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American sailor makes Vendee history

Bruce Schwab needed a lot of Yankee ingenuity and staying power to accomplish the feat

Sailor and professional rigger Bruce Schwab, the first American to finish a Vendee Globe, is no quitter.

Schwab’s 60-foot Ocean Planet finished the 28,000-mile single-handed race ninth out of a fleet of 20 starters. Only 13 crossed the finish; Schwab in just under 110 days. The time is a new American solo nonstop around-the-world record — but still 22 days behind Vincent Riou, winner of the 2004-’05 Vendee, “The Everest of Sailing.”

“Given our resources, I think that what we did was fantastic,” says Schwab, a San Francisco Bay sailor who has relocated to Maine. The fact that he started at all says a lot about his grit.

Chronically underfunded and with no major sponsor, Schwab relied on the kindness of friends, family — and strangers — to help keep him in the game. In France for the start, he didn’t even have enough money to buy a full set of sails until a French benefactor loanedhim $50,000. Many lent him money — some their life savings, he says — so he could sail an uninsured boat around the world.

They stuck their neck way out for him.

“There is no way I should have done this,” he says. “I’m proud I never gave up.” And he’s thankful for the help he got along the way.

Schwab crossed the finish off Les Sables d’Olonne, France, Feb. 25 with a time of 109 days 19 hours 58 minutes and 57 seconds, covering a distance of 28,112 miles with an average speed of 10.66 knots.

He remembers some close calls. The step of Ocean Planet’s unstayed mast popped out five days into the race. It had been epoxied in place, so he manufactured four hefty pins out of drill bits to re-secure it. He had to keep patching his rudder boot to stop a bad leak. And the weather? “Probably the worst I had was near Cape Town off South Africa,” he says. A depression pounded him with 55-knot winds.

But Schwab was prepared for that. He was not as prepared for the speed of the latest generation of Open 60s, his competition. They out-sailed his four-year-old design, built for the 2002-’03 Around Alone.

“The pace of the race was a real surprise,” he says. “But like all races the level seems to go up a notch each time. Four years ago, Ocean Planet was on a par with boats like Hellomoto and Kingfisher, and now four years on we have [lost] speed to boats like Ecover and PRB. … We did a good job, but we are just four years too late!”

From the start Schwab’s campaign was different. His Ocean Planet is a radically designed wood-and-epoxy Open 60 with narrow beam and unstayed rig, and a much cheaper alternative to the light, beamy, overpowered, carbon-fiber Finots that dominate the class. Built for half the price of a Finot, Ocean Planet opens the world of single-handed around-the-world racing to more sailors, he says. A collaborativedesign of Steve Rander’s Schooner Creek Boatworks in Portland, Ore., and naval architect Thomas Wylie, the Ocean Planet design remains an avenue for sailors to get into the race on a tight budget.

“It is easy to sail, safe, reliable and also inexpensive,” he says.

Up to his eyeballs in debt, Schwab needed financial help to move Ocean Planet from France back to its hom eport in Portland, Maine. After the boat gets home, he plans to start fundraising again to pay off his debts. He’ll be traveling the country telling his Vendee Globe story. He says it is as much a story of relationships as it is adventure and winning. He was especially touched by the encouragement he received from schoolchildren who followed him daily on his educational Web site.

Given the chance, he says he would like to help organize someone else’s single-handed campaign now. His own around-the-world racing days are probably over. “Doing it over and over, that’s just asking for trouble,” he says. “It’s like rolling the dice to me.”

Only two Americans, including Schwab, have sailed solo non-stop around the world. The other is Dodge Morgan, of Harpswell, Maine, who did a non-stop solo circumnavigation in 1986 in his boat American Promise.

Morgan’s journey took 150 days.