Van Liew Is Unleashed Once More

A round the world veteran steps back into the ring with a fresh focus on family and racing. "For the Record" in our January/February 2010 issue

Brad Van Liew returns 368

Courtesy Of Brad Van Liew

Brad Van Liew and his star-spangled, Tommy Hilfiger-sponsored Freedom America dominated the Open 50 division in the 2002-'03 Around Alone, but the sailing world hasn't seen or heard much of him since. After the race, Van Liew settled in bucolic Charleston, S.C., with his wife, Meaghan, raising two children and confining
himself to a desk job at a local maritime non-profit. It was, he says, a necessary grounding, but he knew his retirement was only temporary. Now, six years after walking away from the solo ocean-racing scene that had defined his existence for more than a decade, the 41-year-old is plotting his return with an American entry in the 2010 Velux 5 Oceans.

Why now; why the Velux 5 Oceans?
The sport of singlehanded racing on Open boats has become so refined and so exclusive that it's extremely difficult for an American to plug into a race-winning program [for an event like the Vendee Globe]. The new Open 60s are so expensive to build and the race is so expensive to do that it doesn't make a lot of sense in the current economic climate to go try to sell a $15 million Vendee project when the major races in this part of the sport don't touch the American market. The fact that the Velux does touch the American market [with a stopover in Charleston] helps, but what sealed my decision is the Eco 60 class [see box, p. 24]. I can do a top-shelf [Eco 60] program for this event for $3 million.

The previous 5 Oceans wasn't the great spectacle it once was as the BOC or Around Alone; what needs to change to improve the race's status?
That's one of the reasons why I'm doing it again. I'm emotionally and personally attached to this event. Last time, Velux threw millions of dollars into this thing, and there were a couple of things I didn't like.

If I'm going to go do a race like this, and it's going to be more sprint legs than the marathon non-stop [Vendee], then the legs need to be sprints where you can really get some time with the boat [in between legs] and modify it for the next leg. The last race sailed from Europe, halfway around the world to Perth, Australia, to the United States, and then finished in Europe. At that point, you might as well do a Vendee.

One of the deal sealers for me is that Velux is really throwing horsepower at the thing and the media component will be a lot more polished than we've ever seen, with Volvo Ocean Race-style media kits on the boats. This is the coolest route the race has ever done: La Rochelle [France], Cape Town, Wellington (New Zealand), Salvador de Bahia [Brazil], then Charleston, and finish in La Rochelle.

Velux was disappointed in their American coverage last time. It was the biggest hole in their plan. The race itself did very well on the whole. Believe it or not, the thing got $60 million in media returns, but very little of it in the United States because there wasn't a viable U.S. entry.

With a start date of October 2010, what's a realistic time line for you?
There are a lot of boats out there, but they vary wildly. Ideally, we'd get a boat in a timely fashion and get it to the States and prepare it for a big spring training session. There is a lot of technology that has evolved since I had my hands on one of these things, and I want to do a bunch of miles. My qualification requirements will be pretty loose, given my experience, but I'll probably exceed what they mandate anyway.

Are you physically prepared to jump right back into it?
I'll admit that I'm not "Joe Rockstar" right now, but I have been hitting the gym a lot lately. Physically, I've got some work to do, but that's easy. I've already started getting back to my sleep pattern stuff-waking up without alarm clocks and getting into that mode. I've done a fair bit of sailing since the last race, but nothing at that level of intensity.

The break from sailing was, in some ways, what I wanted. At the end of the last race, I was burned out and hadn't spent any time with my daughter. Even though I was in the game and finely tuned up, my head wasn't in it. I wanted to turn into a family guy and be a normal dude for a while. Well, six years is a long time for me to be at a desk. Before age became a factor, I wanted to get out there and do it again.

What will the transition be like?
It will be a challenge, but if I have the time and can really do enough miles, it will happen by default. If I'm late getting a boat, and I have to jump into it with a super-aggressive time line to be on pace, then it will be really tough. These boats today are very different than anything I've been on; they're very wet, very aggressive, and crash hard. I definitely have to get a few thousand miles to get back into the game. With that said, I don't feel as though I haven't done it before. Remember, I've spent a lot of years of my life alone on these boats.

You were boat shopping in Europe; see anything you like?
The available boats range widely: from a $350,000 boat that needs a bunch of work to the $1.5-million super wagons from yesteryear. If money wasn't an issue, I'd pick Roxy [sailed by British female competitor Sam Davies] or Artemis, which was originally Hexagon. These boats were no-expense-spared boats when they were built, and both have had a lot of money put into them in their lifetimes.

How do you go about buying a boat without a sponsor?
Fortunately, because of my track record, people are open to working with me. There are concepts: we can do payment as you go, for example. Fundamentally, it comes down to putting together the sponsorship package. We want to avoid being slowed up by cash. It is a tough thing to do, but hopefully we can get a backer that's willing to put seed money into the thing, realize it will be successful, and feed the machine, so we can buy our time and find a title sponsor. That's the way we've done it in the past, and we'll do it this way again.

What are you most anxious about in terms of the sailing?
I'm excited to shed the desk and get out there for the purity of getting offshore, the raw simplicity of getting from Point A to Point B. I do have some apprehension, because this time I have different personal priorities. I take being a dad seriously. I'll be more conscious to not take undue risks. The kids have changed me more than I ever thought they would. It's a selfish thing, what I'm doing, and I have to make it less selfish. This time it's a lot about the family and making it a family adventure.