Sunday, October 31, 2010

Free of Doldrums, Crossed Equator and Cruising in Trades

Hello from Le Pingouin,

I am trucking along in the southeast trades off the coast of Brazil making some miles, but it is not comfortable sailing as it is almost upwind  and very wet on deck.  Everything with the boat seems in order and the autopilots have now had enough mileage in all conditions that their never ending auto-learn software has the boat so wired that it makes me look average at steering.  It is really quite remarkable that the technology has come so far in the last few years.  The last time I did this race, the “cat’s meow” was being able to rely on true wind steer features while steering off the breeze.  At that time NKE, Raymarine and B&G were all in on the game and now have it pretty wired. The next challenge seems to be eliminating masthead movement through motion sensors and software, which makes for very steady wind data. The net result is that the wake in my current 20 knots of tight reach steering to wind looks like a pair of train tracks off the twin rudders. B&G seems to have it working.  We’ll see very soon how this all works in the “full noise” atmosphere of the southern ocean very soon!

It was a big day of excitement crossing the equator yesterday. The gratification of getting half way to Cape Town was brief, as I quickly realized there is still a long way to go.  I am really enjoying the boat and getting to know her traits.  I swear, she has more lifelike personality than any boat I have sailed. One very nice lifestyle factor is that I have not been running the engine to charge the batteries. It makes for really nice sailing! The wind pushing the boat along also spins my hydrogenerators, which have been making enough power so far to drive my electrical needs. 

Harnessing the power of the wind is how the world connected for centuries on sailing ships. It is my opinion that it will once again be the wave of sustainable living.  The Cape Wind project in New England, and founder Jim Gordon, get it and inevitably will prove this concept on a commercial scale. I think the tides in the U.S. reluctance to real change will set in.  That is my prediction and why I proudly support their cause. 

I think someone is also going to get very rich when they figure out how to harness these tradewinds I have been sailing in for essentially 10 days (see I am already beginning to force the Doldrums from my memory).  Another certainty is that our world will be a lot quieter, cooler and peaceful if my little pod here on the ocean is any indication, using only wind, sun and waves to power the 30,000 miles around the globe. It may be a small slice of what could happen on a global scale, limiting or eliminating the use of fossil fuels to power our modern day needs.

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox.  But it’s true!


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Okay, Let's Get Personal

Okay, let’s get personal. Leaving land and taking on this incredible race has been epic. But there are some very important people at home. Here is a small glimpse of the few communications I have with those that mean the most!

Tate, my 8 year old daughter, October 25 

It is Tate writing you from bed. What are u doing right now? Can u send a photo of what u are doing when u get this message? I wonder what I will do tomorrow. I wonder what u will do tomorrow. I wonder about a lot of things. I want u to put a note in a bottle and send it out to sea. I wonder what the sea looks like right now. I hope u are saying goodnight because I am. Love, Tate. Miss u a lot.

My Reply to Tate, October 26

Hi Tate,

I got your message last night.  Thank you for the note.  I think of you too a whole lot and miss you.  I can’t wait to see you in Africa in 3 weeks or less.  Everything out here on the ocean is fine.  The boat is doing great and out here. She is sort of my only friend so I talk to her sometimes.  I know it sounds weird but it helps me not be lonely. I was telling her that we were going to have a family slumber party on her in Cape Town.  She then started going really fast like she liked the idea and could understand me.  I think she also likes to show off a little because whenever she knows the race people are watching how fast we are going, she goes a little faster than the rest of the time.  Another crazy girl in my life, like you and your mommy weren’t enough!   I sent you a photo of me with the ocean behind for you to see, like you wanted.  I took it right when I got your note in the very early morning.

Of course I can leave a message in a bottle for you.  You have to think about what you want the message to say and let me know.  If you want I could leave it right at the equator and then if someone finds it and contacts you, then you will know whether it went into the southern hemisphere or the northern hemisphere.  Maybe your mommy can show you what I mean on a map or globe.

I promise I’ll keep thinking of you lots especially when I am going to sleep.   You do the same, okay!

I love you very much,


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Flying the Kite

Flying the spinnaker only happens when you are certain (at least as certain as you can be) that the weather isn’t going to expose you to a scary situation. I am speaking of the very tricky maneuver of trying to get the kite down solo in winds that exceed your ability to slide the sock, a housing that contains it like a sausage, down over the sail bringing it to the deck.

