End of an Era

In a hunt for more well-known (i.e., French) sailors and their deep-pocketed sponsors, the next Around Alone will be called 5-Oceans, and only those sailing Open 50s and 60s need apply.

Twenty years ago last September, 17 pioneer sailors set out from Newport, Rhode Island, to begin the inaugural edition of the BOC Challenge singlehanded around-the-world race. Little did they know they were on the forefront of an event that, over the next two decades, would introduce to the sailing world a host of relative unknowns who found in the race a vehicle to showcase their vast talents.

Before the BOC, no one had ever heard much about French sailors Philippe Jeantot, Christophe Augin, or Isabelle Autissier, Italian skipper Giovanni Soldini, or Americans Steve Pettengill or Mike Plant, among many others. Alone, across the wide, blue oceans, they sought and found their destiny. And in the world of solo sailing, their stories became legendary.

But the terrific thing about the BOC and its successive incarnation, Around Alone, was that it was never just about the superstars. In all six editions of the event, including the most recent one, which finished in Newport last May, the race has attracted an intrepid band of sailor/adventurers who harbored few notions of first-place finishes but who set sail to chase the sweet, pure dream of rounding the planet by themselves, depending solely on their own wit and guile.

Over the years, the race attracted so many wonderful characters-in the best sense of the word. Take Francis Stokes, from that first race in 1982-83; this New Jersey grandfather's Jimmy Stewart-like persona belied his vast skills and resourcefulness. Even aboard his production-built 39-footer, it was clear Stokes entered to test himself as a sailor. But his fellow competitor, Japanese musician and painter Yukoh Tada, entered for quite different reasons. Eager to enrich his artistic sensibilities, Tada said he went offshore "to see music, and to hear color."

It's probably not a reach to say such lofty ambitions never occurred to salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners Plant and Pettengill, whose formative years were spent, respectively, in Minnesota and Michigan. If you're hearing color there, son, you'll probably be shut off.

Like all of its predecessors, Around Alone's latest edition attracted some world-class talent. Class I and overall winner Bernard Stamm, from Switzerland, took four of the five legs aboard his Open 60 Bobst Group-Armor Lux in recording an impressive victory. Stamm, who came into the race already holding several transoceanic speed records, is clearly a special sailor. So, too, is the Class II winner, Californian Brad Van Liew, whose exclusive story on his triumphant effort, "A Circle Closed," begins on page 48.

Also like previous editions, the 2002-03 Around Alone race drew sailors whose goals were quite modest when compared with those of Stamm and Van Liew. Among them were two competitors on quick 40-footers; both sailors recorded impressive voyages. Even hitting a whale on the final leg didn't deter Bermudan Alan Paris from crossing the finish line off Newport. And the successful race of Japan's Kojiro Shiraishi, aboard Spirit of Yukoh, was a fitting tribute to his mentor and hero, the aforementioned Tada-san.

Sadly, in future races, there'll be no room for the likes of a Stokes, Tada, Paris, or Shiraishi, big-hearted men sailing relatively diminutive boats. In a sign of the times, in a hunt for more well-known (i.e., French) sailors and their potentially deep-pocketed sponsors, organizers have announced that the next Around Alone will be called 5-Oceans, and only those sailing Open 50s and 60s need apply. Depending upon who ponies up the cash to buy the rights as the title sponsor, the race-which has always started and finished from a U.S. port-may not even have an American port of call. Whatever ultimate direction 5-Oceans takes (and yes, that name will require some getting used to), it's clearly the end of an amazing era in the annals of solo sailing. From this vantage point, it'll be sorely missed.