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.
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.”