(Originally published on SailingWorld.com)
The Mini Transat is hands-down one of the most testing, exhilarating, intense sailboat races any sailor can choose from the long list of epic sailing challenges. Solo, 4,200 miles across the Atlantic from France to Brazil, in a Spartan, designed-to-the-edge-of-safety, 21-foot boat that’s a brutal bitch to drive to weather but an absolute rocket off the wind. Being solo and masochistic, the race is of course dominated by the French. But it’s always refreshing to see Americans take a crack at the Mini Transat, and in 2003 Jonathan McKee almost upset the established order of the universe by threatening to win—before the sailing gods woke up and flicked his mast over the side as he zeroed in on the finish. What’s even more unusual is when an American woman sails up to the start line, and this year’s distaff daredevil is one Emma Creighton, from San Francisco.
If Creighton makes it to the start, and then—just as importantly—makes it to the finish, she’d be the second American woman ever to complete the Mini Transat. The first was Annapolis’ own Gale Browning, who finished the race in 2001. Plenty of Annapolis sailors remember the sight of Gale sailing her tiny boat on the Chesapeake every chance she got, as she prepared for her Atlantic crossing. Despite the fact that the usual 4 knots of Chesapeake “breeze” was not ideal preparation for slamming to weather across the Bay of Biscay or surfing through the tradewinds at double-digit speeds, Gale managed the not insignificant feat of finishing, and even managed to beat another boat across the line—whereupon she promptly put her boat up for sale. “It was the toughest challenge I ever took on,” she says. “And it’s really hard whether you’re a man or a woman.”
Creighton still needs to complete her 1,000-mile qualifier, in Pocket Rocket, her 2006 Prototype Mini, and says she plans to set off this week. After sailing the double-handed division of the Pac Cup last summer, and a bunch of short-handed San Francisco Bay races, she shipped the boat to France and has lined up a series of Mini races to sharpen her skills and familiarity with the boat. She completed her first real solo race earlier this month, the 300-mile Pornichet Select, and discovered something pretty important. “I hadn’t realized just how much I would enjoy racing alone,” she says.
The Pornichet was fairly light, and Creighton will no doubt face a sterner test when she heads off on her qualifier, which will take her around the Fastnet Rock. But she’s plugging along with her plans, hoping to pull it all off and sail to Brazil. Succeeding would give her some serious cred, which she thinks will help her make her way aboard some big-boat ocean-racing teams. “It’s hard for everyone to break in on that scene, but especially hard for women in the U.S.,” she says. “I also hope to get back into the Melges 32 at some point. And the Tour de France a la Voile is very cool.”
The top sailors in the Mini class spend years honing their skills, pour lots of sponsorship money into their Mini Transat campaigns, and spend tons of time on the water. Creighton is still feeling her way into the Mini, and there are still a lot of unknowns for her. “The first leg [to Madeira] is a little scary,” she says. “And I don’t know how I will deal with being alone for three weeks.” Accordingly, she’s keeping her goals modest: “I just want to finish,” she says, but later goes on to admit that she would also love to break into the top 20 in the Proto class. That’s ambitious, but the Mini Transat is about dreaming big.