For the crew refitting Van Liew's racing yacht, around-the-world contest has already started

A Detyens Shipyward crane hauls Brad Van Liew's new racing yacht out of the water at the Old Navy base. Van Liew is re-fitting and overhauling his Open 60, which he bought in France earlier this year, in preparation for the Velux 5 Oceans race. (Editor's

Meredith Block/Blocksail.com

The boat is sitting in a cradle nearly 20 feet off the ground and the mast -- all 97 feet of it -- is stretched out on sawhorses.

A lot of sawhorses.

The rudders are leaned up against a wall and the rigging is coiled neatly on a nearby pallet. Beneath the hull, the crew is busy trying to lower -- very carefully -- the three-and-a-half-ton tungsten keel.

After a trip across the Atlantic in February to bring the boat home, it might seem the three-month refit of his new Open 60 racing yacht is the most relaxed part of Brad Van Liew's journey to the starting line of the Velux 5 Oceans sailboat race.

Not exactly.

"For the team, this is the most intense part of the race," Van Liew said, watching his shore crew wrestle with the keel. "The race has already started for them."

By that, Van Liew means that races are often won or lost in the preparation, the planning, the decisions made early on -- what gear to use, how to arrange the rigging, what to carry. These are all weighty --sometimes literally -- decisions, and none of them are glossed over.

The good news is that the crew says they are definitely in the race.

Jeffrey Wargo, the shore crew manager, said the idea is to disassemble everything and either review or replace everything that goes onboard. Wargo said that, so far, there are no issues.

"It's a proven boat, never had a structural issue," Wargo said. "We're just going over it with a fine-tooth comb.

Van Liew knows how important this is. He will be racing single-handed around the world for the third time in a little over a decade, and knows it is better to solve all problems, and make all decisions, from the comfort of a North Charleston shipyard rather than 2,000 miles from land.

The boat is due a going-over --it obviously has some mileage on it -- but that's the idea. Van Liew is competing in the Velux 5 Oceans' eco-class, which mandates the sailors use boats built before 2003. The idea is to recycle older racing yachts, which are generally only used for a couple of seasons.

"The good thing is that everything is built when you buy a boat," Van Liew. "That's the thing about the eco-class. It's cool because it allows people like me and the Australians and the New Zealanders and Japanese to race."

Single-handed, around-the-world sailboat racing is a sport dominated by the French, where European corporate sponsors can shell out $10 million for a campaign. The eco-class makes the race more affordable for everyone else.

The boat -- which Van Liew bought from 1998-99 Around Alone skipper Marc Thiercelin -- really needs little beyond a little reconfiguring of the rigging to make it suit Van Liew's style. Besides the technical considerations, there are decisions to be made -- equipment to use, what tools to carry -- before anything is loaded onto the boat. There are no comforts of home; Van Liew says this is not his home, it's his office.

"We basically have three priorities," Van Liew said. "First, for me to come back alive. Second, to get around the world with the boat intact. And third, to win."

Van Liew is certainly a competitive guy -- he's in the race for another Around Alone win -- but he's not reckless. He plans to fine-tune the yacht for screaming fast sailing, but not to the point that it's dangerous. The boat will be stocked with two life boats, portable GPS, emergency food and water -- every piece of safety equipment imaginable. And nothing else.

Well, almost nothing.

When Van Liew bought the boat from the hyper- competitive Thiercelin, he was surprised to see that the cockpit doesn't even have a work station -- a desk. But when he asked J.C. Caso, a veteran of many shore crews, to build him one, Caso balked -- what do you need that for? It might weigh two or three pounds. But Van Liew insisted.

Sort of belies the image of these sleek yachts as the maritime version of Ferraris.

"People think these things are all sleek and sexy, but they're really just work boats," Van Liew said.

Very fast work boats, though. And when Van Liew's crew finishes its work, it will be a very fast work boat.

30,000 miles to finish line

The Velux 5 Oceans is a single-handed sailboat race that travels 30,000 miles around the globe over eight months with stops in several ports. The race, formerly called the BOC Challenge and the Around Alone, started and ended in Charleston twice in the 1990s.

The 2010-11 edition of the race begins Oct. 17 in La Rochelle, France. Skippers will sail from there to Cape Town, South Africa; Wellington, New Zealand; and Salvador, Brazil, before docking in Charleston in the spring of 2011. From there, racers will cross the Atlantic in a mad dash for the finish line in La Rochelle.

Editor's note: The Post and Courier is following Brad Van Liew's quest to win the Velux 5 Oceans race.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or bhicks@postandcourier.com.