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The Hard Route: Jeffrey MacFarlane

With his hand crushed and boat smashed apart just five months before the start of the Mini Transat, American Jeffrey MacFarlane didn't give up.

June 13, 2013
Sailing World

MacFarlane Sailing

Jeffrey MacFarlane

Sailing the Mini Transat is arguably one of the most difficult, testing challenges a solo racing sailor can inflict upon him or herself. It gets even harder when your Mini starts to break up underneath you just five months from the start, and you are forced to abandon to a Spanish Coast Guard helicopter. The was the fate suffered by Jeffrey MacFarlane, the latest U.S. sailor to enter into Mini Transat world. It was a fate made crueler by the fact that MacFarlane was the #1 ranked Mini sailor at the time, so looked to be a candidate for the podium.

Here’s MacFarlane sailing in last year’s Atlantic Cup:

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********But then it was back to Mini sailing, and the Mini sailing gods decided to play rough. MacFarlane was pounding through his 1000-mile qualifier in late April, in about 35 knots of wind, when his boat literally started to crack apart, with the failure of the deck structure, mast structure, and keel box. The result was a boat that was thrown violently around by the big waves, which resulted in MacFarlane’s left hand getting brutally crushed. MacFarlane did his best to try and stabilize the situation, and managed to keep it all together until he was airlifted off the boat. Here is what the carnage looked like:

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Sheer, bloody-minded stubbornness is perhaps the most important quality in any Mini sailor. After a stay in the hospital, MacFarlane set about resurrecting his Mini campaign. He’s back in France, racing to learn and prepare a new, leased Mini. I checked in with him to see how things are going.

What is the state of your campaign and your efforts to sail the 2013 Mini Transat?
JM: My campaign has certainly taken a detour … At the time of the incident I had a world ranking of #1. But since then my ranking has slipped three places since I missed some important races. I spent the last month in New York, rearranging my plans and trying to salvage my Mini Transat efforts. I arranged to rent a new boat. My new boat is #759, it is a Sam Manuard design. I am excited to start sailing it.

How did you recover from losing your Mini in April? What was your state of mind, and what physical issues did you face?
JM: I spent most of my time recovering in New York. I was in and out of doctors’ offices to address my broken hand. My hand was broken in two spots and not set properly in Spain. After seeing several doctors, the consensus was that I needed to have surgery. They wanted to re-break the bones and set them with pins and screws. Doing this surgery would have meant, at best, two months before I could sail again … I opted to postpone the surgery until after the Mini Transat and had them re-break and re-set the bones without the surgery. While I do not have the full range of motion at this point, I will be able to start sailing again.

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The loss of my Mini was a huge setback, but I am still very focused and determined to compete in the 2013 Mini Transat. I have to admit: In the beginning it was discouraging. Not knowing if I would be able to compete (while I was trying to find a boat and determine if my hand would be healed in time) was not a pleasant feeling. However, now that I’ve overcome those difficulties, the circumstances have made me more determined than ever, and I am excited to start training and racing again.

716 in better days.

Did you find another boat, or did you manage to salvage the first boat? How have you managed to deal with the unexpected financial costs?
JM: Unfortunately, I had to charter a new boat. This changes things, and of course, it has increased my costs by a fair amount. Because I am without a title sponsor, my campaign is funded completely through private donations (through my website) and personal contributions, so the additional cost of chartering a new boat has been difficult. I am still really hoping for a corporate sponsorship to come through … The personal sacrifices I’ve had to make are difficult, but worthwhile.

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How much do you think the setback cost you in terms of your Mini Transat preparation? Is there anything about the experience that you think will help you in the Mini Transat?
JM: Losing the boat and the time I spent learning/preparing the boat (716) is without a doubt a huge setback. In order to compete in the Mini Transat there are a number of qualifications that you must do in the boat you intend to race the Mini Transat in. One of those criteria is racing 1000nm in Mini Class races and doing a 1000nm passage by July 15. Normally this would not be an issue. I had already completed about 1600nm racing with 716. However with a new boat, I will have to redo those miles. Since there are only three races left (just over 1000nm) on the 2013 calendar, it is imperative that nothing breaks and I finish all of the races. This puts added pressure on my campaign. I will also be more cautious–I will not be able to push the boat as hard in those races to ensure the boat’s safety.

Of course this experience is not ideal, but I think the experience will help me in the Mini Transat. First, my new circumstances demand me to be extremely efficient with my time and resources. I have to get a lot done in a little time, but I think the difficulty of doing so will help in the long run. Second, I think the rescue experience, in itself, is helpful. I know that I am able to handle such a situation. While many people thought that the boat failures (mast, deck, and keel box) and my injury may have stopped someone out of fear/discomfort, etc … that was not the case at all. Without even thinking of an alternative, I went right to work–focusing first on my own safety, then on ensuring as little water as possible was coming aboard, and finally, on keeping my mind busy. I think this test proves that I am prepared for whatever the Mini Transat throws at me.

The new ride.****

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How much support rallied to your cause from the sailing community and the Mini Transat community?
JM: I was so impressed by the amount of support that has come from the sailing community through donations and well wishes. The Mini community has also been supportive helping me find another competitive boat in a very short amount of time. Oakcliff Sailing Center has been especially supportive. Just after the incident occurred, Dawn Riley went to work to find a place for me to stay and funds for me to use (when I got off the boat I did not grab any cash or credit cards). Through the help of Nicola Breymaier, friends of hers picked me up at the hospital and hosted me for several days/nights in Menorca. It was amazing to see how generous the sailing community (both at home in the U.S. and internationally) can be. This kind of support is still continuing.

How are you feeling about your prospects for the Mini Transat?
JM: I still feel that my chances to place well in the Mini Transat are very strong. While I do have a lot of sailing time to make up, basing myself out of Lorient allows me to train with some of the best coaches and sailors in the singlehanded world. On top of this I have more determination than ever.

What is your timeline to the start?
JM:
I will be extraordinarily busy until the start of the Mini Transat on October 13. I have just launched 759 and sailed with the boat designer last week. This week, I’m heading up to Douarnenez for the Trophee Marie-Agnes Peron (MAP) which starts on June 13 (singlehanded) and the Mini-Fastnet, starting on June 23 (doublehanded). Immediately after that, I’ll leave for my 1000nm qualification solo sail. The last race before the MT is the Transgascogne 2013, a singlehanded race starting July 28. I will spend all of my other time training. I plan on being on the boat every day–training with the other competitors and some of the coaches in Lorient. I will also be busy working out and studying the weather. It’s going to be a busy four and a half months!

MacFarlane certainly deserves a few good breaks, after so many bad ones. If he manages to complete the Mini Transat, that alone will be a triumph of will. If he manages to place high, or even win the thing, even Hollywood wouldn’t be able to write a better or more thrilling comeback story.

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