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GJW Direct 2024 Dinghy

An interview with Ambre Hasson about her Classe Mini campaign

by David Schmidt 2 Apr 16:00 BST March 29 – April 6, 2024
Ambre Hasson aboard 618, her Classe Mini Prototype © Ambre Hasson Collection/Lucie Billaudel

When it comes to singlehanded sailing, there are no finer training grounds than the legendary Classe Mini. These 21-foot offshore speedsters provide just enough living space for their skippers, however all emphasis involves pressing maximum canvas to the air. The boats are either production builds or custom prototypes (they often race in separate classes), and while they are sometimes raced doublehanded, most skippers buy their boats to race them solo across wide swaths of saline.

For many skippers, the biennial Mini Transat, which stretches from Les Sables-d'Olonne, France to Guadaloupe, is the marquee event, however all skippers need to amass miles, confidence, qualifying races, and experience before taking on such a massive challenge, alone, aboard a small boat.

While both types of Classe Minis are popular, their numbers reside in Europe, specifically along France's West Coast. While numerous American skippers have history with the Mini Transat, most find that it's important to live and breathe the Classe Mini scene, racing and sailing and training as much possible, if they hope to be competitive in this highly Francophile fleet.

Such is the course charted by Ambre Hasson, an American skipper who aims to race in the 2025 Mini Transat.

Hasson, a 2015 graduate of the University of Virginia, left a tech job in New York City in 2020 in a self-described "blur of madness" and ended up in the Florida Keys, where she learned to sail.

It's also where she learned about the Mini Transat, and where she caught the Class Mini bug. She soon had a boat and was living in France, learning the ropes of her new steed.

Then, the unthinkable: In July 2023, as Hasson was returning to port after nine days at sea alone (her 1,000-mile qualifier), a breaking wave caught her vessel's transom and pushed the boat out of the channel.

Mini #138 ended up on the rocks, broken.

The loss was devastating, but Hasson, like many gritty Mini sailors ahead of her, shook off this hard knock, got a new boat (Mini #618), and is back in the game for 2024.

This is the first of four interviews with the American Classe Mini skipper as she progresses through the Plastimo Lorient Mini (April 4), the Pornichet Select (May 4), the Mini en Mai 2024 (May 20), the Trophée MAP (May 30), and the Mini Fastnet (June 9), before culminating with the 2,600 nautical mile Sables - Les Açores - Sables 2024 (July 19).

I caught up with Hasson, via email, to learn more.

What inspired you to get into offshore solo racing? Did you have any specific role models or mentors who helped show you the path, or was offshore sailing something that you discovered on your own?

I started learning how to sail back in 2020 in the Florida Keys, which was the year of the Vendée Globe. I closely followed Pip Hare's race and a seed was planted. I became obsessed with this idea of being completely alone in front of the elements, this was the ultimate adventure and challenge.

From that moment on, I tried to get on as many boats as possible to get further and further away from the coast.

How's your French? And, in the year 2024, is it still a requirement to speak French in order to immerse oneself in the Mini community?

I'm lucky because I'm Franco American so I speak French fluently, though I did have to learn all the sailing terminology in French when I moved here.

It's definitely more difficult to immerse yourself if you don't speak French—the mini class makes an effort to translate things to English but it's not perfect. I often get asked to translate things for foreign sailors, which I'm happy to do because I think it's important for offshore racing to be accessible.

The Classe Mini is popular in Europe, but it has less gravity in the USA. What attracted you to this boat?

Yeah, for sure, I wish we had more Mini sailing in the U.S.! Essentially the class mini is the entry point into solo offshore racing, because the smaller boats make the class more accessible.

So, when I became obsessed with the Vendée Globe, I learned about the IMOCA class, then the Class40, and eventually found my way to the Classe Mini. And the more experience I get on different race boats, the more I love the Mini—it has the feel of a dinghy while being a boat built to cross an ocean, that can do speeds of over 20 knots.

There are two flavors of Classe Mini—production boats and prototypes. What kind of boat will you be racing on, and why did you choose this path, rather than the other?

I'm racing the prototype 618 called On the Road Again II — it's a gorgeous Finot-Conq design.

What I like about the protos is they're all a bit different and come with their own personalities.

My boat is particularly technical and is akin to a mini IMOCA -- I have a rotating wing mast with an adjustable rake, two sets of ballast, dagerboards, canting keel, and lifting rudders. The boat [is] challenging but it's incredibly rewarding because it pushes [you] to be a better sailor on all fronts.

How long have you had your boat? Also, can you please tell us about any notable offshore sails that you've done so far?

My current boat I haven't had for long and have just started training. But on my previous, older mini I sailed over 4,000 nautical miles all over Italy, Spain, France, England, and Ireland.

My most notable sail was from France to Ireland and back -- I sailed nine days by myself through four low-pressure systems. And though it was fairly difficult at times, I became completely at ease on my vessel, and it was my favorite sail.

My friend used to have a Mini, and while I never sailed with him aboard the boat, I could tell that moving around the cabin would be a bit tough for me as I stand 6'1". What's it like living in such a small space? Do you arrive back at the dock bruised and battered (I would!), or do you get used to the size and space involved?

Well, I'm definitely bit more boat sized as I'm barely 5'2"! But it definitely takes some getting used to...in the beginning I did get bruised and battered a lot, but eventually your body learns exactly how to move around and where to grab onto so you get bruised a bit less.

Your first event of the season, the Plastimo Lorient Mini, is a 250 nm two-handed event. Who will you be racing with, and how much sailing have you guys done together?

I'm very excited for this first race of the season with Albain Pouliquen, who's a young engineer for the [Ultim] trimaran SVR-LAZARTIGUE. We've been spending a lot of time training together and this will be our first race together — we balance each other out well, and it will be very interesting to see how this race goes.

A month later, you'll be taking on the Pornichet Select, which is a 300 nautical mile solo race. Of the two events, which one has your attention more and why? Also, which one are you more excited about?

Both events are important for different reasons—it's good to start the season with a double-handed race as a way to test the boat in a racing environment. Hopefully it will give me the assurance that everything on the boat works as it should before I set off on my first solo race of the season, the Pornichet Select.

Since I'll be racing over 4,000 nautical miles solo this summer, it's really important to test the boat early on.

Is there anything else about this phase of your campaign that you'd like to add, for the record, or that I didn't ask you about but that's pertinent to our conversation?

Something that's been rewarding about sharing this journey is that the story has resonated with many people, and I love getting messages from folks telling me they've decided to pursue their sailing dream. We often hold ourselves back and sometimes we just need to give ourselves permission to have a go.

[Editor's note: Hasson's website is www.ambresails.com, her email address is ambre@ambresails.com, and her Instagram handle is @ambre_sails.]

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