Brad Van Liew and the Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America campaign have proven to be one of the most formidable teams to ever compete in the Around Alone.
Before setting off on the last leg of the race Brian Hancock sat down with Brad to try and learn a bit more about what makes him tick and how he has come to dominate Class 2.
Q. You said when you finished this leg that for the first time since this campaign started that you felt you might be able to win this thing. Was it important to get out of the Southern Ocean before you felt that way, or do you feel that the boat is now really sorted and this next leg is going to be relatively easy?
A. I think this next leg is just a different priority. None of the legs are easy. There is no question that in terms of completing the race and achieving your goal and finishing the circumnavigation that Leg 4 was the big mama. It was the longest, the roughest and toughest to prepare for with Cape Horn in the middle of it, but things did start to feel different after Cape Horn. Even though we still had half the leg left to sail, at least in terms of time, it started to feel as if we were finally over the hill instead of still climbing towards the summit. Once the big westerly frontal activity finally subsided north of the Falkland islands I felt like we were really on our way home and I could relax a little, not that you ever really relax, but the real tough and dangerous part of the race was behind us and I could concentrate on the last leg and winning the race.
Q. Four years ago you were dismasted at the start of the final leg. They were obviously different circumstances on a different boat, but does that memory still haunt you and does it change anything about how you approach this upcoming leg? Are you preparing the boat differently?
A. For the most part the boat is going to be prepared the same as for the other legs. We are going to reduce weight a little bit more than we usually do although the boat is already quite lean and mean. In general the biggest thing we did to reduce my anxieties about the dismasting was done in New Zealand. We completely disassembled the mast and went through every piece of equipment and reassembled it with new lock washers etc to make sure that the rig was 100 percent. We checked every composite fitting, every stainless fitting and replaced some pieces purely on principal. Plus the last dismasting was a delayed byproduct of a rollover that happened just before Cape Horn. I didn't have anything that traumatic happen to the mast this time. This boat is leaps and bounds ahead of my last boat. I also think it's fair to say that the dismasting last time happened in really rough conditions. A Pampero had come through and we were sailing north getting out of Rio de la Plata when the mast came down. The seas were really atrocious. Huge steep waves with no backs to them. For this leg if I have any kind of strategy it's to minimize the wear and tear on the boat and rig so that I don't compromise my gear going into the last thousand miles. From Cape Hatteras north it can be tricky sailing and I want to be sure that I get there with the gear in good condition.
Q. How do you plan to race the next leg? For all practical purposes you just have to arrive in Newport. How you place is irrelevant. Even if you come last in Class 2 you already have enough points to win the race overall, so do you sail the whole way with two reefs and a staysail, or do you push to try and beat some of the open 60s. How do you strike a balance?
A. In some ways the responsible thing to do would be like you said, to keep everything reefed down and to sail conservatively and just get there, but in other ways I think that would also be irresponsible because that's not what I am paid to do. I am a boat racer and I am paid to race the boat. It would not be good for the event or for my sponsors if I just sat on my laurels because I own the points. It's not in the spirit of what we are doing. Plus I think it would drive me nuts. The best thing for me to do would be to sail the boat at a comfortable pace where I am not obliged to push the envelope. This boat in particular has a power band where it likes to sail. If I try and sail too slowly it's uncomfortable and probably bad for the boat. If I sail too fast I might break some things so I will try and let the boat dictate how it wants to be sailed and go along with it. As you said I don't have to win the leg to win the race, but it sure would be nice to have a clean sweep.
Q. You have done a horizon job on your competitors in four straight legs. Granted the competition is not as strong as it was 4 years ago, but you are in fact sailing up with the Class 1 boats. What do you attribute this success to?
A. I think the one lesson that needs to be realized is that the recipe which we created was not really my doing. I have learned a lot from many different campaigns that came before this one. I knew that in order for me to be successful I needed to be able to concentrate on the sailing and decided early on that I needed to have a quality team behind the scenes to take care of the boat. The maintenance team we assembled has been spectacular. The boat is also proven and that helped. There are a lot of contributing factors and we seem to have been able to pull all the positive aspects together into this campaign. We specifically designed the campaign so that would be tough to beat and that's what we have achieved. In some ways it's been unfair ,to my competitors but that's too bad. That's what we wanted, that's what Tommy Hilfiger bought in to and that's what we are delivering.
Q. What past campaigns have you really respected and what skippers have you looked up to and tried to emulate?
A. My real first intro to the sport was through Mile Plant and the legacy of his involvement with this sport has stayed with me throughout my own sailing career. There was a lot of passion in his campaigns and the way he embraced me and involved me in what he was doing at a very early age has really stuck with me. In some ways I also learned from Mike how not to do things. He was not very organized and would leave the dock with the boat not quite ready, but that's how you learn. From a mechanical point of view I think I really learned from Giovanni Soldini and Team Fila. I also learned from them how to create a family atmosphere where everyone got along without politics. From JP Mouligne who won Class 2 four years ago I learned how you really need to stack the odds in your favor before the race starts. His campaign was clear from the beginning that if nothing went wrong he was going to win the race and he did. It was a very important lesson in preparation and dedication. There were plenty of other skippers and teams but those three really stand out.