It sounds like Gutek and I were playing the same game about a week ago, using our kites to get through the low pressure system (which is when I took the below photo).  Fortunately, I did not get caught with my pants down in a gale like he did.  I have had it happen, and it is truly frightening. You wonder whether you can contain the situation before the rig jumps out of the boat with the sail. In addition to that very unfortunate scenario, you know if one little piece of the sail hits the water while you are trying to contain it, a lot more sail is about to be dragged into the water and you will be trying to get it back on the boat for hours while parked and losing precious miles. 

Below is a photo of probably the largest unbranded spinnaker in all of pro sailing.  Let’s do something about that! Honestly, these beautiful Quantum sails are working their magic and there is a lot of space for logos. Cape Wind is our latest supporting sponsor and they have an eco-challenge out there to encourage additional sponsorship funds from both individuals and companies. Check it out online at

Thanks for checking in,


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hauling the Mail on a Flat Reach - Balancing the House of Cards

I am finally experiencing the textbook reaching conditions these boats are built for. All of a sudden, the pain of working through and around the low pressure system for the first few days seems a sensible trade.  It was a painful baptism by fire but Le Pingouin (LP) and I are better for it.  We are forging a great bond, but more on that later. I don’t have all the answers yet to her full cadre of personal charms and challenges. I can tell you that this boat flat out “hauls the mail” on a flat reach and I have never soloed such a weapon. 

My Finot 50 (Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America) was a fantastic boat and deserved retirement as a movie star (Charlie St. Cloud), but this thing feels like wielding Excalibur.  Sometimes I have to just stop… and say there is something just not right about doing 22 knots in 20 knots of breeze on 60 foot monohull.

“Should I really go lie down right now?” 
“What would happen if we hit something right now?”

It is fantastic to experience and I although the fleet and I will share many videos from offshore, I still don’t feel like enough people have felt the raw exhilaration of such an experience. At least this was my feeling alone by myself on a beautiful full moonlit night.


All of the above comes with a counterpoint.   There is a scary backside.   These boats are incredibly powerful and seem barely manageable by one person, despite all of the sailing I have encountered alone at sea.  It does feel at times as if you are constantly balancing a house of cards; that when, and sometimes it will, come tumbling down; your race boat or life could well be over.

That kind of moment occurred on board LP the other night when my yet to be named, and super necessary, port autopilot lost power to the drive motor.  While I was lying down on the floor next to the nav station the boat steered through a gybe (steered through the wind from behind) which instantly left everything, including the powerful sail plan, swing keel and yours truly all on the wrong side of the boat.  It was a sudden and violent maneuver with the boat slammed to its side far enough that the sails lay flat against the sea. A fleeting moment passed quickly in the chaos as I feared hearing the crack of the carbon mast exploding, leaving the boat’s rig and my dreams of a circumnavigation to fold. I am familiar with this type of situation, and so are other solo ocean racing sailors, but it has never happened for me like it did on this boat.  In my dazed and nearly asleep state of mind on a dark, rainy night, the event was so violent that I initially thought my keel had snapped and the boat was going turtle. 

I was able to resolve the mess and slowly pick up my cards and build my house again. LP gave me a break by not letting anything break.   Now we have another bit of respect for each other.  Initially I thought the batteries had drained low enough that the hard working autopilot wasn’t being given enough to eat, but while moving along yesterday on the other autopilot, a thorough inspection revealed that a power wire to the drive motor had come loose and was only intermittently making contact.  Yes, I was the one who wired the pilots myself, so I felt pretty darn stupid upon this discovery.

All’s well that ends well. Excalibur is an incredible weapon but can easily cut both ways.  On a lighter note, let’s get back to the fun part; anybody have any mail they need delivered?


BVL and LP

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dog Fight on the Water

Do you remember in Top Gun when Viper (the old war veteran trainer at Top Gun) was dog fighting Maverick for the first time? After not being able to knock him out quickly, he says “damn this guy is good.”  Well, that is how I feel about Gutek.  He has played the right side of the course perfectly and I was trying to cover both sides as long as possible. He got out on me.  I am putting all I have left to get over there in time to stay in touch with him.  I have been through every sail change known to man the last couple of days, including night gybes of the Spinnaker. I try to reserve this maneuver for very special occasions as it is a big sail and having something go wrong could spell hours of clean up or worse.

