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Gearing Up for the Mini Transat

Browning at the helm of the boat that she hopes will launch here solo-sailing career.
This weekend a much-celebrated ocean-racing event is set to get underway in Europe. If you’re thinking the Volvo Ocean Race, well that too is scheduled to start, but in France, the Transat 6.50 Charente-Maritime/Bahia is likely to steal headlines from the more recognized VOR. Formerly the Mini Transat, the Transat 6.50 gets underway on Saturday when 60 entrants pilot their lightweight, 21-foot speedsters out of the Bay of Biscay from La Rochelle south toward the Canary Islands. Among the argonauts bracing themselves to face the coming days (and almost 5,000 miles of open ocean) will be one lone American, Gale Browning, a 45-year-old Annapolitan mother of three and a relative novice to the realm of single-handed racing.

For Browning, the Mini Transat marks her debut in solo sailing. The two-stage passage that culminates in Salvador, Brazil, will be her first transatlantic voyage, and though she purchased her lively boat almost three years ago and has competed in some preliminary events, this race will truly be her baptism into what remains a rare discipline of the sport. Nonetheless, it’s a fitting stage for Browning, a marine surveyor who plans to parlay this appearance aboard Hartoft Marine Survey into a career on the water that she hopes will culminate five years from now with the 2006 Around Alone single-handed circumnavigation. It was in the 1997 Mini Transat that Ellen MacArthur first made inroads as a solo-sailing talent, and this event has also been pivotal in launching the careers of other now-renowned racers. But the race is anything but easy, and almost every aspect of it is demanding, putting a premium on preparation and proficiency with the gear on board.

Just days before the start, SailNet touched base with Browning as she underwent final preparations to see just what she would be taking to sea and how she planned to remain competitive. An hour before she had completed a mandatory test sail and was dealing with some 11th-hour problems involving a new mainsail. She also had to install a new safety hatch in the transom at the last minute, tightening the fasteners as the boat was lifted back into the water to make the splashdown deadline. Here's her pre-race outlook:

Big kites and even bigger cojones. Browning says finding the resolve to fly her spinnaker in big breeze will help her compete against a talented international fleet.

SailNet: You were quoted in the New York Times saying that you thought you could place in the top 10. What’s it going to take on your part to accomplish that?
Gale Browning: It’s going to take a lot of balls, so to speak, to fly the spinnaker in the big wind and a lot of perseverance as well as predicting the weather better than everyone else. I’ve been studying the weather with Commanders Weather and I’ve been conversing with Jennifer Clark [the Gulf Stream specialist] who is helping me with currents. I talked with Ken at Commanders and he gave me probabilities; what kinds of things I can expect. I’m looking to mix the best weather out there with the advantageous currents to make some gains.

SN: What if anything concerns you the most about this race? What aspect do you fear the most?
GB: Nothing really. I know what I’m up against.

SN: We’re curious about your safety outlook since you’ll be alone on board such a small boat. What’s your policy on safety harnesses?
GB: I use a Lirakis safety harness with a Wichard tether. My Guy Cotton foul weather gear has a built-in harness in the jacket and the pants, so I just switch the tether as needed. I attach myself to the boat all the time unless it is flat calm. If that’s the case, I trail a line in the water in case there is a current. I have a D-ring secured near the companionway and I just leave my tether snapped to that even when I go below. That way I don't forget to hook in when I go on deck.

For the worst-case scenario, I have a strobe light attached to a horseshoe buoy. The strobe may aid a rescue if I stay on the boat, but I don't think the buoy is much good for a solo sailor who goes over the side. I do have a remote control for my NKE autopilot that is supposed to work several feet away from the boat. In theory, if I go over the side I should be able to use that to steer the boat into the wind to give me a chance to swim back to it, but in reality, if I lose contact with the boat, I don't think I have much chance to survive.

The mighty ocean can look pretty forbidding from the deck of 21-footer.

SN: What about at night. What do you do then?
GB: I use a Petzel headlamp, which is very small, very bright, and draws little power. Three AAA batteries will last about a week. When it gets dark, I put it on my head and leave it on all night. If I need a brighter light, I use a spotlight, which works great when a ship or fishing boat is bearing down on me and I want to make sure they see the boat. I do have a radar reflector, which is the standard Mini Transat issue. It’s a cylinder shape approximately 18 inches long and it’s secured between the second and third spreaders, but I personally don’t think it’s very effective.

