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.
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.”