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.
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.