Sail world solo? Now that’s one tough athlete!

May 31, 2011 3:00 AM

Watching the guys – and gals – preparing for Indianapolis last Sunday, putting on those space helmets with built-in horses’ blinders so they could see only ahead, and remembering the stories in Blood and Smoke, Charlie Leerhsen’s new book on the 500 that I reviewed about the crazies who drove that track 100 years ago and since, I began wondering if they might be the toughest athletes in the world.

Then I got to thinking about the triathlon guys – and gals – who I had watched stretching and bending and limbering up in a hotel lobby on Kona, in the Hawaiian Islands, preparing to swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112, and run 26.2, in succession.

I thought about soccer, running back and forth on those long fields with no breaks, kicking and getting kicked, and the daring practitioners of lacrosse and tough guys of ice hockey.

I gave some thought to jockeys, little guys weighing 100 pounds or a bit more, guiding horses that weigh 1,000 or more, at top speed thru openings just about as wide as the horse.

And then, last week, I read about a guy you never heard of, unless you’re a sailor, but who fits in with, and perhaps over, any of the above.

His name is Brad Van Liew, in his early 40s out of Charleston, S.C. Last Friday he became the first American ever to win the Velux 5 Oceans, a competition that has been ongoing for 30 years.

He did it by sailing around the world on his yacht Le Penguoin, 34,000 miles with eight months at sea.

Alone.

The Velux is for solo sailors, and no American had ever won it. The victory was his first, but not Van Liew’s first such trip. He first did it in 1998 and again in 2002.

Van Liew called the first voyage "great," the second "even better," and this one "a lot of fun," despite riding out vicious Atlantic storms on the last leg, from Charleston to La Rochelle, France, an 18-day jog. He won that leg and all four others, with ports of call in Brazil, New Zealand and South Africa, touching in seven countries in all, covering five oceans.

Where do guys like this come from? California, not surprisingly. He is, according to his biography, "a big guy with a big personality."

Van Liew graduated from college 19 years ago with a degree in real estate development, married his sweetheart Meaghan, also a sailor (who else would endure those kind of trips, home alone for a year and a half?) and has a daughter, Tate Magellan, and a son, Wyatt Bradford.

Van Liew, after buying his yacht in France, modified it, using hydro generators rather than fossil fuel for power.

Stop a minute and give some thought to guiding a boat across five oceans, alone. It isn’t a triathlon. It’s a quintathlon, and mind-boggling. Brad gets my vote.

Times are changing

Last week I asked what was going on at the New York Times, which relegated the Preakness to page 3 in its Sunday edition, devoting the entire front sports page and two near-full pages inside to Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi.

I got an answer to my question from a sports writing friend, who said the new sports editor of the Times was determined to change the thrust of the section’s news, with "page one feature subjects other than New York teams or obvious lead subjects." There would be more, he said, but not on soccer.

He was half right. This last Sunday, a replay, with a huge picture of Messi and his fellow teammates on the champion Barcelona team after they won Europe’s Champion League in London, beating Manchester United 3-1.

Expect curling or croquet next.