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September 2022

An interview with Peter Gibbons-Neff on his Classe Mini campaign

by David Schmidt 21 Jul 08:00 PDT July 21, 2022
Peter Gibbons-Neff logging Classe Mini miles © Image courtesy of PGN Ocean Racing

Singlehanded offshore sailing is a pursuit that the French have long dominated, from the headline-grabbing, round-the-world Vendee Globe Race, to the much smaller Classe Mini circuit. While the former is contested aboard 60-foot IMOCA monohulls, the latter is contested aboard 21-foot Classe Mini boats. Rather than race around the world, the Classe Mini’s biggest event is the Mini Transat, which runs from Les Sables D'Olonne, France, to the Canary Islands and then on to Guadeloupe for a total 4,050 nautical miles.

Alone. On a high-performance 21-footer.

This is a tough undertaking for anyone, but it’s even harder when you’re an American, from an entirely different continent, sailing culture, and language.

But this is exactly what Peter Gibbons-Neff Jr., a former U.S. Marine and a longtime offshore sailor, is doing. Cooler still, Gibbons-Neff is using his campaign to raise awareness for U.S. Patriot Sailing, which is a volunteer-run 501(c)(3) non-profit that helps U.S. military veterans find new horizons.

I checked in with Gibbons-Neff, via email, to learn more about what like to be an American taking on this competitive singlehanded offshore racing circuit.

How did you get interested in singlehanded sailing? Also, where and when did start sailing offshore alone?

As I approached my tenth year of serving on active duty in the Marine Corps, I was ready for a career change to my ultimate passion of sailing. I first started considering solo sailing during the first year of COVID when I knew I wanted to get back into ocean racing.

Everything was shut down the spring of 2020, but going into that summer the French solo sailors were still training for the Vendeé Globe. The Vendeé Globe was also probably the only major ocean race that took place later that year.

I have sailed all my life, but my first time sailing alone offshore was a delivery of my Classe Mini from Normandy, France, 360 nautical miles out the English Channel and Bay of Biscay to La Trinité-sur-Mer on the west coast.

What about the Classe Mini? How long have you been involved with the class?

The Classe Mini is one of the few ocean racing classes that is actually reasonable cost-wise.

That is ultimately how I got attracted to the class. As I learned more, I was attracted to the spirit of seamanship within the fleet, the strong competition, and the bond between the sailors.

These are high performance 21-foot sailboats designed to race across the ocean, however you cannot use satellite communication, cell phones, chart plotters, or computers for weather routing. We use paper charts, a basic GPS, and have a sextant ready to go for back-up navigation. There is no galley, head, or nav desk on board.

I have only been involved with the class for the past two years, but have learned a lot as I finish my second full season in France.

Did you do any Mini sailing in the USA before shipping your boat to Europe?

There was a little training, but it was a quick timeline. I bought my boat in Annapolis in September of 2020, officially started the campaign, prepared the boat for racing over the winter, and shipped the boat to France that Spring.

It was a really quick turnaround while working full time as a Marine Corps officer at the Pentagon.

Last year I transitioned into the reserves so I could race during the spring/summer season in France. It is really not possible to compete in the Mini Transat without immersing yourself in the Classe Mini circuit over here [in France]. During the winter I completed my required drill obligation at the Pentagon in Washington, DC.

What’s it been like to be the only American on an otherwise French racing circuit? Do you speak French?

It has been an incredible experience meeting so many sailors from around the world here. While it is a French-dominated event, there are many people from other European countries. While I have tried to learn French, it is difficult to learn while solo sailing! (even harder over the VHF radio…)

What have been your best moments of racing (and sailing) the Mini since you’ve been in Europe?

My best moment to date was defiantly safely finishing my 1,000 nautical mile solo qualification sail last season in the Bay of Biscay, English Channel, and Celtic Sea.

Due to light winds, it took about ten days, but the final 24 hours were the most difficult all year. At night, blowing almost 40 knots, heavy rain, and an Irish coast lee shore just two miles away full of rocks. I wasn’t sure whether the hull or mast would break first as the boat was falling off the top of steep waves.

My favorite moments are usually the sense of accomplishment after finishing each race, no matter the distance sailed. Something always goes wrong or not to plan and you just have to find a way to fix it and finish the race.

What’s been the harder challenge—getting up to speed in the class, or raising awareness for U.S. Patriot Sailing? Can you please explain?

Both are serious challenges.

When I bought the boat, there was a lot of work to make it class legal and ready to race across the Atlantic Ocean. We continue to make improvements every day on the boat.

Raising awareness for U.S. Patriot Sailing also has its challenges, because it is just not possible to share all the amazing work this program accomplishes on a regular basis.

As a 100-percent volunteer team based out of three locations across the country, U.S. Patriot Sailing helps many military veterans with challenges such as PTSD and transition to civilian life through the sport of sailing. With so much to offer, there are still so many veterans that do not know this opportunity exists.

It is my goal to help veterans find this team and get the help they deserve. U.S. Patriot Sailing was there for me when I was going through a difficult time in my personal life and transitioning off active duty. Now it is my turn to give back to this organization that helped me.

Aside from raising awareness a good cause, what are your campaign goals? What’s your schedule of events like, and what milestones are you aiming at as you prepare for the 2023 Mini Transat?

My goal is to race in the 2023 Mini Transat. I have already achieved the most difficult milestone, qualifying for the race. Since I already completed over 1,500 miles of racing and my solo qualification, I will be at the top of the registration list.

With so much interest in the Classe Mini, every race throughout the season is reaching a maximum number of entrants and having a waiting list. This is unprecedented as the class explodes in popularity.

My other major milestone is completing the Les Sables-Azores-Les Sables (SAS) race in July-August 2022. This is the longest race on the off year to the Mini Transat (which goes every other year). The SAS is a 2,600 nautical mile race (1,300 nautical miles over two stages) from France to the Azores and back. This is the ultimate test leading up to the Mini Transat.

Next year I will compete in a few races to fine tune the boat as I prepare for the Mini Transat that fall.

Can you please tell us about any steps that you have taken to lower your campaign’s carbon footprint or otherwise green-up your program?

This is currently difficult for most sailing campaigns. However, I my biggest contribution is through using renewable energy through solar power since we don’t have motors to charge our batteries. I also reduce my reliance on plastics by using water cans to refill a water bottle. We don’t burn fuel or have much trash on our little 21-foot sailboats.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add about your campaign, for the record?

The Mini Transat has occurred every other year since 1977, yet only about 10 Americans have completed this race. I take pride in representing America and raising awareness for U.S. Patriot Sailing.

I have some incredible sponsors who believed in me from the very beginning like Fawcett Boat Supplies in Annapolis, Maryland. Also, thank you to everyone who has donated to my GoFundMe page (gofund.me/dc565273), without their support this would not be possible. However, as this campaign moves forward, I continue to seek additional sponsors who believe in my mission and can help get me to the finish line.

You can follow me on Instagram (@pgnoceanracing) or Facebook (PGN Ocean Racing) as I continues to race and prepare for the 2023 Mini Transat. You can also sign-up for my blog posts through his website www.pgnoceanracing.com, or, if you’re interested in having me speak at your club or organization, you can reach out to me at peter@pgnoceanracing.com or jane@pgnoceanracing.com.

Editor's Note: For more information on U.S. Patriot Sailing, navigate your browser to: www.uspatriotsailing.org

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