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Sailing Around The World Alone

The only American to return to compete in this year's grueling and dangerous "Around Alone" competition is aiming to take first place. Brad Van Liew and his newly refurbished 50-foot yacht, named "Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America," sets sail September 15 on an eight-month, 28,000-mile race around the world.

From the interior of his boat, Van Liew talks to The Early Show about the competition.

The "Around Alone" race began 20 years ago over beers in a Newport bar. Up to that point only a handful of people had managed to sail alone around the world. The race, held every four years, attracted a mixture of eccentrics and adventurers drawn to the challenge of sailing through the planet's most dangerous and isolated areas. As the race grew in popularity, more and more experienced sailors joined the race with their deep-pocketed corporate sponsors in tandem.

The success of the race was due to the involvement of the BOC Group, a British conglomerate that spent millions to market and organize it. The race was originally named the BOC Challenge and had its starting point in Charleston, S.C.

In 1998 the BOC Challenge made a turning point, which the BOC Group withdrew its sponsorship and organizers renamed the event the "Around Alone." The organization still faces the challenge of finding a corporate sponsor, but will continue to push ahead with the contestants who can afford to participate.

This year's race officially starts Sept. 15 from New York City, passing popular landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and ground zero instead of the originally planned starting point of Newport, R.I. Race chairman Sir Robin Knox-Johnson, who won the first solo race around the world in 1968 and whose company acquired the rights to "Around Alone" last year, said he was swayed to move the starting point to New York City after receiving a letter from Mayor Bloomberg inviting them to join every yacht in the world to fill New York's harbor with sailboats in a symbolic remembrance and tribute, called "Sail for America," honoring victims of Sept. 11.

A feeder race from Newport to New York will launch the race on Sept. 12. Approximately 14 sailors are expected to participate in this year's "Around Alone" race.

The race is divided into three boat categories and five legs of the journey. The three boat categories are:

  • 40-footers to 60-footer Venturers,
  • Class II 50-footers
  • Class I 60-footers.

The five legs of the journey are from N.Y. to Torbay, England; from England to Cape Town, South Africa; from South Africa to Tauranga, New Zealand; from New Zealand to Salvador da Bahia, Brazil; and from Brazil to Newport.

Van Liew's team will meet him at each port. There they have a limited amount of time to do maintenance and repair on the boat before he sails on to the next port. They are expected to arrive in Rhode Island sometime in April or May 2003.

Van Liew, a 34-year-old resident of southern California, is one of three Americans competing in this year's race. Californian Bruce Schwab and Great Lakes skipper Tim Kent are the other two Americans who will be participating this year's race. The difference between Van Liew and the other two sailors is Van Liew's 6-figure sponsorship by clothier Tommy Hilfiger and the fact that Van Liew is the only sailor returning from the last race in 1998-99, in which he finished third in his class despite being dismasted on the event's final leg.

"Around Alone" is the ultimate test of endurance and courage. Some participants have expensive, professionally designed boats worth several million dollars and lavish corporate sponsorship, while others sail homemade boats on a shoestring budget. "Around Alone" is a grueling dangerous trek because the sailors face torrential storms and fierce oceans alone. Everything that happens on their boat, they are responsible for, whether it is repairing the boat or taking care of their health and well-being.

The last time he sailed in this race, Van Liew was on the last leg of the race and had to return to the port, barely making it, because he had to repair the mast, rigging and sails of his Open 50 that had been ripped apart by wind and tossed into the Atlantic Ocean. Van Liew was miraculously able to make his boat sail again with an aluminum mast. In little more than a week he overcame a 1,000-mile deficit to pull into fourth place overall.

Van Liew says this year he has come back to the race with a mission. "The last race was very emotional thing for me. I'd wanted to do it for literally decades, to experience the adventure, the friendships, all the special aspects of the race. This time I've come back not to necessarily enjoy it, but to win it." Van Liew was the youngest and sole American sailor to finish the 1998-99 "Around Alone" sail. The clincher is that if he does win... there is NO prize. NO money, no trophy... nada. He says it is simply the satisfaction of winning!

The cost of participating in the race is approximately $2-$3 million to maintain the 50-footer for eight months and landing such a large sponsorship was notable because in Europe, such deals for solo sailors are commonplace, but not in the United States.

Tommy Hilfiger said of the sponsorship, "It's a great match. Our company's heritage and designs are strongly tied to the nautical theme." He added that the company would begin a product line around the campaign in Spring 2003, to coincide with the race's end." Van Liew also renamed his boat "Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America" as part of the sponsorship deal.

Van Liew will be racing a Groupe Finot 50-footer boat, which he purchased from his arch rival in that last race, British skipper Mike Garside. This boat placed Garside in second place in Class II division in the 1998-99 race. Van Liew originally had his sights set on purchasing a new Open 60-footer yacht, but the deal fell through.

Van Liew has spent several months getting the ship into shape. Since it was purchased used, he has had to refit the vessel. Van Liew said he kept the rig and hull, while everything else had to be refurbished. The boat was officially christened on June 4, 2002 at Chelsea Piers in New York Harbor, by Tommy Hilfiger model, Lauren Bush.

Hilfiger said, "Brad is the United States' premier solo sailor and we are very proud and extremely excited about this opportunity to support him. It takes hard work, resourcefulness, perseverance and courage to succeed. Brad and Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America team personify these qualities and are an embodiment of the American dream."

The interior of Van Liew's boat is about the size of a small bedroom. It lacks refrigeration and toilets. Van Liew says in conjunction with not having the comforts of home, he suffers from severe lack of sleep because he can only take short 30-minute naps at a time. He lives on dehydrated food, and also packs his own clean water. (Last time he raced he ran out of clean water.) And just in case he falls ill, Van Liew says he took a course in basic medicine and surgery because he will be his own doctor for more than eight months.

Van Liew has spent his summer on the boat at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan taking clients and executives for day sails and test new sails and equipment on the Hudson River. Van Liew hopes this experience will give him an advantage when the race starts in September. Van Liew and his Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America team have not only been preparing the boat for the race, but have also been involved in various educational speaking engagements to motivate children from disadvantaged neighborhoods in partnership with Tommy Hilfiger and various non-profit organizations such as The Fresh Air Fund.