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A Connecticut sailor’s ocean challenge

Clay Burkhalter, who grew up in Stonington, Conn., plans to race his Mini Class sailboat from France to Brazil.

The sailboat, Acadia, sat on a trailer in the parking lot of the Coconut Grove Sailing Club near Miami this past spring. The 6-1/2-foot keel, dual rudders and Mini Transat logo on the side of the 21-1/2-foot hull attracted attention as passersby realized this small, nontraditional vessel may race across the Atlantic Ocean.

Read the other story in this package: J/Boat team together again

Clay Burkhalter, the boat’s owner and skipper, worked on Acadia’s mast nearby and readily answered curious admirers’ questions: Transat 6.50, or “Mini Transat,” is a 4,240-nautical-mile solo ocean race from France to Brazil. Yes, he planned to race Acadia in the event. It was scheduled to begin Sept. 16.

Flash forward to mid-August and Burkhalter was an ocean away in France preparing to take part in the Mini Transat race in which he will be the only American entry.

In late April, he finished 11th out of 63 boats in a 500-mile solo race starting and ending in La Rochelle, France, called the Mini Pavois. On the way to the mark, Acadia ran into gale-force winds in the Bay of Biscayne and lost a spreader and the spinnaker halyard.

Next came the Pornichet Select, a 300-mile solo race in early May starting in Pornichet, France. Acadia was in the lead pack all the way and finished sixth out of 70 other competitors. After encountering gale-force winds the second night out, Burkhalter went 50 hours without sleep.

In early June, Burkhalter finished 13th out of 80 boats in the Marie-Agnes Peron, a 200-mile solo race that started in Douarnenez, France. Burkhalter actually led the race for the first 100 miles but was waylaid by a commercial fishing net.

The last step in qualifying was the Open Sail Simrad, an overnight 110-mile double-handed race that kicked off in Locmiquelic, France, July 15. Joining Burkhalter was his uncle, Rod Johnstone, founder/designer of J/Boats (and Acadia). With their combined ages of 118 years (48 and 70), the pair was by far the most senior crew in the race. Burkhalter and Johnstone finished third out of 73 boats. “It was quite an experience,” Johnstone says. “Every time I managed to get to sleep, Clay woke me up for a sail change. We were up for 35 hours straight as a frontal system moved through.”

Experience and pedigree

While Burkhalter is aware some people seem to think he’s crazy to sail this small boat solo across the Atlantic, he is confident in both the boat and his seamanship skills. He says he has worked hard designing and building his boat, and preparing for the nautical challenge.

Burkhalter’s sailing qualifications span more than 40 years. He first learned to sail at the age of 5 as his mother pushed him through the water along the beach in his hometown of Stonington, Conn., in an aluminum pram. She took him sailing every day that summer and many summer days after. Eventually, she worked in her garden and kept an eye on her son while he sailed solo nearby.

His racing experience also began at age 5 when his uncle, Rod, signed him on as crew on a Falcon 16. Burkhalter was enlisted to trim the jib upwind and man the helm downwind while Uncle Rod set the spinnaker.

After graduating from the University of Connecticut, Burkhalter found work that kept him close to the sea by selling boats, docks and sailing charters. He figured out how to make his sailing passion and love for the sea both his hobby and career.

“Being at sea is much better than sitting in rush-hour traffic,” he says, adding that he’s fascinated by the ever changing weather and enjoys the challenge of sailing to a designated destination.

When conditions are at their worst and Burkhalter is wet, miserable and tired, he says he thinks, “I’m not ever doing this again.”

But then the weather changes, the sun comes out, and by the time he reaches his destination Burkhalter says he’s ready for his next ocean passage.

Pushing beyond cruising

As Burkhalter continued to log nearly 100,000 miles of ocean experience delivering boats, captaining private yachts and charters, and racing, he began to think about more extreme racing challenges. The solo ocean Mini Transat race seemed to fit the bill as the Mini Class sailboats are the smallest open class yachts in ocean racing.

The race is held every two years. The first leg of the race is about 1,000 nautical miles, from La Rochelle, France, to Madeira, an island off the coast of Portugal. The 3,240-nautical mile second leg finishes in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, and requires passing a waypoint in the Cape Verde Islands in order to steer a course far east enough for the boats to avoid typical fall tropical storm activity.

The majority of race entrants are French, although the field has expanded to include competitors from a number of other countries. The Mini Transat has launched the careers of famous solo bluewater sailors such as Isabelle Autissier, Bruno Peyron and Ellen MacArthur.

Skippers must complete a 1,000-mile solo nonstop sail and another 1,000 miles of approved races in order to qualify for the Mini Transat.

Burkhalter helped Isabelle Joschke, a French sailor and close friend, prepare for the 2005 Mini Transat. While assisting Joschke, Burkhalter met many of the other race participants and decided to mount his own race campaign for the 2007 event, which happens to be the Mini Transat’s 30th anniversary.

Obstacles under way

Burkhalter says his biggest worry on any passage is that something may break, but he is confident in his ability to fashion a jury rig to make it safely to shore as he proved in August 2006 in the 2,500 nautical mile Les Sables – The Azores – Les Sables race.

More than 700 miles into the 1,270-nautical-mile leg to the Azores, Acadia’s mast snapped in 22 knots of wind while surfing down a large wave at 13 to 14 knots.

“I watch in complete amazement as sails, rigging and pieces of carbon fill my whole view; two-thirds of the mast, the spinnaker, jib and most of the main are now in the water,” Burkhalter wrote in Acadia’s log.

A 14-foot stump remained and Burkhalter jury-rigged both the storm main and jib off the bow and took six days to complete the 550 nautical miles to the Azores, finishing within the time limit, but was unable to complete the return leg of the race to Les Sables, France.

Following the race, in the fall of 2006, Acadia received a new mast and rigging, which was 35 pounds lighter. Burkhalter worked with Team Acadia, his crew of friends and family, to lighten the boat a total of 270 pounds, including 105 pounds from the keel and 100 pounds from the batteries.

Acadia was re-launched on New Year’s Eve and her new equipment was tested in the Florida Keys this past winter leading up to the qualifying races in Europe during the summer.

After months of preparation and hard work, Burkhalter says he and Acadia are ready for the physical and mental challenges of the 2007 Mini Transat.

In a field of 84 boats, Burkhalter says he initially hoped to finish in the top 10, but given his additional experience and Acadia’s improvements, now hopes to finish in the top 5. Unlike the favored boats in the race, which have deep-pocketed major sponsors, the Acadia project is a grassroots effort that relied on in-kind support to build and outfit the boat.

After the race, Burkhalter says he may write a book about his sailing adventures. Another possibility is returning to Africa, where he spent three years in the mid-1990s working for SOS-Kinderdorf International (A German children’s care foundation).

Upon his return from Africa, Burkhalter obtained a Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Connecticut and he would like to put his education to good use. Of course, he’ll also find ways to continue to indulge his love of sailing and the sea.

For more on the race and to follow Burkhalter’s quest, visit www.tea The official race site, which is apparently only available in French, is . An English site for the class is .