Seattle sailors pit themselves against the raging Atlantic, Europe’s best and each other in Mini Transat

Seattle-based racing sailors Chris Tutmark and Craig Horsfield grew up half a world apart, but even as young boys, learning to maneuver their dinghies around a course, they shared a dream of someday competing in one of boating’s most extreme tests of solo endurance, the Transat 6.50.

Today, they finally get their chance.

It’s remarkable that Tutmark and Horsfield are two of only six skippers from outside the European Union allowed to compete in this year’s Transat 6.50, a solo, small boat race across the Atlantic from Europe to Brazil.

That they are both based currently in the United States is unusual. That they both hail from Seattle is downright astonishing.

“This is a race that only 20 Americans have finished,” said Tutmark, who Three Sheets Northwest caught up with in Ballard before he left for the starting line in France. “I’m excited and a little nervous, since it is a step into the unknown.”

Horsfield shares Tutmark’s feelings about the race. “This is where all the good single-handed sailors have come from,” he said by phone from France, where he was putting the finishing touches on his boat. “It must be the right place to start.”

The Transat 6.50—known more commonly as the Mini Transat—has inspired that mixture of awe and anxiety since it was first held in 1977. Every two years since then, some of the world’s best sailors have tested their mental and physical endurance by pushing themselves and their boats to the limit across some 4,200 miles of open ocean. Besides the single-handed sailing, what makes this competition so challenging is that the boats can be no longer than 6.5 meters, or about 21 feet—thus the term “mini.”

The 2009 Transat 650 course.

The 2009 Transat 6.50 course.

This year’s course will take the fleet of 84 boats from the Bay of Biscay to Madeira Island and then on to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, a stretch of the Atlantic that can offer navigational challenges and wildly different types of weather conditions, from trade winds to the doldrums.

It’s no wonder that the Mini Transat has produced some of the best racing sailors in the world and is a incubator for the big leagues of solo sailing, racing Open 60s.

The Mini Transat was envisioned as a relatively affordable alternative to the increasingly expensive, and professional, world of open ocean racing. The small size of the boats helps keep costs down. Boats are also divided into two divisions—production and prototype. Prototype boats are free to use new technologies, such as canting keels and carbon fiber rigs, while the larger production division must stick to approved designs that help limit expenses and even the playing field.

It was, in part, the relatively low cost of competition that allowed both Horsfield and Tutmark to dive into the race.

“It was something the average guy could afford and still push the limits of technology without having to have a lot of money,” Tutmark said.

Both Tutmark and Horsfield have been fixtures in the Puget Sound racing scene for years, although they took very different routes arriving there.

A crane prepares to splash Tutmark's boat.

A crane prepares to splash Tutmark's boat.

Tutmark is a local boy who cut his racing teeth in the Seattle Corinthian Yatch Club’s youth sailing program. He joined the University of Washington’s sailing team while working on a degree in international economics. But instead of putting his schooling to work, he discovered a talent for rigging. That eventually led him to start his own company, Tutmark Rigging, which caters mostly to the local racing community.

He remembers first reading about the Mini Transat in the late 1970s and being intrigued. But it wasn’t until Northwest sailing legend Jonathan McKee nearly won the 2003 race (a rigging failure just 500 miles for the finish scuttled his bid) that Tutmark began thinking seriously of entering.

“I’m not doing it for glory,” Tutmark said. “It’s just something I want to do.”

Horsfield, too, grew up sailing. But his proving grounds were in the waters near his home in Cape Town, South Africa. A software engineer, he was recruited by Microsoft and moved to Seattle about a decade ago. He soon bought an Olson 30 and joined the local racing scene around Shilshole Bay.

In the Northwest, Horsfield found a community of competitors and craftsmen who helped him hone his racing skills and prepare for the grueling Transat race.

“Sailing my Olson 30 helped quite a bit,” he said. “The people you meet here are great. There are a lot of good sailors (in the Northwest) who help you get through the challenges. When I came to Europe, people were surprised that a foreigner could show up and be competitive. Everything about my campaign has been Northwest.”

