Velux 5 Oceans Race - Brad van Liew | Cruising World

Full Noise or No Noise

American solo sailor Brad van Liew's dominant performance in the Velux 5 Oceans Race should've raised a racket, but when it comes to marathon singlehanded racing in the United States, is anyone listening? A special report from our September 2011 issue.

BradVanLiew Velux

Ainhoa Sanchez

Finally, after a long, winding boat trip up the Wando River on a sultry mid-May evening, the dock across the street from Brad Van Liew’s place in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, hove into view. It was a little after midnight following an extremely hectic day, and the putter home in a borrowed 23-foot launch from a party in nearby Charleston—a celebration in Van Liew’s honor, no less—had taken a bit longer than expected.

Having rounded Cape Horn thrice, alone, on solo races around the planet, including a sublime voyage last February in the midst of his domineering effort in the latest edition of the Velux 5 Oceans, Van Liew is an expert navigator and a proven professional sailor; in fact, he was in the final stages of demonstrating, without question, that he’s the most accomplished American singlehanded racer ever. So it would not only be unkind, but inaccurate, to suggest that we were somewhat, well, lost for a while there on the Wando. “Confused” would be the better word.

“Full noise or no noise” is Van Liew’s longtime motto (he wears it, literally, on the sleeve of his sailing shirts), and it serves as an apt summation to his take-no-prisoners, headlong dash through life. In other words, put up—loudly, without compromise or excuses, and damn the bloody consequences—or shut up.

For Brad Van Liew, silence has rarely been an option.

Having shadowed Van Liew for every waking moment of the previous two days, I can testify, with ringing ears, that in this particular moment in time, the buzz enveloping his crazy world was relentlessly piercing. Just over a fortnight earlier, on April 19, he’d sailed into his adopted hometown of Charleston to a hero’s reception after winning the 5,900-nautical-mile “Ocean Sprint” from Punta del Este, Uruguay, after a passage of 23 days 4 hours. It was his fourth straight victory in the Velux event, having already won last fall’s inaugural leg from La Rochelle, France, to Cape Town, South Africa, and the subsequent “sprints” from Cape Town to Wellington, New Zealand, and from New Zealand to Punta.

In the process, he’d spent last Christmas and New Year’s in the Southern Ocean, far from the comforts and companionship of his wife and business partner, Meaghan, and their two children, daughter Tate, 9, and son Wyatt, 6; celebrated his 43rd birthday at sea, on Valentine’s Day; and a week later transited the Horn for the third time as a competitor in a round-the-world race, the first and only Yank ever to do so.

And in the midst of our wanderings on the Wando, he was only a little more than 48 hours away from starting the fifth and concluding Velux leg across the Atlantic Ocean and back to La Rochelle. With his perfect four-for-four record, he just needed to complete the passage aboard his well traveled 60-footer, Le Pingouin (The Penguin) to be awarded the overall victory.

Hanging with Van Liew for a couple of days prior to a race start wasn’t an exercise for the faint of heart or the weak of liver. From the outset of each day (his breakfast, one morning, consisted of a Marlboro Gold and a 23-ounce Arizona Re-energy Herbal Tonic; he skipped it altogether the other) to last call each night (home after a long absence, with parents, friends, and family in town for the occasion, he redefined the term “social butterfly”), Van Liew’s existence was chock-full of test sails, webcasts, interviews, shopping trips, photo shoots, visits with school kids, and hugs from his own. There wasn’t a spare moment for a big, deep breath.

Novelist Tom Wolfe once wrote a book titled A Man in Full about a larger-than-life Southern gentleman, and that, too, might be a good description of Van Liew in Velux mode. However, there were a couple of serious issues with that broad depiction. His previous two round-the-world boats were called Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America and Balance Bar after the corporate title sponsors that helped bankroll the respective campaigns; the generic_ Le Pingouin_, while cute, was an admission that this time around, none had materialized.

And while winning four out of four legs was certainly impressive, the luster of the accomplishment was a little less shiny when you considered that he only had to beat three other skippers in the tiny, four-boat fleet—and none of them, most noticeably, were French.

Here at Cruising World, for multiple reasons, we’ve covered the sport of singlehanded offshore racing from the very outset of publication in the mid-1970s. It was a passion of the magazine’s founding editor, Murray Davis, and the characters it attracted, and the adventure it generated, were alluring and inspirational to much of the readership. Plus, especially in the early days, many cruising sailors benefited greatly from the rapid advancements in self-steering gear, sailhandling systems, power generation, and other technology that was tested in extreme conditions by the singlehanders—most of whom were amateurs on modest, souped-up vessels seeking little more than personal fulfillment—before the equipment trickled down to everyday shorthanded voyagers and crews.

