Tacking Away from Conventional Wisdom

With a pair of bold moves that could’ve spelled disaster, an Around Alone veteran Brad Van Liew takes class honors on Leg One of the solo race around the planet.

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During the first leg of the Around Alone race, which Brad Van Liew won, he climbed the 80-foot mast of his Open 50, Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America, to replace a chafed genniker halyard. Fortunately fo©brad Van Liew

The September 15 start of the sixth running of the Around Alone race set out from New York Harbor shortly after noon under a threatening gray sky with southerly headwinds that were fortunately 10 knots shy of the forecast 25-knot blow. There’d been discussions among the Around Alone competitors and race organizers regarding the hazards and wisdom associated with starting a fleet of solo sailors off downtown Manhattan, some 20 miles away from the open ocean. Ultimately, the decision to proceed as planned was made by race director Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who’d arranged for an august armada of U.S. Coast Guard support vessels to monitor traffic and exert crowd control on the Hudson River.

With the Statue of Liberty standing proudly over the proceedings, the starting gun fired. Away we went.

Thirteen open-class racing yachts--seven in Class I for 50- to 60-footers, six in Class II for 40- to 50-footers--crossed the start line without incident. Aboard my radical Groupe Finot-designed Open 50, Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America, I felt the pressure to push my red, white, and blue raceboat under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge ahead of the pack, but common sense prevailed. After all, there was a long way to go. So, sailing conservatively through the busy New York waters, I tacked my way under the bridge, out past the Ambrose Light tower, and into the relative freedom of the North Atlantic Ocean. The first of five legs would take us to Torbay, England, some 3,000 miles over the horizon.

As I eased into race mode reaching along the Long Island coast to begin the relative sprint across the Atlantic, I was making nice progress under gennaker and full mainsail as first dusk, and then a squall line, settled upon the fleet. But the first night ultimately proved to be a very wet and uncomfortable reintroduction to life at sea and costly in terms of rapid progress toward England.

With French skipper Thierry Dubois’ impressive Open 60 Solidaires in sight, a massive thunderstorm overtook me; the pounding rain and lightning were imposing, but in their wake was a wind vacuum. Meanwhile, the lead Class I boats rocketed away on the advancing edge of the front while Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America and my fellow Class II mates wallowed astern. During this first shot of advantageous winds, fellow American Bruce Schwab, on board the 60-foot Ocean Planet, tallied a distinguished run and hung in there with overall leaders Bernard Stamm’s Bobst Group Amour Lux and Graham Dalton’s Hexagon, all of which were logging some very formidable mileage.

Despite the frustrating conditions, in the next couple of days I was able to squeeze enough speed out of Tommy to open a narrow lead over my competition, and I was eager to parlay this 50-mile advantage into an even broader gap. I was determined not to miss another chance to make big gains and wanted very badly to latch on to my own frontal system to really break away from the Class II fleet. While poring over weather charts downloaded via the onboard Iridium phone and imported into a very smart software program named RayTech, I realized an opportunity might in fact shape up as I passed Newfoundland.

As I worked my way toward the Grand Banks, a bubble of high pressure was forecast to sweep across the area and slow me down, but if I could clear the zone quickly, it was possible that a move to the north might allow me to catch the favorable westerlies associated with a cold front coming from Canada. When positioning for these tactical opportunities, it’s imperative to think and strategize a full five days in advance or you’re simply left without the time to maneuver into the favorable conditions. As predicted, the high-pressure area moved in and glued me to the water, but it was a transient high that had left avenues for escape.

One of the most significant realizations I made during Leg One was that drastic measures would need to be employed to shake free of this windless weather system. I decided to take a risk and jibe to a heading that was actually west of north--in other words, sailing away from England--in an effort to break free. When routing, my general rule of thumb is simple: Never abandon the rhumb line for any heading other than that directly toward the final destination unless there’s a very, very good reason. Obviously I’d now made a conscious decision to break this rule, but I felt the reason was valid enough. This radical effort to connect with the cold front paid off, and as the barometer began to fall, the breeze began to rise.

A scant 48 hours later, I was threatening the Class II 24-hour-run record of 333.6 nautical miles set in the 1998-99 race by my friend J.P. Mouligné; better still, I’d opened up an additional 150 miles over my next Class II competitor. I ultimately missed the record by a single mile. After making such an effort to connect with the cold front, I concluded that it’d be unprofessional (and probably unlucky) to focus on the 24-hour record and risk falling out of the more favorable weather pattern to do so. As a result, I jibed to the northeast about four hours earlier than I would’ve had the record been the goal. But there was plenty of consolation in knowing I’d latched onto the front for as long as possible and was able to build on my lead.

My blissful, 30-hour reach was the highlight of Leg One. It was a big-wave surfer’s wet dream: rough but fun, exhilarating yet nerve-racking. Tommy’s built of monolithic construction, so we slammed through each wave with an intense "Bang!" I felt like I was living in a tin drum. As the boat peaked at the top of a rolling swell, everything would slow down until, with a tremendous surge, we’d catch the wave and surf down its face, reaching speeds of 25 knots. I navigated, tweaked sails, ate, and slept while my Raymarine autopilots took over the steering. Although I tingled with excitement over the incredible speeds we were making on Tommy’s favorite point of sail, I’d also experience a sinking feeling deep in my gut each time we descended to the bottom of a trough. Was something hard and heavy, like a shipping container, waiting for me? Would my speedy dream ride end in a crash landing, puncturing the hull’s thin composite skin? It was an odd mix of elation tinged with apprehension.