SN: What about what you will be wearing during the coldest parts of the race?
GB: I wear polypropylene underwear and Guy Cotten Offshore foul weather gear most of the time. I also have a Guy Cotten survival suit that can be worn as a drysuit. This suit is much more maneuverable than the Gumby-like suits you most often see.

SN: What about the self-steering gear you use? What will you rely upon there?
GB: I have two autopilots: an Autohelm 4000-plus tiller pilot that has already completed a Mini Transat and a new NKE gyro pilot with a very powerful hydraulic ram. The gyro pilot is a must for downwind surfing. It also interfaces with the speedo so it does not oversteer when the boat flies off a wave. The two pilots are a very good combination. But if I could only have one, I would choose the Autohelm for its dependability and low power draw. I’ll also be taking a spare Autohelm.

"The gyro pilot is a must for downwind surfing. It also interfaces with the speedo so it does not oversteer when the boat flies off a wave."
What about other areas like sails?
GB: We are allowed to take eight sails, and we’re required to take a storm jib and a trysaill, so I’ve got those. I also have three new sails constructed by Quantum Atlantic, a mainsail, a solent, and a Code Zero. The other sails are the 1999 originals that came with the boat—two masthead spinakers, and a fractional spinnaker.

SN: The rules for the Transat 6.50 reportedly prohibit electronic aids to navigation. Is that correct?
GB: We are allowed to take a GPS, but it can’t have a plotter. We are also required to carry a sextant as a backup. During the 1,000-mile non-race qualifier that I sailed, we had to take sights for two days and plot a position and submit all those calculations to the race committee for approval. I’ll be carrying a small Furuno GPS mounted in the cockpit and a Garmin handheld GPS as a backup.

SN: What about electrical power? What kind of batteries do you use and how will you charge them?
GB: I have three Lifeline AGM (absorbed glass mat), 95-amp batteries that I charge with two 18-watt solar panels. For all my qualifying sails, this system has been sufficient, but I didn't use the NKE pilot much then. It really is an energy hog. As a back up, I have a Honda 1000i inverter generator and a 15-amp Dolphin charger.

It's the satisfaction of successful self-reliance, says Browning, that partially draws her to single-handed competition.
SN: One final question. Is there anything in particular that caused you to take an interest in solo sailing, and this event specifically?
GB: A long time ago it was really difficult to find people who had the same love of sailing that I have, and it was hard to get people to come with me when I wanted to go sailing. I found that I enjoyed my own company out on the water, so that and the fact that I read the book "Dove" at about that time just steered me toward spending a lot of time on the water by myself. I really do enjoy it.

On the Wild Side

American sailors rarely get a chance to observe 6.5 Meter sailboats in action, but these comparatively miniscule speedsters are all about performance. From their enormous rigs to their twin rudders, spartan interiors, and water-ballast systems, these craft are the diminutive cousins of Open 60s like Kingfisher and Gartmore, and their capabilities would surprise even the most jaded racer.

Consider that the typical prototype 6.5 Meter has a sail plan that measures 460 square feet (upwind; downwind is roughly 1,000) and a displacement that’s roughly 2,100 pounds. Contrast that with, say, a Melges 24 (380 square feet of upwind sail area and roughly 1,000 downwind, and 1,750 pounds of displacement). If you’ve ever sailed a Melges 24, then you can imagine the performance potential of a 6.5 Meter, but with longer bowsprits and enormous roach on the mainsail, think Melges 24 in overdrive.

Couple that performance potential with the fact that in the last edition of this event in 1999, 32 competitors (42 percent of the field) had to abandon the race for a variety of reasons, most of them brought on by extreme weather. If the racers get out of the infamous Bay of Biscay unscathed and make it as far as the stage one finish line in the Canary Islands, they still have to face another 3,500 miles of open ocean before arriving in Salvador.

For updates on the event, log on to the official website at, or follow Gale's progress through her own website: Of course SailNet will also follow the race in our News items and by way of occasional feature articles.

Suggested Reading:

Gale's Excellent Adventure by SailNet

The Making of a True Master Mariner by Dan Dickison

Vendee Globe Speed Machines by Brian Hancock


Buying Guide: Autopilots

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