It's likely that you've never heard of Gale Browning, but let that little oversight end right now. This 43-year-old mother of three is poised to jump on to the map of offshore sailing in a big way. All right, maybe it's only in a modest way, but consider this, if everything goes according to plan, she'll be the only American participant in next fall's Mini Transat race. She'll not only be the lone American in this two-stage, 4,500-mile, single-handed contest sailed aboard 21-foot vessels, she'll be just one of three Americans who have ever entered the event in 12 editions that span 24 years.
Still not impressed? That's O.K., Browning doesn't think you ought to benot yet. She knows that most sailors have never heard of this grueling contest, which routes its participants from the coast of Brittany in France down to the Canary Islands and then on to a destination across the Atlantic (this year it's Brazil). And she's aware that most American sailors have a difficult time relating to an offshore single-handed race that's conducted on board 21-foot boats with gargantuan rigs. But she also knows that the Mini Transat is the proving ground for the world's elite offshore single-handed racers. If you have even a mild interest in this discipline, the names Yves Parlier, Isabelle Autissier and Jean-Luc Van den Heede will ring a bell for you. Each of them came up through the ranks by first participating in the Mini Transat. In baseball parlance, it's the farm league of single-handed offshore racing.
SailNet caught up with the Annapolis-based Browning while she was briefly back in the US, taking a break from her training in France to pay some bills and put in a few appearances as part of her fund raising program. We put her on the spot to find out why anyone would want to participate in a race as demanding as the Mini Transat.
SailNet: Tell us where you are in your preparation for next fall's race?
Gale Browning: I'm signed up to do several races in France. One is a 300-miler and one is a 700-mile race, together they'll fulfill my qualification requirements for the Mini Transat. So I've got four or five days here at home to clean up my act, pay a few bills, and then get back to France.
SN: Do you find it a little daunting that you'll be the only American in the Mini Transat?
GB: Yes, very much. I didn't realize how much until I got over there and starting feeling like the new kid on the block. There are so many experienced racers over there. But that was the whole reason for going over to France, to find out where I fit in and to gain from the experience of sailing against those folks. Some sailors have done all their training at homein a vacuum sort ofand then headed over to race. Chris Sayer from New Zealand did that the last time around, but that's like guesswork. I wanted to take the guesswork out of it and know what I was up against.
SN: You've been a delivery skipper and a charter captain and now a marine surveyor, but how is it that you came to be a racer?
GB: I guess I consider myself more an adventure-racer. I'm really not drawn to the short distance stuff. I like the long distance racing where I can concentrate on the weather and strategy. I think that all came from the schooner that I used to own. I raced that in the Chesapeake Bay schooner races five years in a row.
I guess that first win in 1994 really planted the seed for me. We were racing against Gary Jobson who owned a traditional schooner at the time. His boat was somewhat similar to mine although his was wooden, and he had a very professional crew on board. But we won on corrected time. That really got me going in the racing mode. When I first signed up for the race I told myself that I was going cruising in the company of other schooners, but my partner Peter said: "Look, Gary's going to be racing. We should be out there to win." And that did it.
SN: Solo sailing obviously isn't for everyone. What about it really appeals to you?
GB: I like the challenge of having to do everything, the navigation, the sail changes, everything that you're responsible for on board. And no one is there to cause me self doubt. You just make a decision and you do it.
SN: Is there anyone you'd identify as a hero or mentor among solo sailors?
GB: I've been following Isabelle Autissier for quite a while. I was just very impressed with her determination through all the setbacks she endured. I've met her once, as a fan, not on a personal basis.
SN: Success in the solo sailing arena requires a broad range of skills from boat handling to meteorological wizardry to inventive maintenance. What areas would you say are particular strengths for you?
GB: I think my background of being a charter captain and doing deliveries and my experience as a marine surveyor gives me an edge over some of the younger competitors, it's just simple skills born of experience.