Eventually, Bruce Schwab and another Class I skipper, 27-year-old Emma Richards, aboard Pindar, both lagged a full weather system behind the overall leaders. But at this juncture, my own personal cold front brought me very close to them, so the three of us blasted along in this favorable gale for a couple of days. Unfortunately, as the winds built to 50 knots, the waves became large, short, and steep, and the combination created rugged conditions that broke Schwab’s boom in half, rendering his mainsail useless.

In the mid-Atlantic, as I peered five days into the future with my technically advanced crystal ball, the next tactical obstacle became readily apparent. A huge high-pressure area had parked over England and all of northern Europe, creating a major blockade for my wonderful little front. Indeed, the front was forecast to break up, and the massive low-pressure trough that was generating it was going to be forced south. This would unfortunately leave my track within the system’s northern sector, where its prevailing counterclockwise rotation would produce strong headwinds for the final few days of the leg. The only option that I could see to preserve my now significant lead of some 500 miles was very unorthodox.

My plan was to dive south with the low to set myself up for a favored starboard-tack run to the finish. This meant sailing south of the great-circle route and yet again adding miles to my trip as well as approaching England from the southwest, which is typically asking for either upwind or no-wind conditions. If the forecasters were mistaken and the unseasonable high sitting over the United Kingdom did allow the low to push through, I would’ve been left in a windless and very unfavorable southerly position while the rest of the fleet charged in from the northwest.

This was my second swing at a course divergent from the accepted route, and I felt like I was pushing my luck. But as time progressed and I bashed along in the very uncomfortable upwind conditions on a boat highly optimized for fast reaching, I began to find comfort in the fact that Richards and Schwab had made the same aggressive decision. It was a relief having partners in crime! And as the plot unfolded, the weather moved as predicted, and we all tacked to starboard within a few hours of each other. I’d sneaked past Schwab and his broken boom a couple of days earlier, but the three of us still shared the same weather system to the finish. We were, in fact, able to lay the English Channel on starboard, and the final risky decision paid off. In the process, Pindar passed a couple of her Class I competitors who were stuck tacking in from the north, and I was able to preserve my precious lead.

While dodging commercial traffic littered across the English Channel, I managed no sleep in the last 24 hours. The Channel was so stacked with traffic that when my radar was on a six-mile range, I could barely separate all of the targets. I was certain on a few occasions that some of the barely separated blips would be a tug and tow moving in one direction, but in reality it was two ships passing in the extremely dark, inky conditions.

I finished the leg early on the morning of September 30 in light air under a gorgeous sunrise after 14 days and 16 hours at sea, a day after the majority of Class I finishers and 650 miles ahead of my closest Class II competitor. Needless to say, I was extremely pleased to have had such a successful first leg. I felt very lucky about some of the aggressive tactics, and I’m mindful of the fact that any one of my decisions could have gone the other way and cost me a leg win.

In Class I, Switzerland’s Bernard Stamm dominated the leg and in the process set a singlehanded monohull transatlantic speed record of 10d:11h:57m:19s. (Stamm’s record was from New York to The Lizard, at the entrance to the English Channel. It took him another 10 hours to cross the finish line off Torbay.) Thierry Dubois was second. In Class II, despite sailing one of the two Open 40s in the race, Derek Hatfield, on board Spirit of Canada, beat a handful of Open 50 sailors to record a second-place finish. Also in Class II, Great Lakes sailor Tim Kent, on board Everest Horizontal, was plagued by significant autopilot problems and drifted well south of the fleet while he sorted them out. But he, too, used the drifting low to the south to mount a significant recovery and finish in third place, only a few hours after Hatfield.

The off-the-water advantage in arriving earlier than the competition was that my shore team had a bit more time in port to prepare for the next leg to Cape Town, South Africa. Leg Two is a very demanding voyage that passes north to south through all of the prevailing weather conditions of the world. The fleet must sail over 8,000 miles and essentially cross the Atlantic twice--east to west nearly to Brazil as we negotiate the South Atlantic High, then west to east as we descend south into the westerlies that will finally propel us to South Africa.

I’d been dreaming of an Around Alone individual-leg victory for 15 years, and now that I’ve achieved one, I’m faced with the daunting task of preparing for Leg Two and working toward an overall victory. The competition in both divisions appears extremely tight, and based on the fact that a point-accumulation system is being used to score the race leg by leg rather than on elapsed time for the entire voyage, there’s no tactical difference between winning the leg by a huge margin or by one second.

The bottom line is that to reach my overall goal, I have to keep winning. And so, on to Leg Two.

Solo sailor Brad Van Liew is filing exclusive reports to Cruising World after each leg of Around Alone. Leg Two of the race, from England to Cape Town, South Africa, set sail on October 14. For updates and standings, visit the event’s website (www.aroundalone.com).