In the 1960s, a handful of English adventurers—including Francis Chichester, Blondie Hasler (founder of the OSTAR, the solo transatlantic race), and Robin Knox-Johnston (the first man to circumnavigate alone, without stopping, en route to winning the 1969 Golden Globe Race)—basically invented the sport. Almost immediately, though, they had serious competition from Frenchmen like Bernard Moitessier, Alain Colas, and Eric Tabarly. The latter’s collective accomplishments and victories, especially when they beat the Brits at their own game, nourished the dreams and fervor of a generation of new French acolytes eager to follow in their wakes.

In the 1980s, no one personified this fresh breed of eager, driven French soloists more than a young deep-sea diver named Philippe Jeantot, who won the first two BOC Challenge singlehanded around-the-world races (a quadrennial event that later became known as the Around Alone race and, for the last two editions, the Velux 5 Oceans) aboard specially built boats emblazoned with the logos of his corporate donor, a French bank called Credit Agricole. (Jeantot upped the ante, and introduced to the sport a new level of all-out professionalism, when he launched the Vendée Globe nonstop race around the world in 1989.) The winner of the next two BOCs was another well-financed, fresh-faced French superstar named Christophe Auguin.

Though the first half a dozen BOC/Around Alone races started and finished in the United States, few Americans had the talent and/or aspiration to ascend into the event’s upper echelon. The all-consuming commitment of time and effort was one obstacle; finding deep-pocketed sponsors to fund top-tier campaigns was another. The most notable exception was a fiery Minnesotan named Mike Plant, who won Class II of the 1986-87 BOC race aboard a bright red sloop called Airco Distributor.

When Plant crossed the finish line off Newport, Rhode Island, at that time the home of the event, his deeds left a mighty impression on a young man from the West Coast—Brad Van Liew—spending the summer working and sailing aboard a local raceboat owned by a family friend who belonged to the New York Yacht Club.

_ Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez_

Though his family had deep New England roots, and he’d sailed his first Newport-Bermuda Race at 13, Van Liew was a Southern Californian to the core, a self-professed “surfer type” into motocross and football who enjoyed sailing but was disdainful of the blue-blazer yacht-club scene.

“But then these BOC boats rolled into town, and there’s Mike, an American guy who actually cracked his nut, and I couldn’t get over these spaceships, with one guy on them, that hauled the mail and went around the world,” said Van Liew. “I was instantly captured. All I could think was, if I really want to get into sailing, I want to do that.”

Through another family connection, he scored Plant’s phone number and screwed up the courage to ask him to lunch.

“He was really cool, and I talked with him for a long time,” said Van Liew. “When we were done eating, he said, ‘You know, Brad, you can probably sail a boat better than I can. But there’s a whole other side to this, and you won’t know if you got it or not until you go try it, so if you’re that into it, go give it a shot and answer your own questions.’ That was his attitude. And that planted the seed.”

Van Liew returned to Los Angeles that fall to complete his sophomore year at the University of Southern California before dropping everything and leaving school to address his BOC ambitions. Plant gave him a job that winter working on his next project, a 60-footer called Duracell, while Van Liew raised cash from family and friends, sought sponsors, called in favors—and ultimately ran straight into a brick wall. When Plant set off for the 1990-91 BOC, Van Liew was hard aground.

“I was 22 years old, and I’d leveraged everything,” he said. “I’d used everything I had, whether it was money or relationships, and I’d failed. My tail was so far between my legs. I drove nonstop from Newport to California in 38 hours straight. If there wasn’t an ocean in San Diego, I would’ve kept on driving.”

Full noise? Hardly. In fact, for the first, and perhaps last, time in his life, the hush, the stillness, was deafening.

The year 1992 was an eventful one on several fronts. That spring, shortly before graduating from U.S.C., where he’d re-enrolled after his disastrous BOC attempt, Van Liew met a statuesque blonde coed named Meaghan Fitzgerald and fell in love. And that fall, en route to the start of the second Vendée Globe aboard his brand-new Open 60, Coyote—a radical steed built to slay cocky Frenchmen—Mike Plant vanished at sea, though his boat was eventually discovered, upside-down with a missing ballast bulb, off the coast of Ireland.

