Around a third of the Mini Transat fleet start their transatlantic odyssey by racing to the wrong mark

It would be hard to imagine a more perfect day for the start of the Charente-Maritime/Bahia Transat 6.50, alias the Mini Transat: 15 knots of warm breeze from the north-east. But for spectators, the flawless blue sky over La Rochelle and crystal visibility made it all the easier to see a mistake that embarrassed and punished over a third of the 84-strong fleet before they had even left the bay.

The battle between 84 diminutive but grossly canvassed 21-footers is to Brazil via a stop in Madeira. But before turning downwind for their long sleigh ride to Cape Finisterre, the fleet had to do a short windward leg to a turning mark.

Following the apparent leader, Pierre Brasseur, and race favourite Thomas Ruyant, Britain’s Ollie Bond rounded an upwind mark in 11th, with countryman Andrew Wood six places behind, both looking good until they reaslied that what they had rounded was a wing mark of the starting area, not the windward mark.

Around a third of the fleet repeated the mistake and raced on downwind under spinnaker for up several miles before the error gradually dawned and they turned round to face a good hour’s plod back to the right buoy.

Upwind, those who had studied the sailing instructions carefully were rewarded with the best possible psychological boost as the pack got thoroughly shuffled before the first night at sea.

The Minis have an ideal forecast for their escape from the Bay of Biscay – downwind all the way. Their first hurdle will be an acceleration zone off Finisterre, with following winds of up to 40 knots forecast for those who take a direct route. Avoiding breakages here will be the name of the game, but if the predicted gales materialise some forced retirements are almost inevitable.

Following the daily ordeals and excitement of life on these supercharged little rocket ships is largely down to the imagination, however. Uniquely, the skippers in the Mini class have voted to continue their long tradition of shunning long range and satellite communications. They carry only VHF radio, and can’t receive from or send any information ashore. From here to the first stop in Madeira, their challenges will remain a mystery.

Thanks to Thierry Martinez for the use of the photo above, and there are lots more from the start and dockside here 

For dockside stories from the start of the race, see Elaine Bunting’s blog.