When he lost his rudder in early November, Peter Gibbons-Neff Jr. was 270 nautical miles north of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa, and about 2,300 miles from his destination, the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and the finish line of the 2023 Mini Transat.

The sailor and Marine from Annapolis was a rookie in the ocean racing circuit, and the only American in the race, historically dominated by the French. He could see his rudder dangling behind his 21-foot, Classe Mini sailboat called Terminal Leave. To slow the boat, he took down his spinnaker, the biggest sail, checked below deck for any sign of a leak, and then pulled his rudder back aboard. His boat has twin rudders, so one of them was still marginally useful.

Gibbons-Neff could have dropped out of the race, a grueling, two-leg journey across the Atlantic from Les Sables-d’Olonne in France to the Canary Islands, and from there to Saint-François in the French territory of Guadeloupe. He was only five days into the second leg with an ocean ahead of him. He was not among the leaders of the pack and not in contention to win.

Gibbons-Neff, 34, decided he would stay in the race, although at that point it would be a battle to avoid last place.

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Local sailor Peter Gibbons-Neff Jr. competed in the transatlantic sailing race. (Manon Le Guen)

“It was hard emotionally to process,” said Gibbons-Neff, who grew up sailing on the Chesapeake and graduated from the Naval Academy before joining the Marine Corps as an intelligence officer. “Realistically, now I’m fighting for last place, that was really hard. But once you get beyond that, it becomes about just finishing the race.”

After a two-day detour and 12-hour pit stop to fix the rudder — two fiberglass chunks of it were missing, and the rudder’s bolts had sheared off — he became one of a handful of Americans to complete the race, reaching Guadeloupe on Nov. 16. In the homestretch, with 16 hours left in the race, he even overtook a boat, finishing 57th out of 58 sailors in a total time of 30 days, 20 hours, 55 minutes and 25 seconds.

“I wanted to push the boat hard,” Gibbons-Neff said from Guadeloupe, where he was still feeling the physical drain of sailing for weeks with little sleep. “Every day I got updates, and I could hear how much closer I was getting to the fleet. It had been three years [of preparation and qualifying] and I wasn’t ready to give up.”

“I wasn’t going to let him,” added Jane Millman, an accomplished sailor herself and Gibbons-Neff’s girlfriend, who acted as his shore support from Annapolis, where she works as director of sail training at the Naval Academy.

The final 2,300 miles of the 4,000-mile race were among the fastest for Gibbons-Neff, who averaged more than 200 miles per day the last two weeks of the race. His unplanned detour south put him into stronger, more consistent winds. Although he hoped to finish in the top third of the field, his performance didn’t discourage him from racing again.

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“The ultimate dream is the Vendée Globe,” he said, referring to the solo, around-the-world race considered the ultimate event of ocean racing.

Gibbons-Neff bought his RG 650 production boat three years ago with the intent of entering the Mini Transat. He had not sailed much after the Naval Academy, where he was a skipper for the varsity offshore sailing team. Military service and sailing didn’t mix easily, so he stopped.

About the time he bought Terminal Leave (the term refers to the paid leave given when military service ends and civilian life begins), Gibbons-Neff was wrapping up 10 years of active duty and preparing to enter the reserves — he is currently assigned to the Pentagon. He went back to school to earn a master’s degree. He also went through a divorce.

Peter Quinn, a veteran and founder of U.S. Patriot Sailing, which sponsored Gibbons-Neff in the race, talked him into getting out of the house.

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“He said, just help us with boat work,” said Gibbons-Neff, who deployed to Afghanistan as a Marine and served on ships in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. “Because he personally reached out, that led to sailing two to four days a week. It was the first time I’d skippered a boat in a decade.”

Solo sailor Peter Gibbons-Neff aboard Terminal Leave during a sail between France and the Azores as he prepares for the Mini Transat, a 4,000 nautical mile solo ocean race across the Atlantic Ocean.
Solo sailor Peter Gibbons-Neff aboard Terminal Leave during a sail between France and the Azores as he prepares for the Mini Transat, a 4,000-plus-nautical-mile solo ocean race across the Atlantic Ocean. (Peter Gibbons-Neff)

Annapolis-based U.S. Patriot Sailing was started to help veterans ease back into civilian life, by giving them the things military life provided, such as teamwork, camaraderie, responsibility and competition. As an experienced sailor, Gibbons-Neff was put to work right away, teaching other vets and leading racing crews.

He was 13 when he started sailing, learning on dinghies and his family’s 40-foot Farr sailboat, which he raced offshore as a teenager from Annapolis to Newport, Rhode Island, and from Newport to Bermuda. He sailed and raced all through college, but always with a crew. He had never sailed solo offshore until he began training and qualifying for the Mini Transat. He had sailed Terminal Leave about 7,500 miles, almost 6,000 alone, by the time the race started.

Gibbons-Neff’s next voyage will be with Millman, who joined him at the finish line in Guadeloupe. The couple will sail Terminal Leave on a leisurely route through the Caribbean, making plenty of stops along the way to Florida.

In January and February, he will serve his reserve obligations at the Pentagon. In the spring, Gibbons-Neff will sail back to Annapolis stopping along the way in places like Charleston, South Carolina, to meet some of his backers. Come summer, he hopes to sail farther north, to Philadelphia, New York, and to Newport, Rhode Island, as he continues to act as an ambassador for Patriot Sailing.

“Part of me wants to do the Transat again,” Gibbons-Neff said. “I would like to have an opportunity not to break a rudder this time.”