“Meaghan knew I was in a funk, that I’d done some sailing and a friend had died, but that was it,” said Van Liew. “I didn’t get into details.”

Indeed, Van Liew, who started training as a pilot while still in college, had already successfully launched a career in aviation. “I did it with as much of a vengeance as I did everything,” he said. “That was my full noise or no noise.” Meanwhile, Meaghan earned her M.B.A., took a job in public relations, and began climbing the corporate ladder.

For several years, the couple, who eventually tied the knot, continued on their upwardly mobile trajectory. And after purchasing a 26-foot coastal racing boat, Van Liew slowly began to reconsider his solo offshore ambitions. “It got to the point where I went to Meaghan and said, ‘I need to tell you a little bit about my past and about what I want to do,”’ he said. Years before, he’d stashed away some binders and clippings about Plant and his own abbreviated BOC foray. “I told her to look through them, that there was some stuff about a guy who was a mentor of mine, a missing piece of my soul, and a race I’d wanted to do. And I wanted to do it again.

“She came back and said, ‘If you’re ever going to try this and see if you can pull it off, we have to do this now, not later. I don’t want to do it when we have kids or when financial stability is high on my list, so let’s squander some of what we’ve learned and done and give it a whack.’ And that’s when the floodgates opened.”

As a team, the Van Liews’ “offsetting skills”—Meaghan’s business acumen and Brad’s sailing prowess—dovetailed perfectly. After landing a deal with a food company, Balance Bar, Van Liew established himself as a formidable solo competitor by earning a third place in Class II in the 1998-99 Around Alone race, enduring a 70-knot gale and several knockdowns on his approach to Cape Horn, and erecting a jury rig and safely making it to port after his 50-footer was dismasted on the event’s final leg.

His notable performance aboard Balance Bar raised expectations for the 2002-03 race, for which the Van Liews secured a high-profile sponsorship package from Tommy Hilfiger clothing. And Van Liew delivered on his side of the deal, winning all five legs in Class II aboard his 50-foot Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America while setting a 24-hour speed record for Open 50s of 345 nautical miles in the process. In winning the division, he’d matched the accomplishment of none other than his former mentor, Plant, in the mid-1980s.

“Bearing down on the finish line,” he wrote at the time, “I had the distinct feeling that he was proud of me for doing something that only two Americans—he and I—had ever accomplished.”

And with that, citing the addition of his 1-year-old daughter, Tate, to the family, he announced his “retirement” from solo racing. “I’ve played enough games of Russian roulette,” he said.

But it was only a temporary respite.

Ironically, it was Tate and her younger brother, Wyatt, who ultimately convinced Van Liew to return to the sport.

_ Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez_

Following his second solo circumnavigation, the family settled in Charleston, the race’s new home port, and was soon enmeshed in the sailing community, spearheading the South Carolina Maritime Foundation’s building of the schooner Spirit of South Carolina; running waterfront events, including Tall Ships visits and the city’s Harborfest celebration; and transforming Charleston Race Week from a small, regional regatta into a major yachting event. It was rewarding but stressful.

“Before we knew it, our family life was a shambles,” said Van Liew. “We were doing a bad job parenting because we were doing a good job at work. So we entered the race as a family adventure, where the kids would have a chance to visit the ports and see the world. Believe it or not, this round-the-world racing scene doesn’t seem like it’s geared toward a stable family environment, but it is. And I wanted them to be able to look back on Dad as someone who saw the world as a place where he could do anything he wanted to do, and to be an example of that.”

With the decision made, Van Liew needed a boat, ultimately purchasing and refitting a yacht originally commissioned by French sailor Catherine Chabaud for the 2000 Vendée Globe. The Velux race employs a new class of boats called Eco 60s, which are basically revamped Open 60s launched before January 2003 that are modified to limit costs and to promote sustainability and positive environmental practices. (For example, Van Liew topped off his batteries using a pair of hydro-generators that were mounted on his transom.)

Despite entreaties from Robin Knox-Johnston, whose company, Clipper Ventures, now owns the race (Velux, which manufactures skylights, provided millions in sponsorship fees), the Eco 60 was a concept that the French-based governing authority for the Open 60 class, IMOCA, ultimately failed to embrace. The Open 60s are the platforms used for the Vendée and the double-handed Barcelona World Race, another nonstop contest around the planet. Without IMOCA’s blessing, and despite the fact that race organizers moved the start and finish venue to La Rochelle, France, to entice French sailors—now the sport’s undisputed superstars—to participate, the Velux failed to attract a single Gallic entry.

