Skip to main content

Bluewater family is charmed by Charleston

Is it possible that a fast-paced Californian (okay, Southern Californian) could adapt to the heart of Southern culture in Charleston, S.C.?

Brad Van Liew, 42, a champion solo circumnavigator, and his family decided to try just that in a circular sort of way.

Van Liew, aboard 2002 Around Alone-winning Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America

In fact, Meaghan Van Liew, Brad's wife, can pinpoint her defining moment in Charleston: it came at the lowest point of her husband's first attempt at solo circumnavigation. She was living in the city while her husband was sailing his Open 50, Balance Bar, in the 1998-1999 Around Alone - which left from Charleston, taking the sailors to Cape Town, South Africa, Auckland, New Zealand, and Punta del Este, Uruguay, before finishing back in Charleston. Van Liew had performed well throughout the race, jumping out with the race leaders at the start, pushing hard. "My inexperience was probably good. I didn't realize the level of players."

But on that final leg back to Charleston, "[I left port] with a bone in my teeth, fully pressing the boat," he says.

Balance Bar rolled and was dismasted.

"I called Meaghan," Van Liew continues. "I was totally undone." Meaghan Van Liew sold her car to get to Cape Town to help Brad replace the mast and continue in the race. She returned home without a vehicle. Local sailor and realtor Bunky Wichmann loaned Meaghan a bike, which became her sole means of transportation for three weeks.

"It was spring; everything was in bloom. I discovered Charleston by bike and foot and fell in love." And Brad Van Liew finished third in his class in his first solo ocean race.

Born to race

Brad Van Liew grew up in San Diego wanting to do anything that had to do with the water, particularly ocean racing. Mentored by his uncle, Fred Van Liew - who had an International Ocean Race class two-tonner, Fiddler, in Newport, R.I. - Van Liew learned to race dinghies, then apprenticed with Fiddler's crew. At 13, he competed in his first Newport Bermuda Race, then spent eight years working on raceboats.

He also met Mike Plant, one of America's premier solo sailors, who was later inducted into the Single-Handed Sailors' Hall of Fame for his participation in three circumnavigation races. Van Liew was thrilled to talk to the legend during construction of Plant's new 60-footer, Duracell, for the 1990-91 BOC Challenge.

"I was 19 years old, all fired up, asking all these questions. Mike stared at me," Van Liew says. Plant told the young man, "If you want to know so much about it, just go do it!"

BOC dreams

Van Liew, a University of Southern California student at the time, returned to school dreaming of completing one of the most difficult single-handed races in sailing. Finishing his sophomore year, he packed up his worldly possessions, saying, "I won't be back, I'm going to do the BOC Challenge." In Newport, Van Liew failed. He was too young and couldn't put a campaign together or find sponsors. "I left with my tail between my legs, embarrassing myself."

Van Liew's latest boat will sail in the ECO-60 class, desigend to encourage racers to 'recycle' older race boats. Van Liew's vessel was built in 1998 and was sailed in the 2004 Vendee Gobe by Marc Thiercelin.

Meanwhile, Plant sailed his second BOC, then planned to make his second attempt at the Vendée Globe, a 24,000-mile nonstop circumnavigation from west to east,  passing the five southernmost capes of the Earth. On his way to the race start in France in 1992, Plant disappeared from his new 60-foot sloop Coyote.

"That really shot me down," Van Liew remembers. It diminished his desire to race. Van Liew finished school with a degree in real estate development then took up flying, starting an air charter company with friends.

Enter Meaghan. Since their lives seem larger than life, it's only natural they would meet dramatically during the 1992 Rodney King riots when they both evacuated Los Angeles to a mutual friend's condo in Palm Springs, Calif. Meaghan had earned an MBA in marketing and was working for Burson-Marsteller, a well-known public relations firm.

Around Alone at last

The two quickly became a couple and married in 1996. Van Liew began sharing his dreams of solo racing with Meaghan. She said, "If we're going to do it, let's do it now." His response: "Cool!"

They were going for the 1998-99 Around Alone, the new name for the BOC, a daunting endeavor that can take up to nine months, covering more than 28,000 miles. Van Liew took an unpaid leave of absence from his aviation company, working from San Francisco to put together the campaign. "We threw ourselves on a financial sword," he says.

His first visit to Charleston, S.C., was flying there to buy Allan Nebauer's Open 50 Newcastle Australia, which had sailed in the 1994-95 BOC.

For practice, Van Liew entered the boat in the Newport Bermuda Race. The rudder fell off just hours into the race.

After qualifying in a race to Hawaii, again out of money, the Van Liews headed to Charleston for the 1998 start - if they could find the funds.

En route, Meaghan negotiated a contract with Balance Bar, giving the boat its new name. Her first visit to Charleston entranced her with its size and charm, especially coming from California's "cement jungle" of Los Angeles. "Everyone was so welcoming. People took us in," she says.

The couple rented a place on Folly Beach, but Meaghan loved the downtown. "It has a cosmopolitan appeal, but it's still small." When Van Liew departed on the race, she moved to the third floor of a house on Colonial Lake downtown.

It was in this race that the couple overcame the dismasting for Van Liew to place third in his class. Not only did Meaghan fall in love with Charleston during this time, the experience also cemented Brad and Meaghan as a team that could run a campaign.

