The emotion consuming Brad Van Liew as his sail-boat rolled over in the Southern Ocean was not fear, although something akin to abject terror was certainly warranted. He was alone, some 500 miles southwest of Tierra del Fuego. The sea, so dark gray it could have been called black, heaved and bucked in a continuum of 25-foot waves and troughs. The winds were 60 knots and as loud as a jet engine. Worst of all, Freedom America, the 50-footer Van Liew had raced almost all the way around the world in an ambitious event called Around Alone, was in danger of breaking up.
The nature of single-handed ocean racing, however, is self-sufficiency. A sailor lives or dies based on his or her decisions. Round-the-clock vigilance is demanded. The repercussions of simple mistakes can be fatal, and even random acts of nature such as rogue waves, breaching whales, and waterspouts must be anticipated. All in all, that’s quite a lot of pressure for one person to carry. Throw in sleep deprivation, constant peril, solitude, concerns about loved ones back home, and lack of basic creature comforts, and all that pressure steadily rises, waiting for a chance — needing a chance — to spew forth. Even a mild-mannered sailor like Van Liew has his limits.
So if a camera had been filming Freedom America’s sealed cockpit as the boat, Weeble-like, tried to right itself, playback would show unbridled rage. “I was punching, throwing stuff,” he remembers. “I hated myself and was asking why it had been so important to me to pursue the dream of winning Around Alone. My priorities at that point weren’t winning the race, but keeping the boat in one piece and getting home safely. I didn’t think that was gonna happen. I thought I’d never see my wife again.”
Rather than let the sea decide his fate, the native Southern Californian with the nose tackle’s build went to work saving his life.
First contested in 1982, Around Alone is considered by many to be the most physically daunting sporting event on earth. Competitors sail solo around the globe following a five-stage course (United States to England, England to South Africa, South Africa to New Zealand, New Zealand to Brazil, Brazil to United States), measuring 28,800 miles in length. Its degree of difficulty can be displayed best through an arcane yet note-worthy statistic: More people have flown into space than have successfully raced alone around the world.
Just as sublime is the startling fact that Around Alone offers no prize money. The first boat across the line gets a small silver victory platter and the satisfaction of fulfilling a long-cherished dream. That’s it. In an age when professional athletes pout about being underpaid, the determination of Around Alone sailors like Van Liew harkens back to the purist ideal of competition for competition’s sake.
The comparison is perhaps unfair. The epic quality of Around Alone and the dauntless persistence of its competitors elevate them above the realm of mere athlete. The ever-changing sea is the world’s greatest unknown. Single-handedly striking off into that void, perhaps never to return, deserves com--parison with history’s great adventurers instead of modern athletes. Van Liew’s journey from Cape Town to New Zealand via the Southern Ocean, for instance, followed almost the exact same path of Captain James Cook’s second, ill-fated Resolution voyage. Or when Van Liew speaks of being a “homebody” who endured a blue spell during Around Alone’s 45-day second leg, and of struggling to reconcile family commitment and wanderlust, his words call to mind Dr. David Livingstone. The African explorer broke into tears at the start of one expedition because he wouldn’t see his family again for years — if ever.
“It’s a very risky sport,” Van Liew’s wife, Meaghan, admits. The former public relations executive, an engaging woman with a husky laugh, abandoned the corporate world to spearhead the marketing and fundraising efforts for her husband’s campaign. They are every bit a team, with him doing the sailing and her handling all ground logistics. During the race they spoke daily by satellite phone. “You prepare yourself for the worst and hope for the best,” she says.
And that was the mood for the Van Liews at the start of the 2002-03 Around Alone. The worst-case scenario was that he would never return, lost somewhere at sea, leaving behind Meaghan and their 4-month-old daughter, Tate Magellan. The best-case scenario was the fulfillment of all they’d worked so hard for since the completion of Van Liew’s third place Around Alone finish in 1998-99. “The last time I did it just for the adventure,” he noted before the start. “This time I’m doing it to win. That’s always been the dream.” His dream had become hers. And together they raised more than a million dollars in sponsorship money to fund that dream, covering the cost of everything from buying a boat to logistical support and living expenses. Around Alone wasn’t just a sailboat race, it was their livelihood. They were gambling heavily on the best-case scenario.
