Brad Van Liew recounts the final moments before his dismasting in Leg 4 of the Around Alone as he heads back to Punta under jury rig
It only takes a second for the best-laid plans to go horribly wrong. Yesterday, a little over 24 hours after starting Leg 4 from Punta del Este, Brad Van Liew was powering up the coast of South America and he was exactly where he wanted to be. Crashing along in lumpy waves and 30-knot northeasterly winds, Van Liew was just a few miles away from Class II leader J.P. Mouligne, and he had him in his sights. “We were doing good,” Van Liew said in a telephone interview via a COMSAT satellite telephone link at 0700 GMT today. “I was sailing conservatively. I had a third reef in the main when I normally would’ve had two. I was just hanging with J.P., he was right where I wanted him. We were sailing upwind and that’s my weather. As soon as the wind eased and the chop flattened out, I was going to blow his doors off.”
And then, in less time than it takes to type this sentence, Van Liew’s BALANCE BAR was no longer a going concern. “I was down below and all of a sudden I could feel us falling into this big pothole,” he said. “The boat landed on its side. There was a big crack. It was a serious shock load but nothing we hadn’t seen before. The port ‘D1’ (a diagonal rod-rigging wire that helped support the carbon-fiber mast) failed at the cold head at the turnbuckle, and the mast broke off about 6 or 10 feet above the deck. The boom broke in two places, the mast in two or three places. My brand-new main, a new Spectra staysail, my genoa, everything went over the side. It was an expensive boo-boo.”
Seeing that the spar, still attached to the boat via halyards and rigging, was doing its best to ram a hole in his boat, Van Liew immediately went to work. He cut everything he could away and nearly had the mast on a one-way trip to Davy Jones’s locker; but one last shroud, jammed in a bent turnbuckle, could not be released. And he’d broken his last two hacksaw blades freeing the other gear. Van Liew updated the race office to the situation and via a COMSAT email message, race officials asked Mouligne to turn around. “The primary reason was that he had a tool I needed,” said Van Liew. But eventually Van Liew was able to banish the final shroud without assistance and Mouligne was released from his diversion after about an hour-and-a-half of southbound sailing.
Now Van Liew had a decision to make. His first impulse was to start his engine – which would’ve meant instant disqualification – and put the race behind him as quickly as possible. But by this time, the fleet had been alerted to his situation and messages of support were flooding in. Class I skipper Marc Thiercelin offered the use of his spare aluminum mast and sails. Mike Garside and Mouligne also promised sails. Van Liew’s project manager, Alan Nebauer, cancelled his flight home. So too did Mouligne’s right-hand man, Phil Lee. It’s all part of a grand Around Alone tradition of helping fellow skippers in trouble. In fact, in the last Around Alone, Lee was one of the craftsmen who helped build a new rudder for Nebauer when he lost his on the approach to Punta. “The support’s been amazing. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I decided I needed to keep my options open.”
So, using his lone spinnaker pole as an emergency mast, Van Liew set up a jury rig and hoisted a spare, sideways staysail for a foresail, and his storm trysail for a main. “I got lucky, the pole is the perfect length,” he said. He also reflected on the lost spar. “The mast was in the water countless times on the last leg, and maybe there was some fatigue. Alan and I also thought there might’ve been some stretch in the rod, the upper shrouds looked a bit stretched out. But we weren’t worried about using it for the leg.” Now Van Liew’s looking forward. Unfortunately, Thiercelin’s mast is too big, but Nebauer and Lee are on the prowl for another. At roughly 1100 GMT today, Van Liew was 51 miles from Punta and making about 4 knots. “We’re down,” he said. “But we’re not out yet…”