It's almost that time again, the time when some of the world's most talented and ambitious single-handed sailors will set off on another grueling race around the world. The quadrennial Around Alone sets sail on September 15, and this time around the sailing world will see not only a new fleet, but a new course managed by a new event owner. Though the race is still five months away, by all measures it's shaping up to be one of the best and most competitive contests in the 20-year history of the event.
For solo-sailing enthusiasts in the US, the event will be particularly exciting. Right there leading the way to the starting line among the 50-foot entries, flying the Stars and Stripes and sporting the logo of an all-American sponsor will be America's best hope for a win—Brad Van Liew. If perseverance and sheer determination have anything to do with success in this realm, Van Liew should be the hands-down favorite in Class II as the fleet crosses the line between Ground Zero and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. And if all goes according to plan for this Around Alone veteran, he will lead the class across the finish line off Newport, Rhode Island nine months later. By then Van Liew and the 18 other competitors will have sailed around the world by way of the five great capes with stops in Torbay, England; Cape Town, South Africa; Tauranga, New Zealand; and Salvador, Brazil.
It has been over three years since Van Liew finished the last race at the helm of Balance Bar coming third overall in Class II. Since that time he has faced tough challenges with his quest for sponsorship and a new boat coming up dry time and again. Then, late last year he bought the 50-foot Group Finot design Magellan Alpha from Mike Garside. Subsequently, famed clothing entrepreneur Tommy Hilfiger got wind of the race and Van Liew's efforts to participate, and he decided to ante up in a big way. With the same personal attention that has made his clothing company a standard of American pop-culture, Hilfiger has begun to throw his considerable resources behind Van Liew's latest effort, and appears to be doing so with some patriotic fervor.
Van Liew's refit boat, sporting Hilfiger colors combined with a stars and stripes motif, will be christened Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America. The 50-footer, which finished second in the last edition of Around Alone, will fly its flag proudly as all the competitors pay tribute to those who lost their lives on September 11, with a symbolic start in New York Harbor. Along with skippers representing 10 other countries, Van Liew will then compete in a new first leg of the race across the Atlantic to the UK. After a stopover in Torbay, they'll head south toward Cape Town and beyond into the Southern Ocean. This new course reflects the imprimatur of the event's new owner, Clipper Ventures, which purchased the race 18 months ago. Headed by sailing legend Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the company's single aim is to take the event to new levels of safety and competitiveness.
While Van Liew remains the favorite for Class II (Open 50s), it's a little more difficult to name an early frontrunner in Open 60 fleet. Frenchman Thierry Dubois, Belgian Patrick de Radigues, Italian Simone Bianchetti, and Franco-Swiss sailor Bernard Stamm are all seasoned veterans, each with Vendee Globe experience and a burning desire to win their first solo circumnavigating race. These sailors will have their work cut out for them competing against at least one latest generation Open 60—Graham Dalton's HSBC. Designed by the same coalition that produced Ellen MacArthur's Kingfisher, HSBC is potentially the fastest boat in the fleet. And though Dalton, the brother of renown ocean racer Grant Dalton, has a fairly limited resume compared to his rivals, his sponsor (Hong Kong Shanghai Bank) has more than adequately financed the effort. If money alone were enough to secure victory in this event, Dalton would be buying a new trophy cabinet.
Nonetheless, anyone who has followed this special realm of the sport knows that it takes more than cash to succeed. The combination of a consistently reliable vessel and an experienced, hard-driven skipper is usually what puts competitors on the victory podium. Still, if I were a gambling man, I would place some of my hard-earned dollars on Bianchetti. Though the skipper may seem a dark horse in this field, his Mark Lombard design (formerly Catherine Chabaud's Whirlpool
) is definitely one of the fastest Open 60s on the water and Bianchetti has the boat well squared away with the backing of his sponsor, the Italian company Tiscali one of Europe's Internet Service Provider. Bianchetti will be looking to make it two in a row for his country, following up on fellow Italian Giovanni Soldini's success in Class I four years ago aboard FILA
. Speaking of dark horses, I wouldn't discount American Bruce Schwab and his novel Tom Wylie designed Open 60 Ocean Planet
. Like Dalton, Schwab's competitive reputation doesn't reach far beyond his home waters of San Francisco Bay, but this sailor has the drive to succeed, and his boat may have the overdrive to leave more conventional designs in its wake.
Though Van Liew has recently completed an extensive refit of his steed, his is not the newest boat in Class II, and he will face some stiff competition from a few sailors, particularly Viktor Yazykov. The diminutive Russian, a former rival from four years ago, is currently building a 50-foot version of Kingfisher. Though Yazykov will be hobbled by a lack of time—he hopes to launch the boat in July in Europe—and a scarcity of funds, he has proven in the past to be a tenacious competitor with the persistence to compete well in this arena. And not far astern you can expect to find mid-westerner Tim Kent who will be making his first foray into the world of solo sailing aboard the Jim Antrim designed Everest Horizontal.
While the Open 50 and 60s will dazzle the fleet with their huge masts and breakneck speeds, the real radical entries and probably the most hotly contested sector of the fleet will be the Open 40 entries. For the coming race there will be three brand new boats competing, with three tenacious skippers driving them. The most colorful among them might be the Japanese sailor Kojiro Shiraishi campaigning a state-of-the-art Groupe Finot design. Shiraishi was inspired by former Class II winner Yukoh Tada and has named his boat Spirit of Yukoh. This sailor has already completed one solo circumnavigation and was part of Bruno Peyron's crew aboard the maxi catamaran Explorer when it set a west-to-east transpacific record several years ago.
Canadian Derek Hatfield will campaign a new 40-footer designed by Bob Dresser, which he built working many long, cold weekends over the last four years, and his spirit and tenacity are perfectly suited to this epic contest. If Hatfield can get enough time in on board to learn his boat before the start, he should give not only Shiraishi a run for his money, but many of the 50 footers as well. But he'll also have to contend with Bermudian Alan Paris who will be sailing a new Scott Jutson design similar to the 50-footer, True Blue
, that David Adams sailed to victory in the 1994 Around Alone. Paris has just completed a training run to the Canary Islands and back, and reports that his boat is fast and ready to take on the world.
For the sailors who know it well, the Around Alone race is more than just another globe-girdling sailing event. With a momentum all its own, it attracts an eclectic mix of professional sailors, adventurers, thrill seekers, and a few downright fools, and as the race unfolds, it never fails to capture the hearts and minds of sailors who tune in all over the world. This is the 20th anniversary of the Around Alone and it's certainly shaping up to be one the best editions ever. SailNet users can look forward to staying apprised of the pre-start developments through the website's News section and occasional feature stories, or by logging on to the organizer's official website: www.aroundalone.com.
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