My shout out of this blog is to Samson Rope.  I was sitting here last night with every ounce of sail this huge rig can muster. I stopped to think to myself “wow what a mess it would be if that little rope for the tack line on the kite parted.”  I don’t know what to do to fix that mess. It didn’t and as usual the rest of the Samson ropes on the boat are taking the punishment with a smile.

Thanks for checking in,

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

It Ain't Easy To Get Used To Things

Update 19 October 0600

I'm still a bit under the weather, haven't been able to get any sleep just yet.  The weather's very tricky, plenty of big holes in the breeze, and lots of work; reefing and unreefing and changing the big front sails.

Ironically, one of my super eco-friendly hydrogenerators - the tools that will allow me to sail around the world without burning fossil fuels - caught a plastic trash bag and needed some repairs to the system that holds it down.  But we're good for the moment with a temp fix.

It is definitely a bit strange, getting back in the groove after so long away from solo racing, but lots of work aboard keeps my mind off shore side life, and things will settle in soon.  Looking forward to being more at home out here!

Love to all of you guys, thanks for checking in.



[photos from Luiz Kahl;]

Monday, October 18, 2010

Truckin' To Finisterre

After a few minutes in second place just after the start of the VELUX5OCEANS race in La Rochelle, France, Brad overhauled the leading boat and was over the horizon within a few short hours.  Luiz, Nitro, JC, and Wazzle followed on a RIB and we'll have some pictures up shortly.

Brad extended his lead overnight, running with full sail downwind in beautiful autumn conditions.  As of 2000 CET/1400 EST Le Pingouin leads Operon by 16 miles, and continues to sail faster than his competition. 

You can see the fleet's progress at the official VELUX5OCEANS tracker here, and check back later for Brad's own update and the photos of the start.  Also check out Sailing Anarchy's story "Gone, Daddy, Gone" for links to the farewell ceremony on the dock and video coverage of the start.  VELUX has a great movie up as well.  Thanks for all the interest!

-Meaghan Van Liew

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Good Morning Start

Sunday, October 17

The build up to this morning has been amazing. Velux and the Clipper Ventures have really developed such an incredible experience, not only for the skippers and crew, but for the entire public. The docks are lined. Family, friends, fans and thousands of others have rallied for this special day. I want to thank all of the individuals and sponsors who have helped get here. It is nice to have family here. My father is on the docks, along with his cousin from Annapolis. It will be hard to say goodbye to Meg and the kids. I am eager to see how the “42 year old version” of this race works.

The weather looks good. The first 500 miles will be focused on getting through safely. Cape Finisterre is heavy with fishing and other commercial traffic. The Bay of Biscay can of course be one of the most treacherous places on Earth, but right now it looks as if we may have pleasant North to Northeasterlies and 15-20 knots. Not bad considering the beating the bay has delivered in the past.

I look forward to getting offshore and sharing the journey with you!

Au revoir,

24 Hours to the Start

Saturday, October 16

Le Pingouin is looking good and the “keys” have officially been passed from my incredible shore based team to me. We’ve cleared all pre-race inspections and met the criteria for the start. The scrutineering is a rather involved process. The sails were all checked in with race officials and to comply with the stability test we had to move the keel back and forth to verify that it does not cause the boat to heel beyond the allowed limit. The displacement of the boat was also confirmed by measuring freeboard.

Today was filled with the last activities in prep for the start on Sunday. This included shopping for fresh provisions to accompany my staple diet of AlpineAire dehydrated meals and Grawnola. I’ve packed some fresh fruits, bread, and sausage which will be nice treats for the first week offshore. Other than the shopping I put my head around the lifestyle onboard for the race, so we cleaned the boat, took any unnecessary weight off, added sleeping bags and double checked utility items like flashlights. It is somewhat of a “pre-launch” sequence to make sure I am ready to roll tomorrow. The tiniest detail can in fact throw you for a loop. In 2002 I forgot a hairbrush and spent 40 days forking my hair.

Every racer has their own way of preparing for the adjustment from life on land to the solo racing lifestyle onboard. My fellow competitor Chris from England has already started torturing himself a bit with sleep deprivation and the transition to sleeping in small bits. My philosophy is more like jumping into a cold pool. I’m not very good at doing things slowly, so I go straight from a pretty standard schedule on land to the intensity of 25 minute naps and a total of about 4 hours sleep in each 24 hour period. The first 24-48 hours is tough and I won’t sleep. I tend to knock myself into exhaustion mode in those first couple days at sea. The first 5 days at sea tends to feel like 1/3 of the journey. The next 5 days feels like another 1/3. From there on out the pain has a nice settling affect and I hit my groove. This is all of course based on my past experience of solo races around the world in 1998/99 and 2002/3 and ocean crossings before and after those epic events. We’ll have to see if the VELUX 5 OCEANS of 2010-11 changes those patterns.

