Sailors are bracing for the arrival in Norfolk this weekend of one of the bravest and most accomplished offshore skippers on earth. When Bernard Stamm rolls in, probably sometime Saturday, it will mark the end of 14,250 hard miles at sea, alone in a scary-fast sailboat.
Stamm, 43, left Fremantle, Australia, on Jan. 14 in his 60-foot race boat, Cheminees Poujoulat. In the month and a half since, he has singlehandedly tackled the fierce Southern Ocean, sailing south of Australia, New Zealand and feared Cape Horn at the tip of South America before turning north past the Falkland Islands and up to the steamy doldrums and across the equator to the North American coast.
The singlehanded Velux 5 Oceans Race, which the Swiss skipper now leads by a huge margin, started with seven entries in Bilbao, Spain, on Oct. 22. The first leg took the adventurers 12,000 miles around the tip of Africa to Fremantle, on Australia's west coast. Only five skippers completed the leg.
Stamm and his rivals sailed out of the starting gate into a wild storm with 70 knots of wind in the Bay of Biscay, a notorious patch of dangerous water off the Spanish coast. Only he and Japanese skipper Kojiro Shiraishi, now in second place, were able to weather the tempest without putting into port for repairs.
By the time the boats rounded the Cape of Good Hope off South Africa, two highly rated British rivals were back in the hunt. Solo racing veterans Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss and Mike Golding on Ecover were in striking range of Stamm and just a few miles apart when Thomson's keel came loose.
In strong winds, Golding went to the rescue, plucked Thomson off his foundering vessel, then resumed racing. Within hours, Golding also too was out of the running when his mast broke in two places and crashed to the deck.
The duo sailed 1,000 miles to Cape Town under jury rig, where Golding retired and the field was down to five. Stamm arrived in Fremantle three days ahead of Shiraishi.
After the restart in October, the Japanese skipper hung close to Stamm until a bit of bad luck set him back off the southern tip of New Zealand. "Koji got stuck in a light-air, high-pressure system that Bernard managed to avoid," said race spokesman Tim Kelly. "It opened up a big gap."
Now, as Stamm charges north up the U.S. coast, clicking off 300-mile days one after another, he has a lead of almost a week on Shiraishi, and several days more on the other three contenders. If he holds on to win the race after the final dash across the Atlantic to the start/finish at Bilbao, it will mark Stamm's second straight victory in the venerable race, successor to the BOC and Around-Alone challenges, which date from 1982.
Stamm, who is known for his toughness and meticulous preparation, built his 9-ton, carbon fiber race boat himself. In a transatlantic race in 2004, its canting keel broke off and the boat capsized 400 miles off Newfoundland. He was rescued by a passing freighter, which took him to St. Johns where he organized a salvage operation using an ice-breaking tug.
Stamm himself dived under the boat to cut away the mast so the tug could tow the hull back to port. Two years later, the rebuilding of Cheminees Poujoulat was complete and it was ready for the Velux 5 Oceans.
The Norfolk stopover will be the first of its kind for the Virginia port city. Officials there are arranging a four-day festival from April 11to 15 at the race village, which is alongside the Hooters restaurant at Waterside Marina downtown. The restart is scheduled for 1 p.m. April 15 off Hampton Roads. Fans can follow the race daily on the Web site