost their rigs and two suffered damage in winds of 35 knots. Paul Peggs on Blue One who had to be airlifted off his boat in the last Mini Transat after losing his mast and being rolled, again cruelly suffered a dismasting. At the time of going to press Peggs, who was uninjured, was limping to Santander under jury rig to fit a new mast belonging to Morse, another Mini sailor not competing but who luckily has the same rig as Peggs. French sailors Bernard Sourisse and Benoit Parnaudau are also reported to have dismasted on the first night and as yet it is not known if either will be able to restart. Other casualties of the first night were Bruno Ginocchio on Sablieres Palvadeau, who is reported to have lost a rudder (Minis have twin rudders for better control) and Brian Thompson on the newly re-named Lighthouse Life Foundation has damaged a spinnaker.
The race has two legs, the first being 1,350 miles to Lanzarote where the boats have about a weeks stopover then on the 10th October begin the second leg of 3,000 miles through the doldrums to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. Out of the 60 competitors 27 are one-design Minis called Pogos, which are based on the winning boat of the 1993 Mini Transat. The other 33 boats are prototypes or Protos as they are called in France and these boats are generally faster with innovations such as keels that move for and aft as well as cant such as on Brian Thompson’s Rogers designed Mini, or rudders that can be lifted to reduce drag or swap over if one is damaged as on Sam Davies’ Cape design.
There are a record number of British entrants in this years’ race; as well as the already mentioned Curwen, Thompson and Peggs there is Ian Munslow on Ishtar (who only officially entered the race six days before the start due to the organisers allowing five extra boats to join the previously 55 strong fleet), and Mike Inglis on Atomic. One to watch is Sam Davies on Aberdeen Asset Management who brings offshore (Royal Sun & Alliance) and Olympic experience (Shirley Robertson’s Bowman for GBR Yngling campaign) to the race.
The bi-annual race, which had its first edition in 1977, has long been thought of as a test for madmen. With no communications apart from a VHF radio and EPIRB beacons, the solo sailors are as close as possible to experiencing sailing as Sir Francis Chichester would have done. The Mini skippers could spend over three weeks at sea on the second leg not knowing their race position or being able to talk to anyone else. They will cross the equator in intense heat, may well be becalmed for days in the Doldrums, and all the while living on uninspiring freeze dried food and carrying their rationed water in jerry cans as watermakers are not allowed. Competitors are allowed a maximum of 50 litres of water for the first leg and will have to shift this weight every time they wish to tac