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Conn. sailor tested by Mini Transat race

In his hometown of Stonington, Conn., Clay Burkhalter is something of a celebrity.

In his hometown of Stonington, Conn., Clay Burkhalter is something of a celebrity.

Having finished 12th out of 84 in the 30th anniversary of the 2007 Mini Transat and fresh off the plane from Brazil, it is no wonder. Burkhalter, 49, is only the fifth American ever to complete the race in his custom sailboat, USA 575 Acadia, the best U.S. finish since 1979 — despite storms, sleep deprivation and loss of safety equipment. Not too shabby for a newcomer to the race.

In The Yellow House Coffee and Tea Room, a local hangout, people shook hands with him, patted him on the back, and one resident was even seen wearing a “Team Acadia” jacket.

The Transat 6.50, nicknamed the Mini Transat, is a 4,240-mile single-handed race that starts in La Rochelle, France, and finishes in Salvador Bahia, Brazil. After undergoing several qualifying races in France, Burkhalter set out to take on the Atlantic Sept. 16, 2007, and finished Oct. 26, 2007. The first leg of the race was 1,000 miles to the Island of Medeva in Portugal, which Burkhalter reached Oct. 6. The competitors stopped for 12 days to rest and tend to their boats before setting out for the second leg, about 3,100 miles to Brazil.

“The first leg wasn’t too hard because even though I was alone, I could see other boats and we were grouped close to the coast,” says Burkhalter. “On the second leg after two days I didn’t see any other boats.”

Acadia was designed specifically for this race by Burkhalter’s uncle, renowned sailboat designer Ron Johnstone, owner of J Boats Inc., based in Newport, R.I.

At 21 feet, Acadia was made to be as light and strong as possible, using a combination of carbon fiber, epoxy and a foam core. She is the first boat of American design to enter the race since 1979.

“It took five or six months to build it, and I was working seven days a week on it,” says Burkhalter. “It was a big project here since we were building it right in town at Dodson Boatyard.”

Acadia took her maiden voyage in February 2006 in StoningtonHarbor before being shipped to France over the summer for qualifying races.

“It was hard to get used to her at first because she’s so small,” says Burkhalter. “Everything moves a little.”

Though he grew up sailing with his uncle, Burkhalter says he first got into ocean-racing about 10 to 15 years ago, but this was the first year he competed in the Mini Transat.

“Most people in the United States didn’t know what it was, but about four years ago my good friend and French sailor Isabelle Joschke told me about it,” says Burkhalter. “So I flew to France, saw the race, and thought, ‘This is good.’ ”

On his way back, he contacted his uncle and they began designing Acadia back in August 2004.

“I was one of two Americans participating; there was another man from Boston that entered at the last minute,” says Burkhalter. “I would say 60 percent of the participants were French, and there were 16 other countries represented.”

Burkhalter says despite all of the different cultures there in a competitive situation, there was much camaraderie among the sailors.

“We were like one big family, and everyone treats everyone else well,” says Burkhalter. “Just because it is a race doesn’t mean we don’t help each other. If we saw another sailor in distress, we’d be there to help out.”

And a good thing, too. Burkhalter says the batteries in the beacons each boat was equipped with to alert authorities if anything went wrong began to die on the second leg of the race, about 14 days out.

“The beacons worked as a reverse GPS if any of us were in trouble,” says Burkhalter. “It was also a way for the boats to pinpoint us on the Web, so if there is a boater that is going along at 8 knots and drops down to 1 knot, they can check in on him or her. When the batteries began to die, it eliminated the safety element.”

Burkhalter said officials of the race talked to them once a day by radio to give weather and positions of other boats, but otherwise they were on their own.

“There was lots of adversity, lousy weather and plenty of close calls,” says Burkhalter. “Everything was always wet, and there were times when I could barely sit anymore. I had started out with an inflatable camping chair, but that blew over the side pretty early on.”

Though he was alone, Burkhalter says the days flew by between single-handedly reacting to the mercurial weather and sea conditions, while getting some sleep when he could.

“The hardest part of the first leg was that I didn’t get enough sleep, so I was hallucinating,” says Burkhalter. “The hardest part of the second leg was handling gusting winds and confusing seas in a very small boat.”

A close call came when Burkhalter almost lost Acadia’s spinnaker to the sea on the third night of the second leg.

“Of course it was dark, and I was lucky because I was able to get it back up in a minute,” says Burkhalter. “When you are by yourself, it’s dark, and you’re tired, mistakes happen.”

Burkhalter was very pleased with 12th place, considering nine out of the 11 boats that beat him had participated in the race before. He would like to do it again — but maybe next time in a bigger boat.

“Definitely not in a mini,” says Burkhalter, laughing. “I’ll have to sell Acadia to pay off my debts, but I will miss her.”