Skip to main content
Original Issue

Lone Star A solo Swiss sailor circled the globe, weathering icebergs and the dreaded Doldrums, to win the Around Alone race

At 5:55 a.m., the first of May, five miles off Newport, a lone
sail suddenly appeared on the southern horizon, sending a buzz
through the spectator boats. Switzerland's Bernard Stamm, the
approaching craft's skipper, soon came into view, his light brown
curls framing a relaxed and weather-beaten face. His nearest
competitor was a day and a half behind, and Stamm's 60-foot
monohull, Bobst Group/Armor-lux, was set on autopilot, with
28,750 miles behind her and just those five miles left to go. The
blunt bow of the dark-blue hull cut wakelessly through the choppy
seas as the slight Stamm, 39, grinned rakishly for the cameras, unfurling a Swiss flag.

"Le champion! Magnifique!" one of several dozen Swiss fans yelled
as Stamm spread his arms as wide as they could go. On his right
arm he wore a tattoo, the translation of which is: Born to be a
sailor. Who knew that landlocked Switzerland was such a nation of
seamen? First the America's Cup. Now the Around Alone race, a
grueling single-handed test that started in New York City last
Sept. 15 and proceeded around the world in five legs. Across the
Atlantic to Torbay, England; down to Cape Town, South Africa;
across the Southern Ocean to Tauranga, New Zealand; around Cape
Horn to Salvador, Brazil; then up the coast of the Americas to
the finish in Newport.

Just before the start of the final leg, at home in Loctudy,
France, Stamm's partner, Catherine, had given birth to their
second daughter, Camille, a younger sister to four-year-old
Chloe. Now Stamm, who'd only seen digitally transmitted pictures
of his new baby, was minutes from his first major ocean-racing
win on the boat he had built with his own two hands and the help
of a village of volunteers. His total elapsed time, including a
48-hour penalty for putting ashore for repairs, was 115 days, 18
hours, 27 minutes and 23 seconds--more than 25 hours faster than
the previous record, on a course that was 13% longer. Stamm's
outstretched arms said it all: It doesn't get any better than this.

The Around Alone race was celebrating its 20th year. Its roots go
back to the 1982-83 BOC Challenge, the first round-the-world,
multi-leg, single-handed race, and it has been held every four
years since. While the race has lost its title sponsor, the
Around Alone commands a passionate following in Europe,
particularly in France, where the yachts' progress is charted on
the evening news. "It is a race for dreamers, and we admire
dreamers," said a French journalist, one of dozens awaiting Stamm
in Newport.

The 13 entrants in the Around Alone could be classified in one of
two categories: those who wanted to win and those who just wanted
to finish. As of Sunday three boats had retired from the race,
and one, Spirit of Canada, sailed by Derek Hatfield, was still on
Leg 5, 4,000 miles in arrears. Hatfield's yacht had been
pitchpoled and dismasted while rounding Cape Horn in 70-knot
winds and 50-foot seas. He was on deck when it happened, tethered
to a lifeline, and was fortunate to have survived. The boat,
which took about four weeks to repair, is once again under sail
and expected to arrive in Newport late this month.

Generally, any entrant hoping to win needs a well-heeled
corporate backer, someone who can provide a new or refitted boat,
new sails and technology, and a crack support team to repair the
damages after each leg. Such a campaign costs up to $4 million.
Those who enter for the adventure, and to see if they can finish,
are often self-financed and operate on a shoestring budget. They
beg, borrow and spend what they are able.

Both types of entries are in keeping with the spirit of the
Around Alone. The charismatic Stamm, of course, belonged to the
group seeking to win. But when he started construction on his
boat, in 1997, he was firmly in the camp of those sailing on a
shoestring. A onetime lumberjack who grew up sailing on Lake
Geneva, Stamm had been bit by the single-handed bug after moving
to a small town in Brittany called Lesconil. "When you don't have
money, it's easier to sail alone," Stamm said, drinking coffee
and beginning to give in blissfully to exhaustion shortly after
his arrival in Newport.

The people of Lesconil adopted Stamm, letting him use a boathouse
owned by their yacht club to build his 60-foot racing machine
from a design by Pierre Rolland. They organized fund-raisers.
Local cabinetmakers and carpenters lent him tools and their time.
Painters and pipe fitters pitched in. Restaurants delivered food
to the workers. This went on for more than two years, and in
February 2000 the boat was launched, christened Superbigou.
(Bigou is a slang term for a Brittany native.)

