Solo Around the World

Bruce Schwab is the only American entrant in the Around Alone Open 60 Class

July 25, 2002
Tony Bessinger

From somewhere deep inside every innovator comes the courage and self-confidence to stand alone, to walk that path less traveled. Bruce Schwab, of Oakland, Calif., is a textbook example of the breed and his Open 60 Ocean Planet is the physical manifestation of his determination to take part in two of the most grueling events in the sport of sailing, the Around Alone and the Vendée Globe.

On September 12, the 42-year-old Schwab will sail his Wylie-designed Ocean Planet out of Narragansett Bay and down to New York City for the start of the 2002-3 Around Alone Race as the only American in the class. Maybe. Lack of sponsors, and as a result, lack of cash, have forced Schwab to build and sail his boat on a shoestring budget. Before September rolls around, Schwab needs more sails and equipment in order to not just be competitive, but to even be on the line at all.

Thanks to a father who loved boats and learned sailing by going sailing, Schwab was introduced to offshore voyaging during a three-year odyssey with his two brothers, his father, and his father’s girlfriend. On a succession of boats ranging from a 40-foot double-ended ketch to the Gary Mull-designed, cold-molded, 42-foot raceboat Improbable, Schwab learned the ropes and developed certain ideas about how boats should sail.


In 1980, Schwab went to work at Svendsen’s Marine in Alameda, Calif., starting as a painter and ending, nineteen and a half years later as a master rigger. In those 19 years, he earned a reputation as a rigger and won more than a few single-and doublehanded races, including the solo TransPac.

California isn’t exactly France when it comes to being a hotbed of singlehanded sailing. What turned you toward that aspect of racing?

Actually, we have a lot of singlehanded racers and races. There’s a circuit of 5 or 6 races per year on the West Coast; the Farallons race, the Three Bridge Fiasco, the Solo Transpac. But unlike Europe, all these guys are amateurs and it’s a lot of fun. My first solo happened back in ’83 or ’84; I used to argue with my Dad a lot about how to sail. One day he said, “Prove how good you are by racing against me.” So I borrowed my boss’s boat and not only beat my dad, I won the whole thing. I bought a 30-square meter named Rumbleseat, which I restored for fifteen years before sailing it once, and won a lot of races with it. Of course, I never would’ve been able to pull any of that off if I didn’t work at a boatyard.


Why the Around Alone and the Vendée Globe?

After I sold Rumbleseat, I was looking around for something to do. I figured that with the Internet, and lots of corporate sponsorship money around, it might be possible to do the Vendee. So I got some money from some backers, talked to Tom Wylie, and tried to get in the 2001-2 Vendée. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get it all together in time. Now that the boat’s done, the Vendée is still my prime objective. But doing the Vendée is a big stretch without doing the Around Alone first. I’m just not that kind of sailor yet.

Have you ever sailed in the high latitudes in either hemisphere?


No. And I don’t feel qualified even though I’ve done my qualification mileage. The sail from Charleston to the Azores doesn’t make me feel all that ready, but it is what I was ready for. It’s a big jump, and I realize that. I need to prepare myself a lot more. I know I can prepare the boat, I’ve been doing that my whole life. I can look around and see what’s going to break.

People take a look at your narrow, light, cold-molded boat, which is almost the exact opposite of any of the Finot-designed Open 60s, and say, “Well if he’s right, everybody else is wrong.” Why a Wylie design?

In 1979, Wylie came up with some of the first wide, water-ballasted boats. He did that before anybody else. I’ve known him and his designs for a long time; he’s very intuitive, and I knew that he’d design a fast boat, and he agreed to work on spec. Wylie doesn’t use computers or e-mail but draws his ideas and has engineers check them out. The combination of he and Paul Bogataj, who’s designed the fin and the bulb, is a winner.


We’ve taken a different approach by going skinny, and for it to work, we’ve done some things to the fins that I can’t talk about. Essentially, the boat is safer and easier to sail. There’s less drag, less work to do when jibing because of the unstayed rig, and we can run lower in breeze than any other 60. Unfortunately, a lot of what we want to do is still on the drawing board because we can’t afford to implement the ideas yet. But as long as I get some funding, I’ll be competitive in the Around Alone.

What do you think about sailing against people like Ellen MacArthur?

I’m very impressed with her and the whole program. What she and Mark Turner have done, I really admire. Sailing Kingfisher home from Australia was a great way to break the boat in and prepare for the Vendée. They had less than a lot of other campaigns during the last Vendée but did more with it. Then again, they had more budgeted for sails than I have in my whole program.

How well do you deal with the alone-ness of a solo trip?

Well, in the first place, I’m not really alone. During the races off the West Coast you’re always talking with your friends who are out there. In these next races I’ll be in e-mail communication with everybody and probably talking with the other competitors.

Are there any times when you’re out there and you don’t like what you’re doing?

I’m not good at tolerating deliveries and things like that. If the solo sailing weren’t racing, I’d never do it. Races motivate me; it’s a way to compare me and my ideas to others.

What will you bring on the race to indulge yourself?

My guitar.


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