The storms hit late at night, a series of one-two punches that kept Brad Van Liew and his boat knocked from one side to the other without warning.
In a 10-hour period, the wind switched directions constantly – 40 knots from the east, 40 knots from the west, then dead calm – and Le Pingouin was knocked down between six and eight times. There was no way to steer, and the crashes left sail line dragging behind the boat like a yard sale gone wrong, Van Liew said.
And then, as he was trying to sort through the chaos caused by storms off the Brazilian coast, he felt a punch to his back 'like Mike Tyson slugged me.'
A flying fish had hit him in the exact spot where he had had back surgery.
It was a miserable weekend for the Charleston skipper in the Velux 5 Oceans around-the-world solo sailboat race.
'I am gimping around the boat a bit, trying to mind a sore lower back that has already endured a couple of pretty serious back surgeries,' Van Liew told The Post and Courier Sunday evening.
'It seems the rule stands that every good day of sailing will be paid for with a bad one.'
The current leg, which began March 27 in Punta del Este, Uruguay, got off to a great start. Unusually good sailing conditions had the fleet covering more than 300 miles a day as they trudged north toward Charleston and the Ocean Sprint 4 finish line.
'The conditions were a bit unusual for the area that time of year though and were a big bonus to get a few hundred miles down the track before the tricky Brazil coastal weather challenges began,' Van Liew said.
For most of the first week, Van Liew — the overall race leader — has been trailed closely by Canadian skipper Derek Hatfield, who kept within 30 miles of Le Pingouin.
On Saturday, Van Liew slipped into 'stealth mode' — a new race feature that allows skippers to hide their position for 24 hours at a time. That allows him to hide his intended route from the other skippers. On Sunday night, he emerged from stealth mode 53 miles ahead of his closest competitor (Hatfield may be closer, but he is currently in his own stealth mode).
Van Liew is currently about 4,500 miles from Charleston.
The tactical chess game of this weekend came after the severe beating that Van Liew called 'one of the most difficult thunderstorm-filled nights I have ever experienced.'
'That night came with utter exhaustion on the verge of hallucinating and me getting hit by the biggest flying fish in history in the small of my back while on deck,' Van Liew said.
On his blog, the skipper said the start to the weekend was so bad he, at one point, considered quitting. After he was hit by a second flying fish, which left a nasty bruise on his shoulder, Van Liew had an idea to eat his attackers, but they flopped back into the water before he could even photograph them.
The conditions have taken their toll on the other boats in the Velux fleet as well.
Polish skipper Zbigniew 'Gutek' Gutkowski reports that his bowsprit has broken off his yacht, Operon Racing, his alternator is busted and he was knocked down so severely he may have broken some ribs.
At the same time, British skipper Chris Stanmore-Major said he had a jammed autopilot, his computer would not download weather information and he has considered pulling into port because of agonizing pain caused by a possible cracked tooth.
Hatfield has a broken ballast tank line that allowed 200 gallons of seawater into one 'watertight compartment' on his yacht, Active House.
After sailing two legs through the Southern Ocean without major incident, the Velux 5 Oceans fleet is off the Brazilian coast and racing toward South Carolina beat up, and in serious need of medical attention and a good boat repairman.
And they still have at least three weeks of sailing left to go before reaching Charleston.