After a brief prologue from Newport, Rhode Island, to New York City, the race got underway in earnest on Sep-tember 15, 2002. Thirteen skippers set sail for Torbay, England, 3,000 nautical miles away.
The excitement of setting sail, however, was tempered with the realization that the two-week leg would be the shortest of the five. For Van Liew, that made it a time for establishing the routine he would follow for months to come aboard the aptly painted red, white, and blue vessel with the logo of Tommy Hilfiger, Van Liew’s primary sponsor, on the stern. At exactly 50 feet long and 16 feet wide, with a carbon fiber hull and 72-foot mast, Freedom America was built for speed instead of comfort. The navigation station and primary living quarters was a cell 9 feet long, 14 feet wide, and barely tall enough to stand up in. “Think of a small walk-in closet with a very low ceiling,” says Van Liew. Forward-facing windows the shape and curvature of an aircraft windscreen formed the anterior part of the roof. A similarly aeronautical control panel offered gauges on air temperature, wind speed, a barometer, compass, and Global Positioning Systems. An Iridium satellite phone allowed regular downloading of weather information, e-mail, and the daily call to Meaghan. Van Liew grabbed sleep in 25-minute catnaps, strapped into a bunk against the hull. There were no shower facilities or running water, and a bucket served as the toilet.
The asceticism served its purpose, however, for when Freedom America had a following wind, she fairly galloped across the water. “Yikes!” Van Liew wrote giddily in his journal on September 21, passing over Newfoundland’s Grand Banks at 15 knots. “Would someone let me know where the brakes are?”
As he typed those words, he was already in first place. A week later, arriving in Torbay, Van Liew had bagged the first leg. With a two-week layover before the start of the second leg, Freedom America was overhauled in preparation for the journey to Cape Town. More important to Van Liew, he was able to spend valuable time with Meaghan and Tate, who had flown in to greet him. It was a respite that would come back to haunt him.
The second leg brought Van Liew six weeks of solitude, doldrums, and storm. He tried to keep himself busy by focusing on downloading weather reports, but the sailor missed his family with an intensity he had never known. He complained in phone calls and e-mails of “sheer pain, fear, and loneliness.” On Halloween, as if the ocean were adding comedic punctuation to his woes, a school of flying fish and squid flopped en masse onto his deck and died. Van Liew ignored whatever omen that may have implied, threw them back into the sea, and struggled to keep his spirits up.
“The loneliness was hard to hear,” says Meaghan. “Brad kind of got himself into a funk. He kept telling me it was too much of a job.”
Then came the trades. In a 24-hour period on November 25, propelled by trade winds off Africa, Van Liew sailed an astonishing 345.03 miles. The thrill of being shoved across the ocean at 30 knots rejuvenated him. “We were smokin’ along at 36 south [latitude], barreling from the Western Hemisphere into the Eastern Hemisphere,” he wrote. “She is capable of more!”
And so, it came to pass, was Van Liew. He won the second leg. After another layover and reunion in Cape Town, he headed out for another month alone, this time through the fearsome Southern Ocean. Because the Southern rings the earth’s antipodean realm, northward-moving cold water from the bottom of the world meets southward drifting warm water from the equator. This zone of convergence is the site of the world’s fiercest seas, with winds sometimes reaching more than 100 knots and waves rising to 80 feet tall. The third and fourth leg of the competition would go straight through there.
The Southern Ocean has been the downfall of many an Around Alone sailor, most memorably France’s Isabelle Autissier, who was dismasted there twice. But it would be Van Liew’s finest hour. Using the savage winds and following seas to his advantage, Van Liew put 1,000 miles between him and his nearest competition. “It’s a very special place,” he marvels of the Southern Ocean. “Weather systems are rocketing around. It’s always cold, even in summertime, and ice crystals fill the air, refracting an interesting light in the sky. It’s so far from anything resembling humanity, as if you’re going on a rocket to the moon. If you get in trouble, no one can help.”