SN: Most sailors have never seen a 6.5 Meter boat, much less been aboard one of these water-ballasted speedsters. What's it like to sail?
GB: I was very surprised. You think a 21-foot boat will be a little unstable, but when I got it out on the ocean for the first time it was solid. It was like being on board a 30 or 40 foot boat, and it's so light that it surfs right away. In some ways it's like riding a surfboard. You get up on a wave and it just shoots off. I would say that it's very exhilarating.
SN: Tell us a little bit about the boat you'll be sailing?
GB: The boat I have was built by Albert Bargues who sailed it in the '99 Mini Transat and placed ninth. It's definitely a competitive boat. It's one of the prototype boats, of which only 25 will be allowed to enter the race. I've only had the boat for a year now, but I feel very comfortable as far as surviving on the boat and now the next stage is to optimize the performance, which is what I'm trying to accomplish in France. Apart from racing in those two preliminary events, my plan is to identify a training partner and conduct some two-boat testing so that we can do sail tests and quantify performance, that sort of stuff.
SN: So it's not guaranteed that your application for entry in the Mini Transat will be accepted?
GB: They're only allowing 55 entries this year, and only 25 of those spots are for the prototype boats like mine. They do have five places reserved for wild card entries, mostly last-minute entries from overseas. At this point, I have heard that over 100 sailors are trying to secure a spot in the race. I'm not guaranteed a place on the line, but I've lined up everything so that I should be able to get in. And, I think that I have a little bit of an advantage being the only one from America. So I could possibly be given a wild card spot if necessary. The organizers are trying to make this more of an international event.
SN: What do you tell people who ask you about being a woman in this kind of racing?
GB: It kind of goes both ways. In the beginning before you're established it's hard to break in [as a woman], but once you're established, being a woman helps you get noticed. But if you're asking are there disadvantages about being a woman in a sport where mostly men compete, I think Ellen MacArthur answered that quite well in the Vendee Globe. She's a five-foot-two woman weighing about 100 pounds and she performed well enough to beat all but one person in that race.
SN: Tell us what you have planned for the future beyond the Mini Transat?
GB: What I'm building up to is the Around Alone race in 2006. I think it's important for any future marketing program that I try to incorporate a series of races so that when we put that program together I'll have a pretty solid resume.
To keep up with Gale's progress, log on to her website at www.2001minitransat.com.
Mini Format, Maximum Adventure Founded by Briton Bob Salmon in 1976, this race was intended to be the small-boat sailor's alternative to the gigantism of the OSTAR (several late 70s-era boats in that solo sailing epic ranged longer than 200 feet). Ironically, the first event set out from Cornwall in the UK because French authorities deemed it too dangerous, saying that no 21-foot boat could finish the proposed course. Ultimately, 19 of the initial 23 entrants made it down to Tenerife in the Canary Islands and across to the final finish port in Antigua.
This year, 55 contestants will make up the fleet that departs the western coast of France on September 23 and heads to Tenerife. The first leg of the event measures approximately 1,300 miles and takes the racers across the storm-strewn Bay of Biscay. A new twist in the course means that leg two (approximately 3,100 miles) will end in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil for the first time. The race is restricted to boats no longer than 6.5 meters (21 feet), which are typically powered by gargantuan sail plans. Browning's boat can carry up to 424 square feet of sail area upwind, and over 1,000 when she points the bow down and hoists her asymmetrical kiteall of that with a 10-foot beam and almost seven feet of draft. Of course the one-design, production-built boats in the race (the Pogos), carry slightly less sail area.
How long does all this take? Sébastien Magnen a naval architect who won the last two editions of this race aboard his own designs, spent 24 days, 15 hours, 11 minutes, and 16 seconds completing the course in 1999. But the course is longer this year, so count on it taking more time.
A New Global Champion by Dan Dickison
Preparing an Abandon Ship Bag by Sue and Larry
The Delicate Art of Preventing Seasickness by Liza Copeland
Buying Guide: Liferafts