Jeff MacFarlane's Mini Dreams

The road to the Mini Transat hasn't been easy for American Jeff MacFarlane, but that's the way of the Mini.

Jeff MacFarlane

Jeff MacFarlane

Jeff MacFarlane awaits the start of the Mini Transat in France.Peter Marsh

Jeffrey Macfarlane, 31, grew up in Michigan then spent over a decade in offshore racing, with a long stretch in Australia on boats like the well-known maxi Wild Oats. In 2012, he crossed the Atlantic twice, on the Open 60, Le Pengouin, then in the Quebec St-Malo Race with the Class 40 EDF Energies Nouvelles. At his home base in New Jersey, he began planning his next adventure: the singlehanded Mini Transat Race, 4,000 miles from France to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Held every two years since 1977, it offers intense competition in high-performance 6.5-meter (21'3") Mini yachts, and has been the proving ground for most of the top French singlehanders.

Enthusiasm for the Mini reaches all over continental Europe (and occasionally to the English-speaking world), and inspires sailors of all ages and abilities to fulfill their dream of competing in a world-class long-distance competition, for far less than any comparable event. (More than 860 Minis have been built, and good used boats can be found for $40,000 and up.) The Transat is a major event on the European calendar, and more than a hundred sailors compete for a coveted entry slots, with the fleet capped at 84 boats. A point system based on previous activity in the class is used to decide who makes the cut. There are two Mini classes: production boats called "Series" and one-offs called "Protos."

The series boats are strictly controlled: no modifications, no carbon, hull solid glass fiber, dacron sails, and fixed keels only. The Protos are limited only by the basic box rule length, beam of 3m (9'10"), draft of 2m (6'6") and mast height above the water of 12m (39'). This open formula has led to a huge increase in the sail plan and made this the testing ground for many radical ideas including water ballast, canting keels, and rotating bowsprits 3.4m (11') long to carry a giant 900-square foot spinnaker.

With no_ _minimum weight, a Proto may also be built too lightly in the search for speed. Jeff found this out the hard way in April. After winning several races, and reaching the top of the Mini points table, his mast post failed during a knockdown. The bulkhead splintered, and the keel-canting tackle broke free while he was hanging on to the keel box.

His hand was badly injured and he had to be airlifted by the Spanish Coast Guard. He returned to the U.S. to recover and had the injury examined by specialists in New York. They re-set the broken bones as a temporary solution, and like a true professional, he insisted on returning to Europe.

He found a competitive boat from top designer Sam Manuard. Mini 759 had been built in Nomex and pre-preg carbon in the Czech Republic, far from the sea, and weighed around 700 kgs (1,500 lbs) without rig. Manuard went over the boat with him, pronounced it capable, and later gave him some coaching on the water.

Jeff had a new set of seven sails made by Remi Auburn in La Trinite--a main, a 110 percent (Solent) jib with one reef, roller-furled gennaker, three spinnakers, and a storm jib. He entered a few Mini races and then prepared for his 1,000-mile Transat qualifier in July. (For the second time, because entrants must qualify in the boat they will race in.)

On the first day, off the coast of Brittany, the single port shroud holding up the rotating wing-mast parted at the upper lashing. Luck was with him--the spinnaker halyard was shackled to the lifeline abeam and held the spar until he could jury rig the second spinnaker halyard. He returned to the port of Douarnenez, replaced the cord, re-started, and completed the course without further incident.

Douarnenez is also where the Mini Transat was due to start in October, so getting to the start of the race truly has been the real challenge for MacFarlane. He is the first American to have a chance at winning the race since Jonathan McKee in 2003. (McKee was well in the lead near the finish when his mast broke.)

There are no clear favorites this year with 30 other Protos entered, some 20 years old, some previous winners. One design definitely stands out: the scow-type hull of David Raison's Magnum that took the race by storm in 2011, winning by over 24 hours. Now raced by an Italian, the tubby wing-masted boat_ _is back and once again looking for strong winds on the beam where its extra buoyancy forward made it untouchable.

The only new launch is Stan Maslard's Lombard design with a full chine, and a bare carbon hull that weighed only 200 kgs, compared to 300 kgs a decade ago. The mast is 6 to 7 kilos less, resulting in a keel bulb weighing 35 kgs lighter for the same righting moment required by the rules.

In the Series, the new RG 650 from young Argentinian architect Nicolas Goldenberg, with its deck and hull chines faired into a fuller bow and stern has performed beyond expectations. Aussie skipper Richard Hewson's last success was in the Clipper round-the-world race with an amateur crew of 16--his new ride barely sleeps one! (The first RG 650 in the U.S. is_ Team Wichard, _which is in Annapolis, Md.)

Among 10 women entered, Diane Reid, 41, from Ontario will be the first Canadian woman to compete in the race. She began with the Lake Ontario Short- Handed Racing Series in her Thunderbird, then caught the Mini fever and bought a Zero series design in Seattle. She named it _One Girl's Ocean Challenge, _and shipped it to France in March 2012. After two seasons of Mini training and racing, she reckons she is ready to take on the Atlantic. Her goal is "to make all the right decisions."

On October 10, three days before the start, an ominous depression approaching northwest Spain had the potential to put the fleet into survival mode and threaten safety. The organizers announced a postponement until the outlook improved. "I'm happy about it," said MacFarlane. "It gives me more time to check the work we've done and make some finishing touches."