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Alone at Sea, He Paid Sail Price

May 16, 2003|PETE THOMAS

"I feel gutted. This race has sucked the life out of me and what is so weird is that I feel more alive than ever before. I guess that is why this sport is so addicting."

-- Brad Van Liew,

*

Around Alone sailing champion

Early on the morning of May 4, before a cheering crowd of fans, family and friends, Brad Van Liew guided his sleek, red-white-and-blue yacht past the finish line at Newport, R.I.

He had been at sea, in stretches, for nearly eight months. He had been on the water, precisely, for 148 days 17 hours 54 minutes 42 seconds.

He had lost 25 to 30 pounds since departing New York on Sept. 15 with 12 other skippers in a grueling competition to see who could be first to pilot their vessel, without help from a crew, around the world.

Like the others, Van Liew slept only sporadically, in 20-minute naps, and was deprived of even those for two straight days as he made his way toward the finish, battling through a fierce spring storm.

So it was on wobbly legs that he finally made it ashore at Newport, where he received a loving hug from his wife, Meaghan, and a smile and kiss from his 13-month-old daughter, Tate Magellan.

Only then did the former Southland sailor really feel alive.

"You have to understand that I was gone for most of her life and, psychologically, missing her became more of a burden than I ever thought it would," the ruddy-faced skipper said of his only child.

"The first time I landed [after Leg 1 in Torbay, England], she didn't even know who I was. She thought I was just this stinky big guy. In New Zealand, she was like, 'There's that big guy again,' which was pretty cool, and by the time I got to Brazil she was like, 'Daddy's home,' which was great."

Someday, the daughter will understand the magnitude of the father's accomplishment.

Van Liew, 35, a USC graduate who lives in Mount Pleasant, S.C., but remains a member of the California Yacht Club in Marina del Rey, dominated Class II (boats 40 to 50 feet) from start to finish.

He swept all five legs aboard Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America, outdistancing his nearest rival by 21 days.

He became the first American to win all five legs and the first American to win the event since Mike Plant in 1986-87.

During the first leg, he set a 50-foot monohull record by covering 345 miles in one day. His average speed over the 30,094 miles was 8.36 knots, also an American record and just a notch slower than some of the 60-footers in Class I. (The winner in that division was Switzerland's Bernard Stamm aboard Bobst Group-Armor Lux.)

Nearly two weeks after his dawn arrival at Newport, Van Liew said things are only now beginning to wind down to where he can reflect on the highs and lows.

He cited his telling performance in Leg 1, when he cruised into Torbay 600 miles ahead of his Class II competitors, proving to himself and his team that a boat designed specifically for this race really could meet expectations.

And he cited loneliness, not his harrowing experiences in perilous seas, among the lowest of lows. Harrowing experiences, after all, are to be expected. At one point, in rough seas, Van Liew scaled his 80-foot mast to take down his mainsail.

He and the others, pushing themselves in the name of adventure, experienced unrelenting headwinds, mountainous seas, monotonous doldrums and electrifying thunderstorms.

Though the Cape Horn area off South America wreaked its usual havoc in the form of wildly powerful winds and towering waves, it was the final leg, from Brazil to Rhode Island, that caused demons to stir in Van Liew's otherwise cool head.

It was during this 4,015-mile jaunt the last time he competed, in 1998-99, that his boat briefly capsized, losing its mast and leaving him battered and adrift but hardly out of the running. He made it ashore, made repairs and rallied to finish third.

"To stay motivated in this race you need a serious mission," he said. "The first time it was to see if I could do it and the second it was to see if I could win it."

With a commanding lead built over the first four legs, Van Liew needed merely to stay on course and out of trouble to accomplish that goal. But there are never any guarantees when Mother Nature is in charge.

When victory seemed so close, the sailor became mired atop a glassy sea in breathless conditions only 400 miles out, unable to make any headway. Then, suddenly, came a change in the weather marked by furious headwinds and enormous, shifting peaks, which commanded his full attention for two days.

Van Liew managed to shave and change into some fresh clothes, however. Stinky big guy just had to make a good impression on a very special little girl.

Saltwater Fishing

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