Charleston sailor Brad Van Liew wins Velux 5 Oceans race

Charleston's Brad Van Liew, seen here leaving Charleston May 14 at the start of the fifth and final leg of the Velux 5 Oceans sailing race, crossed the finish line in La Rochelle, France on Friday.

Brad Van Liew finished a clean sweep of the Velux 5 Oceans Friday, becoming the first American ever to win the 30-year-old single-handed sailboat race around the world.

He crossed the finish line outside La Rochelle, France just before 3 p.m. Friday (Charleston time), making the 4,000-mile run from South Carolina to France in eight minutes shy of 13 days.

Van Liew has pulled off a hat trick with his victory. Not only did he dominate the small field in this 34,000-mile single-handed marathon, he added several notches to his resume:

He won all five legs of this race, and won five legs in the Class II division of the race, on his way to a win then.

While waiting for his boat to reach the dock at La Rochelle, Van Liew told The Post and Courier that it just hasn't sunk in yet.

"I still have to process this," Van Liew said. "It's a big deal to be the only American to have done something significant. This (sport) doesn't mean a lot to a lot of Americans, but in my own world this is something. That's something they can't take away from you, that you take to the grave."

Velux officials said Van Liew distinguished himself as the class of the fleet throughout this eight-month trip around the world. Although the fleet got closer to Van Liew's position each leg, no one ever finished a leg on the same day that he did.

After winning the fourth leg, which finished in Charleston in April, Van Liew had an insurmountable points lead in the race. All he had to do to win the overall race was to make it back to France. He told a crowd at the Charleston Maritime Center he would take it easy and let his boat, Le Pingouin, set the pace.

Le Pingouin proved once again that it was most comfortable at the head of the fleet.

It was a fast sprint up the Eastern Seaboard followed by high pressure systems that parked the fleet off Nova Scotia. As Van Liew approached Europe, his yacht Le Pingouin was battered by vicious storms that threatened to slow him down.

Van Liew said it wasn't nearly as easy as it looked to people following the race on the internet.

"Those guys were pushing hard, we really had a good fleet," Van Liew said. "This was a very difficult leg with some really rough weather. There were a couple of times when I decided to take care of the boat and if I didn't make the miles up, so be it. Fortunately I was in a good position and never lost the lead."

The Mount Pleasant resident was able to navigate that rough North Atlantic weather better than his competitors. Both British skipper Chris Stanmore-Major, who is expected to take his first second- place in the race on Saturday morning, busted his keel. That mishap occurred after Polish skipper Zbigniew Gutkowski - who is poised to take second place overall in the race - reported that a key piece of the keel on his Operon Racing has broken.

Van Liew's boat has finished the race in fine shape. He said he pushed to win, but not hard enough that he might damage his boat. He knew the implications of the race, and would take no chance he couldn't make it to France to claim victory.

Finishing three editions of the race is special for him. He called his first race, in 1998, great; the 2002 race even better; but "this one was just a lot of fun."

Van Liew isn't sure when he'll be back to Charleston. He will be making corporate appearances on Le Pingouin in several northeast cities this summer. Right now, Seahorse Magazine has nominated him as sailor of the month.

The editors at Seahorse said Van Liew's victory in the Velux 5 Oceans race is so impressive that some people are pushing for him to jump right into the next running of the Vendee Globe, a non-stop single-handed race around.

Sitting on Le Pingouin after 34,000 miles and eight months at sea, Van Liew said he couldn't even think of such a thing at the moment. But then he amended the answer to say he couldn't rule it out.

No surprise - the guy is a competitor.