That November, Stamm entered the Vendee Globe, a nonstop
single-handed round-the-world race, but after leading in the
early going he retired when his autopilot failed. The next year,
however, Stamm set two important monohull records in his
boat--rechristened Bobst Group/Armor-lux in honor of his
corporate sponsors--that confirmed he had built a rocket ship. He
set the transatlantic crossing record of eight days, 20 hours, 55
minutes and 35 seconds, sailing with a three-man crew, and he
established the 24-hour speed record, covering 467.1 miles in one
day. Stamm entered the Around Alone determined to win.

His weather strategy was basically to sail into the teeth of
every low pressure area he could find on the theory that the
wilder the winds blew, the faster he would go. The theory was
sound, if dangerous. Bobst Group/Armor-lux completed the first
leg in 10 days, 22 hours, 18 minutes and 38 seconds, setting a
new single-handed transatlantic crossing record and finishing
almost 11 hours ahead of the second-place yacht, Solidaires,
sailed by Frenchman Thierry Dubois.

Stamm won the second leg, too. It wasn't until the third leg,
through the Southern Ocean, that the sanity of his
sail-to-the-weather theory was put to the test. There the low
pressure was all to the south. Iceberg country. Steering a more
southerly course than the rest of the fleet, Stamm reached a
speed of 33 knots. He'd never before raced in the roaring 40s
(seas along and below the 40th parallel) and the sensation of
surfing 40-foot waves was a high point for Stamm. Asked if he
wasn't worried about icebergs, he shrugged, "I saw one, too late,
that the radar didn't pick up, just off the beam. It's Russian
roulette in the Southern Ocean. Even more dangerous are the
'growlers,' the ice floating just beneath the surface. There's
fog, big winds, high waves, and you're going so fast you have no
chance to see anything ahead of the boat. So you hope for the
best. Very cold. Very wet. I love this place. This is the best
part of the race."

Not everyone agrees. Brad Van Liew, 35, the American who on
Sunday sailed his yacht Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America into
Newport to win the Class 2 division for yachts with a maximum
length of 50 feet, thinks he may have seen the last of the perils
of the Southern Ocean. The only American to finish the 1998-99
Around Alone, Van Liew, who once ran an executive air charter
business in Santa Monica, Calif., dominated the class, winning
all five legs. He is clearly America's best single-handed sailor.
But Van Liew discovered that his thinking had changed after the
birth of his first daughter, Tate Magellan Van Liew, five months
before the start. "Since I became a father, I've asked myself how
much right I have to continue to put myself in harm's way," he
said via satellite phone last week as he worked his way through
fluky winds toward Newport. "I was dismasted in the 1998-99 race,
and while nothing that catastrophic's happened this trip, I've
had a number of hair-raising moments. I rolled the boat upside
down. I had to climb to the top of the 73-foot mast in the
Southern Ocean. The mast has been in the water literally dozens
and dozens of times. Bernard and I have talked a lot about this,
and we have similar techniques. You have to push the envelope all
the time if you're trying to win. I call it 'crash and sail.'
You're continually getting knocked down and picking up the
pieces. But it's what I love about the race. It's a hybrid
between Formula One racing and climbing Everest, a combination of
engineering, race tactics and survival. You don't get much sleep,
I'll tell you that."

Indeed, sleep for these sailors comes in 20-to 30-minute snatches
a dozen times a day. Stamm says he gets far more sleep--as much
as eight hours at a stretch--in the stormy seas of the Southern
Ocean, when the boat is flying downwind. That's when he can
relax. It's in the dreaded, windless Doldrums around the equator
that he can't rest for more than an hour or two a day, always
scanning the horizon for a breath of wind. "I like speed," Stamm
says. "Mentally, the Doldrums are the worst. You feel very tiny
when the sea is flat like a table, and the ocean seems very

Perhaps. But last Thursday morning, lighting two celebratory red
flares as he crossed the finish line at the Castle Hill
lighthouse, this small Swiss sailor looked every bit a giant
conqueror of the sea.

COLOR PHOTO: MARCEL MOCHET/AFP POP TOP Stamm led for all five legs of the race.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROY RILEY/MARINEPICS TAKE A BOW Stamm set the record for a solo monohull transatlantic crossing: 10 days, 22 hours, 18 minutes and 38 seconds.

COLOR PHOTO: BILLY BLACK AMERICA'S CAP Van Liew again stamped himself as the U.S.'s best solo sailor, winning all five legs in the Class 2 division.

COLOR PHOTO: BILLY BLACK SHEET MUSIC France's Dubois, who dedicated his sailing to the cause of human rights and was second in the race's first leg, brought his boat, Solidaires, home in the runner-up spot.

"You're continually getting knocked down and picking up the
pieces," says Van Liew. "I CALL IT 'CRASH AND SAIL.'"