young americans

As winter fades to memory and Spring flowers begin to bloom, sailors all over the Northern Hemisphere are finalizing their preparations for another season of sailing. Perhaps none more so than in the Mini 6.50 fleet, whose biggest race on the calendar is now less than six months away.

Beginning September 23 of this year, the biennial solo Trans-Atlantic race is over-subscribed as usual. With many skippers scrambling for qualification miles and class racing miles, there is just one fully qualified American entry in this year’s race; Peter Gibbons-Neff of Annapolis, Maryland. Purchasing his RG650 Terminal Leave in September of 2020 when COVID was in full effect, Peter shipped the boat to France and sailed on the Mini 6.50 circuit in 2021 and ’22. Having narrowly missed out on the 2021 edition of the race, he is now extra well-prepared for this year’s race and has among the most class miles of any sailor in the fleet.

With Class rules requiring that sailors complete at least one Class race in the year that they race the Mini Transat, Peter and his partner Jane are now traveling to France to compete in the Plastimo Lorient race on April 13; a 250-mile doublehanded race out of Lorient for mixed crews. A very accomplished sailor herself, Jane is an avid one-design racer and sailing coach who has worked with the Magenta Project, and even with leading IMOCA teams on the IMOCA circuit in France.

She has also done about 900 miles of delivery sailing on Terminal Leave. After a winter that included a lot of Melges 15 racing together in the warmer climes of South Florida, Peter and Jane should be well in sync onboard Terminal Leave when the starting gun fires. “I put the boat away at the end of last season, and she should be pretty much fully ready for this race”, said Gibbons-Neff, who just flew back to France yesterday. “My number one goal is just to finish, so we can check that box and then focus on the Transat”. 

A Marine Corps Intelligence Officer who finished his time on Active Duty before getting back into sailing, Peter credits the US Patriot Sailing non-profit organization out of Annapolis, Maryland for helping him get back into competitive sailing after a lengthy break due to his military service. “I got out of sailing for almost 10 years. No offshore sailing for a decade because of full-time active duty military. I got back into sailing when I came back to the DC Annapolis area and got involved with US Patriot Sailing. I’ve been sailing with US Patriot sailing for a couple of years now, and it got annoying that people still didn’t know what US Patriot sailing was, and so I really wanted to do something to raise awareness for the team.”

“This campaign came together with a few different factors. I was getting off active duty. I was fresh off a divorce. Big life changes. I wanted to get into TP52 racing, but COVID shut everything down. Some of the only sailing was solo stuff taking place in France. Watching the Vendée globe, the IMOCAs, the solo sailing, it all gave me the spark to do a solo ocean race.

The only way to do it financially was to do a smaller boat; the Mini Class. France was still locked down and there were only three boats on the market in the US, and the best of those three was within walking distance from my condo. From the first time that I saw my boat, I said, ‘I’m gonna buy this boat and race the Mini Transat’. And here we are two and a half years later, I’m qualified with a guaranteed spot in the race and getting ready to board a plane back to France. It’s pretty exciting”, explains Peter.

“I learn so much when I’m out there, especially racing. With 70-100 boats out there, you’re always speed-testing. I have a 10-year-old boat (an RG 650), and you just have to sail the boat harder than everyone next to you… But everyone’s been super helpful, it’s been a really great support network and everyone’s helpful. There are always challenges when you don’t speak the language, but once I had that first season under my belt, it made it a lot easier… I think there are fewer Americans because, logistically, it’s very challenging. There are a lot of challenges just getting into a port with your boat, and it’s not cheap. Because there are very few Americans who have done it, there’s just not a huge awareness for it. It’s not part of our sailing culture. They have a different philosophy over there in France, the sailors over there are training all year in a training center. So the level is very high”, explains Peter.

Inspired by the sailors in the Vendée Globe, Peter aspires to do more solo racing after his Mini campaign. “I would love to do the Vendée Globe one day, but there’s definitely more ocean racing that I want to do over in France. The Mini Transat is a great stepping stone. I would like to try a Figaro campaign next, or a Class 40. Just continue to step up in that scene”, Peter tells us. But first, he’s got the 2023 Mini Transat. “My goal right now is just to represent US Patriot Sailing and America in an honorable way. As the only American currently qualified for the race, I wanna do us right. I want to be competitive. I would love to be top 1/3 for the race. I’m definitely going to push the boat and myself as well. The hardest part is the preparation and the fundraising. Just being able to fund the campaign to make it happen, that’s the biggest challenge leading up to it”, Peter explains.

Peter’s next race is the Plastimo Lorient race which begins on April 13 in Lorient, France. To learn more about Peter Gibbons-Neff and his campaign for the Mini Transat, visit his website https://www.pgnoceanracing.com. To learn more about the 501c3 Veterans’ sailing non-profit that Peter (and this writer) both sail to represent, visit www.uspatriotsailing.org.

– Ronnie Simpson.