Passion must be a top contender for stoking the soul, to get it up to red ember hot, temperature. Passion is a curious thing. Not sure I, or anyone, can explain, or define it, but I humor myself I can see it, or appreciate it, or realize someone has it when I am exposed to it… In our own arena, manifest through WindCheck magazine, any one of the past 37 America’s Cup events has been oversubscribed by men, and recently, women, of passion. Olympians are well supplied with passion. Solo ocean racing? Well, the competitors in such events are well fed with something, and passion is as good a fuel as any when contemplating sailing at high speed alone offshore, even if, or perhaps the more so when the boat is 21 and a bit feet long, 6.5 meters in fact.
The Mini Transat has to be a starter for an event in our sailing world that most Americans think is a suicide mission, yet the French revere as a pursuit of passion. Not so much the actual racing, but the challenge at the human level. In a world increasingly restrained, nay aggravated, by the encroaching fences of what we have made our society into, traffic jams getting to work, thin bandwidth in Zoom meetings, the idea of being able to break out of it for a month, to watch the ocean in all its moods, requires a certain mindset. To see the sights, the sunsets and rises, moonsets and rises, the vast desert-like emptiness that is the black night sky, or the silver – perhaps apples – of the Moon, when she is full. Bright enough to cast shadows and actually see the jib telltales. To wonder at the sea life, both small and charming and big and less charming, that the land bound do not – cannot – see. These are the fruits of long hours fundraising, boat building and sailing.
Hours wishing you could just put your head down and have a kip, for a month. Exercising one’s mental control over our sensitivities, aka the churning stomach, to quell that churning twist highlighting fear in one’s gut as the whistling across the rigging notches up a pitch or two and this particular roaring sea does in fact break across the boat again, penetrating even the neoprene-collared smock you have cinched around your throat. All of these emotions, fears, excitements, and moments of wonder have been written about for years, by greater scribes than me. But like a hard ocean race where we all stumble ashore vowing never again, a vow crushed by usually the third Dark and Stormy-We ARE hooked after all. These former emotions far outweigh the latter when held up against the 90 souls, including one American who have, as I write, just started the 2021 Mini Transat race.
Conceived in 1976 and first held in 1977 by a Brit named Bob Salomon as a foil to the increasing technological advances (read budgets) in the O.S.T.A.R., the Mini Transat race was originally a way for the Everyman to compete in a transatlantic solo race, competing mano a mano, for not much money, with almost no instruments, land-based routing and so on. The original rules were something like the Sydney Harbor 18s’ famous definition of the rules. The boats are 6.5 meters long and the start is in September. (18’ long and 2 PM).
Originally instruments were limited to speedo/log, depth and a Windex. A race in a time when paper charts, a shortwave receiver for weather news, a sextant, tables, and knowledge of how to use them all, were the default GPS. Many boats had mechanical wind vanes. Most were modified French production boats. In 1982, the race was taken over by the French and launched on its trajectory that is today, the proving ground for the top French offshore sailors.
Google the race and its history and the greatest names in the solo sailing world, and beyond, have sailed in it and several have won it. With one exception, all French. Danial Gilard, Jan Luc Van Den Heede, Yves Parlier, Yannick Bresthaven, Thomas Ruyant. Other top French sailors have sailed it and NOT won. Isabelle Autissier and Michael Desjoyeaux come to mind, the latter sailing with the first canting keel in a mini. The one exception to the “French always win” rule was Californian Norton Smith.
Smith commissioned fellow left coaster Tom Wylie to draw him a boat for the 1979 race. The boat was a cold-molded hull, with water ballast. The deck was from a Moore 24, placed on the hull, trimmed to fit, rather as Mum would have trimmed the edges of the apple pie, and glued on. The water ballast calculation, well before the 10-degree static heel requirements, and the self-recovering rules, was calculated in the time-honored way of passionate people jumping into a new and exciting adventure. Empirically.
I got to know Tom when he designed my Mini. I figured that the only non-French designer to win a Mini Transat must have an idea of the right things to do. My boat was designed with a canting keel, in 1993, though I ended up with water ballast. Economics, you know old boy.
To calibrate the water ballast volume they wanted for Smith’s boat, they set out sailing on Berkeley’s Olympic Circle armed with a long kite pole off another boat and a collection of five-gallon water jugs. They took off sailing upwind adding water in the jugs to the end of the pole, rigged up perpendicular to the centerline of the boat. When they had what they reckoned was enough weight out there, they stopped. After they got home, Tom counted the gallons, and so weight, times the lever arm and came up with the size of the water tanks. Next!
Norton won the 1979 race going away. As a testament to Wylie as a designer and builder, American Express, Norton’s name for his boat, was sailed again in ’81 and ’83, being DNF in both events, but 7th in the 1993 race.
I was, I think, for the 1995 race the first U.S. entry since Norton. Regrettably, the embers in my soul were just not quite hot enough. As I tell my high school sailing kids, Tiller Time is King. Well, after about a week out en route to Brest to the start, I realized, after about three days of contemplation, it finally dawned on me I should admit that I had too little tiller time and was in almost every respect totally underprepared for what lay ahead. Never mind getting to Brest in one piece but having to turn around in about a week or ten days and sail another 4,000 miles. The loss of Mike Plant when the bulb fell off his boat’s keel, while pushing hard for the start of the Vendée Globe was still fresh in the minds of this sliver of the sailing world.
Another Mike, Carr, had commissioned a boat to sail in the next Vendée Globe. He had departed I think Norfolk en route to France and shortly thereafter returned, citing lack of preparations and possible, I cannot recall exactly, boat issues. I remember thinking, “Well, I can be Mike Plant or Mike Carr. Like Plant I had largely built my boat: Wylie built the hull, I did the rest with most of the Bristol Boat building community having their opportunity to help out. But I reckoned mine was built like the proverbial brick…Don’t we all?
Looking back on this, September 1995 adventure, and employing that great quantitative assessment tool, hindsight, I have resolved with myself that my embers just did not glow hot enough. One reads of other soloists undergoing rigors much more debilitating than mine. Pip Hare comes to mind. Another Mini Transat competitor, Pip, passionately jumping into the 2020-21 Vendée Globe, had only to sail across the English Channel and west to Les Sable D’Lonne – a healthy passage, but not Newport to Brest. She was in the docks basically with no money and her participation was on the line, when, as the tale goes, Californian firm Medallia popped up with the Hail Mary funding. Pip got around the Vendée’s Globe and became, if one really can be a celebrity in the solo world, at least much more widely well known to the community of Passionistas that make up this calling of solo offshore racing.
Perhaps that is the source, it just occurred to me. This type of sailing is a calling. Moitessier was famous for the spiritual side of his deep ocean solo sailing. Practicing meditation during his long passages, he wrote vividly about the sea, the creatures, the sky, and man’s tiny place in the scheme of things.
Rabbit hole alert: What might be the outcome, one wonders of the various disputes around the world if the world’s leaders, especially those fighting each other, might be sent to sea solo, on separate boats of course (maybe) to contemplate the nature of the world, their natures, the vastness of the sky and the sea, viewed from maybe ten feet above it were they to see the things we solo sailors, see.
When we are exposed to things to us wondrous, as I was growing up sailing with my dad and seeing the sky and the sea, well from the surf beach, as a kid and wondering, why and what…Those questions anyone with a gram of passion might ask, perhaps solo offshore sailing ought to be, well mandatory, kind of like the calls for a national service one hears occasionally. You have to do a year of community service including, say circumnavigating the globe in a yacht. That would ignite a lot of passion, I’ll bet. ■
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.