Around Alone . . . Again

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Van Liew relaxes in front of Freedom America's state-of-the-art nav station.©billy Black

Bound for the skyline of Manhattan on solo sailor Brad Van Liew’s wild Groupe Finot-designed Open 50, we’d left Newport, Rhode Island, hard on a stiff southwesterly breeze just after sundown the evening before. Now, some 12 bouncy hours later and dozens of miles offshore, the water temperature was rising, the ocean had taken on an almost purplish hue, and there were telltale signs of golden sargasso weed scattered over the sea. "Yikes," said Van Liew in response to the accumulating evidence. "The Gulf Stream. Gotta tack."

Aboard a canting-keeled, water-ballasted 50-footer, it’s a task easier said than done. Watching Van Liew perform the intricate ballet--adjusting the traveler, opening and shutting valves for the respective ballast tanks and the hydraulically controlled keel, raising and lowering the opposing daggerboards, releasing the old running backstay and setting up the new one, backwinding the jib, and, finally, swinging the helm to tack--was simply fascinating. What, I wondered, would Sir Francis Chichester and the other solo pioneers, whose notion of "high-tech" was a rudimentary windvane, have thought of it all?

Clearly, the sport of singlehanded sailing has changed radically since its birth in the 1960s. Its latest stage of evolution will be on display starting this month when the sixth running of the Around Alone solo round-the-world race (ex-BOC Challenge) sets out from New York City.

It's an event we at Cruising World anticipate following, as we've done through past editions of the race. Historically, the solo-racing scene has produced some of sailing's more colorful characters and dramatic stories. And just as the America's Cup has been a test bed for sails and equipment that trickle down to round-the-buoys racers, Around Alone has become an invaluable proving ground for self-steering gear, headsail furlers, and other equipment that's ultimately employed by long-range, shorthanded cruisers.

Despite sailing a boat older than his primary competitors’ and suffering a dismasting on the final leg in the 1998-99 Around Alone, Van Liew finished third in his class. This time around, he’ll be one of the odds-on favorites to win his division. At 34, having devoted much of the last decade to marathon solo sailing, he seems primed for the challenge.

We’re pleased to announce that in the months ahead, Van Liew will file exclusive reports to Cruising World after each of the race’s five legs. His insightful, firsthand dispatches on the skippers, boats, voyaging, and competition will highlight our coverage of this dynamic event. There’s little doubt he’ll find plenty of grist for the mill.

Van Liew became intimately acquainted with his current boat during the last race, when it was called Magellan Alpha and sailed by his archrival, British sailor Mike Garside, to a second place in Class II. Now, thanks to a clothing-company sponsorship deal, it's had a complete refit and sports a new name, Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America. As we sailed into New York City in the wee hours at the end of our July delivery, past the Statue of Liberty and the loom of lights emanating from ground zero, those latter two words seemed especially poignant.

To Van Liew and all the Around Alone sailors: Until your return to Newport next spring at the conclusion of the race, we wish you safe passages and an unforgettable adventure.

And to Brad, especially: Don’t forget to write.

Herb McCormick