Van Liew had launched his campaign on the supposition that a dozen or more boats, including a strong French contingent, would be on the starting line. But only five skippers signed up, and one dropped out immediately after the start last October, leaving a fleet that consisted of Van Liew; 58-year-old Canadian Derek Hatfield, a highly experienced but underfunded solo sailor; and two newcomers to singlehanded marathon racing, Poland’s Zbigniew “Gutek” Gutkowski, 36, who proved to be a tenacious competitor, and Brit Chris Stanmore-Major, 33, who had a steep learning curve to climb.

The small fleet was disturbing to everyone, organizers and sailors alike, but it wasn’t Van Liew’s only source of frustration. “Not having a title sponsor, and only limited supporting sponsorship, was and is and will forever be a disappointment,” he said, adding that his previous campaigns had drawn nearly three dozen major backers. (Van Liew did receive some private support and loans from individuals who wish to remain anonymous, and he also earned in the neighborhood of $200,000 in prize money and sponsor subsidies and incentives that covered operating costs once under way.)

Even with those setbacks, however, there were some pleasant revelations. The first was_ Le Pingouin_, aboard which he regularly notched speeds well over 20 knots for hours on end. “Of all the boats I’ve owned, she’s the one I’ve had the best relationship with,” he said. “She and I are sort of a match made in heaven. She’s very powerful, and we do get into arguments, but like any good relationship, that’s the way it works. I love the boat a lot.”

Another plus was his performance. “I’m at peace with that,” he said. “I’m almost surprised that my game was as good as it was.”

Van Liew certainly had “game,” and he proved it again on May 28 after winning the fifth and final 4,000-nautical-mile leg of the Velux from Charleston to La Rochelle in almost exactly 13 days. In doing so, he became the first American to capture overall honors in the race’s eight editions spanning 28 years, and he accomplished the very feat Mike Plant was on a quest to do when he perished at sea: win a round-the-world race that started and finished in a French port. But Van Liew doesn’t harp on that fact.

“From the outset, I’ve tried to emulate Mike in a lot of ways, though we’re very different people,” he said. “But that’s really a footnote in a small book that doesn’t get a lot of readers.”

Race director David Adams, a two-time veteran of the event who raced against Plant, more or less agrees. “I don’t see any tie because Mike was in the heyday when we were racing against the absolute best: Christophe Auguin, Alain Gautier, Isabelle Autissier, Philippe Jeantot.”

The French.

“Brad sailed a very good race,” Adams continued. “But I don’t think he’s racing against the same caliber of [sailor as in previous races], which allowed him a little bit more leeway.”

Of course, Van Liew could only compete against the sailors who showed up, but if it was in some ways a hollow victory, he viewed it as such for an entirely different reason.

“I wanted to be the guy who took solo sailing prime time,” he said. “That’s why I came back. This sport suits the American mindset. It’s not sailing, it’s adventuring. But it hasn’t stuck. I wanted to grab the imagination of kids in Oklahoma who watch ESPN that are talking Daddy into buying a jet-ski instead of an International 14 and dreaming about crossing oceans someday. I wanted that to be my legacy—to take sailing to a place it’s never been before. And we didn’t pull that off.”

As for the future, it’s unclear whether Velux will return for another event. “It’s become a very expensive race to put on,” said Adams. “Are we getting value back from these skippers? And the answer at the moment is no, in my opinion, because I don’t believe that their level of professionalism is at the level that we’re paying for.”

The real pros, implies Adams, are the French sailors; and the Major League, it follows, is the Vendée Globe. The next one is scheduled for 2012, and Van Liew hasn’t ruled it out.
At this point in time, he represents America’s last, best, only hope of a top finish. There’s no one else waiting in the wings, no willing hand ready to accept the passed torch.

“Now whether Brad could go into the Vendée and mix it up with the good guys in a good campaign, only time will tell,” said Adams. “He’s certainly got the right character, but whether he’s getting a bit long in the tooth now is the concern. You’ve got to have that real inner burning desire to go out there and do it, and I don’t know whether he still has that. But what he did in this race, you can’t fault it. He didn’t miss a hitch. He was spot on every time.”

So for Brad Van Liew, who’s spent the better part of his adult life either racing around the world or planning to do so, it’s apparently come down to one of two options: Full noise?

Or quiet?

Herb McCormick is CW’s senior editor and the author of the recently published anthology, Gone to the Sea (www.paracay.com).

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