'If you're a sailor, this is it ... ,' British skipper says

British skipper Chris Stanmore-Major aboard his boat Spartan, docked at the Seabreeze Marina.

Grace Beahm

British skipper Chris Stanmore-Major is just 4,000 miles away from a goal that few of his countrymen have ever reached -- finishing the Velux 5 Oceans around-the-world solo sailboat race.

Docked in Charleston with back-to-back third-place finishes, Stanmore-Major now only has to reach La Rochelle, France to become only the third British skipper to finish the race in a 60-foot yacht. A few have finished in smaller boats, but most British 60-foot campaigns have been plagued with bad luck.

Stanmore-Major said just running the race is rare enough.

"If you're a sailor, this is it -- the top of the list," he said. "It is the ultimate challenge. Just finishing the race is the biggest challenge."

He certainly has the right boat for the job. His Spartan is better-known in Charleston as FILA, the Finot yacht that Italian skipper Giovanni Soldini sailed to win the 1998-99 Around Alone.

And in 2006, Sir Robin Knox- Johnston -- the first man to sail alone non-stop around the world -- used the boat to compete in the last edition of the race, finishing fourth.

Stanmore-Major, who had just finished the Clipper Round the World Race as skipper of a ship crewed by 19 amateur sailors, jumped at Knox-Johnston's offer to use the yacht. It was the chance he'd been waiting for his whole life.

Stanmore-Major grew up sailing with his father on the River Dart. At 18, he took work as a tall-ship rigger for the Hong Kong Outward Bound School. But his background in sail training did not exactly translate into racing mode. He found himself becalmed in the equatorial doldrums in the first leg and plagued with equipment problems that forced him to sail close to Australia during the second. That left Stanmore-Major with back-to-back fourth place finishes.

Velux 5 Oceans Race Director David Adams said Stanmore-Major now looks like a different skipper than the one who started the race.

"Chris is learning it all on the course. In the first two legs, he made a lot of mistakes," Adams, a veteran Around Alone winner, said. "But to his credit, he learned from it and is now racing much more competitively."

Stanmore-Major said that he started the around-the-world race in "seaman mode" and learned quickly he had to shift into "racer mode."

"I was learning the technique," he said. "You can only say you're an Open 60 sailor after one lap around the planet -- that's one of Robin's comments."

In the third leg, from New Zealand to Uruguay, Stanmore-Major seemed to find the secret to fast sailing. After falling behind, he made up 500 miles on the rest of the fleet and in the final minutes of the leg found himself in second place.

Then, Polish skipper Zbigniew Gutkowski cut in front of him, beating Stanmore-Major across the line by 40 seconds -- the closest leg finish in race history, and perhaps in all of single-handed around-the-world sailing.

It was a tough loss, but Stanmore-Major came away amazed by the competition.

"How fantastic is it that after 8,000 miles it came down to that?" he said.

The British sailor kept the heat on race leader Brad Van Liew and Derek Hatfield during the fourth leg as well, clocking amazing speeds as he stayed within a couple of hundred miles of the leg leaders. He ultimately finished two days after Van Liew and a day after Hatfield.

The Velux 5 Oceans race has endeared itself to Stanmore-Major not only for its competitiveness but also for the camaraderie the skippers develop by basically sailing around the world together and spending time in each of the stopover ports. In fact, Stanmore-Major and Van Liew are talking about doing a double-handed race together after this one is over.

But after 60,000 miles at sea since 2009, Stanmore-Major isn't sure he'll embark on another around-the-world race anytime soon.

"I've been twice around the planet in two years, I'm kind of ready for a bit of a rest," he said.