Having sold Balance Bar shortly after the race, they made a deal with Van Liew's former competitor, Englishman Mike Garside, to use Ocean 50, Magellan Alpha, and sailed the boat back to Charleston.

Meaghan was back in Los Angeles, pregnant. "It would have been natural to go to Newport, R.I., where Brad had relatives but ... Brad is from San Diego. It would have been too cold." They already had connections in Charleston so it was a good adjustment, she says.

Broke and overdue

Once again, the Van Liews found themselves with no money to refit the boat and little in the way of sponsorships. Meaghan finally came up with a hot prospect, Tommy Hilfiger, but she was too pregnant to fly to the meeting. "We were in a very scary spot," says Van Liew. "Meaghan was overdue; we were dead broke."

Van Liew and his team are preparing his newest vessel for the Velux 5 Oceans 2010-11 Race.

Hilfiger did sponsor the boat and Meaghan went into labor that night, giving birth to Tate Magellan Van Liew.

Van Liew's recollection of the 2002 Around Alone is, "When you're the underdog, as I was before, if you win, great. If you lose, that's what everyone expected," he says. "This time I didn't find my mindset till the day after the race started." But Van Liew became a man with a mission. "I was missing Tate. I wanted to sail like a wild man." He did, winning Class II on every leg, setting a hull speed record - the first American to win the competition since Plant in 1987.

Upon Van Liew's return, the couple sold the boat and made the Lowcountry their permanent home. Ted Turner Jr. approached them with a tall-ship building project and, after first declining, they signed aboard to lead the South Carolina Maritime Heritage Foundation and finish building the Spirit of South Carolina. The 140-foot replica of a real Charleston pilot schooner was launched in March 2007.

"We have an involvement in the community [in Charleston]," says Van Liew. "We're part of the fabric. We've never done that before. It's pretty cool to feel part of something."

Though the foundation keeps them busy, the family occasionally finds time to explore the local waters. "We actually have an ancient 22-foot Aquasport that we affectionately call the 'sandbox,' " says Meaghan. "It has sunk several times for various reasons, but Brad just rebuilt it again with my brother's help. It's great for cruising the local creeks and towing kids in tubes."

The Lazarus Project

At the end of 2009, the Van Liews were maxed out at the South Carolina Maritime Heritage Foundation and looking for something new. Once again, they returned to the solo ocean racing dream.

Van Liew signed on as the first, and so far only, American entry in the Velux 5 Oceans 2010-11 Race - the newest name for the Around Alone - calling this third solo circumnavigation campaign the Lazarus Project. The race covers 30,000 miles in five legs, leaving Oct. 17 from LaRochelle, France. The fleet heads to Cape Town, South Africa, Wellington, New Zealand, and Salvador, Brazil.

The last stop prior to the finish will be Charleston in April 2011.

This race is different for the couple. The title sponsor company, Velux, is encouraging the development of the ECO 60 Class, "the ultimate recycling plan for the older Open 60s," says Van Liew. The entries have been launched prior to January 2003 and can't be heavily modified. Limits are put on the number of sails, of haulouts during the race and onshore crew. Van Liew is trying to complete the entire race using no fossil fuels, relying instead on hydrogenerators and solar panels.

Van Liew bought a 1998 Open 60, Pro-Form, from Marc Thiercelin who sailed it in the 2004 Vendée Globe. The boat is in Charleston undergoing a refit to make the boat "Brad-centric," and has to be back in LaRochelle in September.

Yet again, the Van Liews are operating on a shoestring budget, searching for sponsors. But what will the effect be on the family, now that little brother, Wyatt, has joined Tate?

'Doing a major race with a 7 and a 5 year old will be quite different from a 4 month old," says Meaghan. "Wyatt doesn't really know what to think yet, but I've made Tate the 'official reporter'." They plan to join Van Liew at each port on the race, a promise that came out of the last race to more fully explore opportunities to see new places. Meaghan would like to find someone to home-school the kids who would base the curriculum around where they'll be.

"The kids will miss him terribly. ... Tate has a hard time when he's gone," she says. "But technology now is such a cool thing. ... He'll be able to video-conference with the kids while he's racing. That makes a big difference. Plus there will be the distractions of moving to new places."

Van Liew's family - wife Meaghan, with Tate, 7, and Wyatt, 5, - will meet him at every port during the Velux 5 Oceans 2010-11 Race.

The macho, "wild man" sailor also admits times have changed. "I have mixed emotions. I take seriously being a dad. The kids have totally changed my gung-ho outlook. In the past, I haven't been good about wearing harnesses, financials, family responsibilities ... now it weighs heavily on what I'll do.

"The Antarctic ice cap," he continues, "is changing dramatically. There are big icebergs on the race path and a small one goes right through a carbon hull. I'll try to be as careful as I can.

"The Southern Ocean is a love-hate relationship. I have a knot in my stomach the whole time I'm there, especially sailing alone. But it's exhilarating, especially if you're alone."

His voice takes on a different timbre, more intense with eyes sparkling, "I try to balance emotions, but being an adrenaline junkie is part of the problem. It's different sailing, reaching for days at 25 knots. ... It's just a blast."

Meaghan, however, puts it all into perspective, "It's a family adventure, not a solo adventure."

And they can come home to Charleston.

This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters Section of the June 2010 issue.