Craig Horsfield's put his Mini Transat boat through its pre-race paces.

Craig Horsfield's put his Mini Transat boat through its pre-race paces.

Tutmark and Horsfield have known each other for about 10 years, having met at local racing events. The two described their relationship as a “friendly rivalry,” both happy to help the other prepare for the Mini Transat race, but still planning to compete hard when the racing gets underway.

“Off the water, we are friends and we will help each other other. If he has an electronics problem, I will help him. If I have a rigging problem, he’ll help me,” Horsfield said.

Techncially, the two will be competing in different divisions. Tutmark’s boat is considered a prototype, because fewer than 10 of them have been built. Still, the use of standard equipment and the lack of cutting edge technologies means the boat is better suited for racing in the production division, and Tutmark plans to measure his success against that group.

His French-designed Nacira 6.5 is nearly half as wide as it is long, giving it a very boxy shape that is typical for the Mini Transat.

“My boat, in terms of hull shape, doesn’t look dissimilar to a Volvo 70,” Tutmark said. “It is stable as it heels over, which means you can carry a lot of sail.”

Tutmark took ownership of the boat in April, and has spent much of the time since then in Europe completing the various solo passages and offshore races required to compete in the Mini Transat.

“Overall the boat has been performing really well,” he said. “I’m very happy with it.”

View from the cockpit of Chris Tutmark's boat during one of the Mini Transat qualifying events.

View from the cockpit of Chris Tutmark's boat during one of the Mini Transat qualifying events.

Horsfield, who originally hoped to sail in the 2007 Mini Transat, has had more time to prepare himself and his boat for the challenge ahead. His Spanish-built, French-designed Zero is considered part of the production division. After taking delivery of the boat in late 2006 he had it shipped back to Seattle, where he worked with local businesses such as CSR Marine to get it ready for the race.

“I spent 50 percent of the time working on the boat and 50 percent sailing,” Horsfield said. “The boat has to be perfect for the Transat. It has to be strong, and you have to know it backwards.”

As the race approached, both men expressed confidence that their boats were ready to go. The remaining question each one had to grapple with was—are they? Tutmark and Horsfield said perhaps the toughest part of the race is the mental and physical toll it takes as each of the 4,200 miles pass under the keel. Sailing solo means very little sleep. In the middle of the ocean, sailing hard in a 21-footer, anything can go wrong.

“The mental aspect is the biggest part, in the end,” Horsfield said. “It is not about going very, very fast; it is about making good averages. But that can be hard to do when you haven’t slept for four days, you start hallucinating and the boat goes all over the palce.”

Craig Horsfield says mental preparation is key to completing the race.

Craig Horsfield says mental preparation is key to completing the race.

Tutmark has gone so far as trying to limit his sleep to just two hours at a stretch to get himself mentally and physically prepared for the race. Asked if people think he is crazy to sink so much time and money into such a risky effort, he shrugged. “Probably a little. But I like a challenge.”

“It’s been an amazing adventure so far, and an amazing adenture yet to come,” Tutmark said.

Horsfield ageed.

“In hindsight, when you know how hard it is and the amount of money and time it requires, I wouldn’t do it,” he chuckled. “But once I commit to something and something tells me not to do it, I go all in.”

And when it comes to the Mini Transat, “all in” is what it takes.

You can follow both campaigns online: Craig Horsfield Racing and  Chris Tutmark’s blog, USA 724-Mini.

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2 Responses to Seattle sailors pit themselves against the raging Atlantic, Europe’s best and each other in Mini Transat

  1. Neal September 14, 2009 at 9:28 pm #

    Go Seattle! Sounds like a heck of a race, good luck.


  1. Pacific Northwest Boating News: Lessons from a 4,200-mile race in a 21-foot boat | Three Sheets Northwest - January 5, 2010

    […] Three Sheets Northwest recently asked Tutmark to tell us about the lessons he learned about sailing, his boat and himself during the race, and he graciously agreed. For an idea of the amount of time, resources and planning that goes into preparing for such a race, see our earlier story “Seattle sailors pit themselves against the raging Atlantic, Europe’s best and each other in Min… […]

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