Hence Van Liew’s rage when he made a minor steering error and rolled Freedom America just before rounding Cape Horn and leaving the Southern Ocean. If ever a man felt alone, it was Van Liew at that moment. Instead of gray sky, the view through his canopy was black ocean water. Rationally, he knew the situation was salvageable. But his rage as he flailed about the cockpit was real.
Even before he began to settle down, Freedom America’s emergency systems were addressing the situation at hand — namely, being upside down. She was designed with three primary emergency features: a canting keel mechanism, special watertight bulkheads, and a foam-filled nose known as a false bow. The canting keel was designed to right the boat should it roll. In the event Freedom America hit a floating object — be it iceberg, whale, or driftwood — the false bow would absorb the blow without damaging the integrity of the hull. And should the boat suffer a significant puncture of the hull, those watertight bulkheads were specially designed to keep her afloat even if one or two bulkheads flooded.
Luckily, there was no need for the false bow or watertight bulkheads. The canting keel’s two hydraulic rams conspired to rock the vessel upright almost immediately, and Van Liew went on to win that fourth leg, just as he had won the third. There would be other storms and trials throughout the remainder of the journey — equatorial heat off Brazil, tropical storm Ana off the West Indies, 40-knot head winds just before the finish line — but that moment off Cape Horn marked the last time Freedom America was in serious trouble.
On May 4, 2003, Van Liew steered Freedom America back into Newport harbor just before dawn to win the fifth and final leg. More importantly, after a cumulative 148 days at sea, he became the first American to win Around Alone since his mentor, Mike Plant, in 1987. He did so in compelling fashion. No sailor had ever won all five stages before. And his speed day off the coast of Africa set a world record for distance traveled in a 24-hour period.
Van Liew stumbled ashore, into the arms of Meaghan and Tate. The best-case scenario had come to pass, even as the worst-case scenario wordlessly fell to the wayside. His celebratory meal was a breakfast of bacon and eggs, washed down with a large gin and tonic. There was a shower, a full eight hours sleep, an evening of celebration, and the awarding of that silver platter.
Then, while the rest of the sailing world buzzed about his remarkable achievement, Brad Van Liew quietly began coming to terms with how to spend the rest of his life. The time had come to dream of a new adventure.
Which begs the question: Why does a man who has it all — a beautiful wife, a lovely daughter, a home near the sea with a putting green lawn and barbecue grill — risk it all? Again, comparisons must be made with adventurers from centuries past. Flier Antoine de Saint-Exupery spoke of the calling as a search for God. Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail alone around the world, spoke of embracing suffering. Explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton needed to fulfill his potential.
For Van Liew, the motivation comes from a passion for sailing and a desire to really, truly live his life. While the 2002-03 Around Alone was his last, he recognizes that his jones for adventure will always be there. “It will be hard to leave that part of my life behind,” he says, “but I’ve done all I set out to do.
“I wouldn’t mind spending some time in Alaska, traveling around in a float airplane,” admits Van Liew, who is also trained as a commercial pilot. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Or maybe exploring Tierra del Fuego by airplane or on skis. Or long-distance desert racing on a motorcycle. You know, something like that.”
The days of solitude, however, are over. Whatever and wherever it may be, the next odyssey will see him break from past adventurers. This time, Meaghan and Tate will come along. “It’s sometimes hard and sometimes incredibly great, but it’s the lifestyle we’ve chosen,” says Van Liew. “It’s never dull. We live each day to the fullest.”
billy black is a photographer out of st. portsmouth, rhode island.
sail of the century
to learn about the next around alone event, log on to www.aroundalone.com. to read more about brad van liew’s around alone journey, including his journal entries, visit www.tommy.com/freedomamerica or www.oceanracing.org.