I’ll be sending one more blog as a Sunday treat, and then it is on the boat and on my way to Cape Town. Thanks for checking in and please do continue, as the stories will get more interesting as the race begins!


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Competition Strong and Talent Runs Deep

The competition in this race will be as intense as anything I have faced before. Some have asked me about the number of entries and suggested that fewer boats might equal less intense competition. Not so. The racers that are here in La Rochelle appear 100% committed and the talent runs deep.

Here’s a quick look at the competition I face:

Derek Hatfield cannot be underestimated as a serious threat, sailing a boat that has previously beaten my Le Pingouin on many occasions. During the 2002-3 Around Alone, Derek’s boat (then sailed by Thierry Dubois) smoked Le Pingouin (then sailed by Simone Bianchetti) in every leg of the race. Derek is a man on a mission in his third solo race around the world. He is determined to have a successful voyage following a valiant sail in the Vendee Globe that ended exactly half way around with damage to his rig.

Gutek Gutkowski from Poland is determined. He is a strapping strong guy with experience. He ran the ORMA 60 Bonduelle and also served as Watch Captain onboard WARTA-POLPHARMA in The Race, the non-stop race around the world for multihulls. He appears totally determined and would be the first Polish sailor to race solo around the world. He also has a hefty load of inshore racing experience, a strong team on land and a new sponsor.

Chris Stanmore-Major will be an interesting challenge. He is super focused and intense. Having just finished captaining one of the Clipper Round the World boats, his skin’s still wet and his oillies (foul weather gear to those in the US) still smell. That can be an advantage, having been in the offshore mindset so recently for a complete circumnavigation. He is confident and has a strong look of intent, which reminds me a bit of me when I took on my first solo race around in 1998-99. Chris is no underdog though, sailing the champion boat Giovanni Soldini won the race with in 1999.

Christophe Bullens may have been the best prepared of all entries, until the devastating loss of his rig and sails on his way to the start. He completed his qualifying sail before anyone else, and seemed to have ample time training with his boat. With no time to repair the boat he intended to sail, he is faced with looking at other ECO-60 boats end how race-ready they might be. The guy was a tank Commander in the military for eight years and sails 10,000 miles per year, so his boat maybe a wild card, but he appears ready to race. I hope he finds a race boat that he is comfortable and confident racing.

So there you have it. My brief and personal look at those that are here to face 30,000 miles at sea alone in the VELUX 5 OCEANS. Some have done it before; others are new to the game. All appear steadfast in their intent to compete hard and win. I’m sure we will learn more as the race gets underway and we are all challenged by the elements. If you have not been checking the race website at there are some great news stories, photos and videos posted everyday.

Cheers and stay tuned as we get closer to Sunday’s start,


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pace is Picking Up

The pace is getting faster as time marches forward. The start of the race is within sight at only eleven days away. The race village is taking shape. Tents surround the waterfront, with the Velux House as a central attraction adjacent to the race boats here in La Rochelle. It is a delicate balance right now between the logistics that go into preparing to start a 30,000 solo race around the globe and the emotions to do the same. The bottom line is that in less than two weeks I will depart here and head out with not just a goal to sail from France to South Africa as the first sprint of the race, but leave my children, Tate and Wyatt, and all the comforts of life on land.

On the technical side, we hauled the boat last week to work on one of the rudder bearings. We anticipated putting her back in the water this week, but the weather forecast changed enough that we had to rush and get the boat re-launched in front of a significant rain and wind storm.  We have been looking over everything onboard with a fine tooth comb and have the running rigging work complete, as well as the sails getting a thorough check in the loft.  The engine and charging system have been serviced.  There are a lot of moving parts, and with our small team it is important to stay in tune with how the work list looks when positioned beside the timeline.  I am busy in a few different directions and need to juggle training, scrutineering by the race committee, boat prep, family and several other areas.

The unfortunate news of the day is that Cristophe from Belgium has dismasted while delivering his boat to La Rochelle for the start of the race. This is a really big bummer as he was the first qualified racer and had accumulated more experience on his boat than any of us.

As we used to say at USC (that is So Cal for those reading from Charleston)… Fight On!

We’ll be back with more news shortly,