It was Thursday afternoon here. Nighttime out in the North Atlantic off the coast of France, where Oakland's Bruce Schwab was sailing at a brisk clip of 7 knots under a dark and cold sky, all alone aboard his 60-foot sailboat, Ocean Planet. About 47 miles from the French harbor Les Sables d'Olonne. Within tasting distance of success.
But a squall was on the approach, slowing him down, the Planet's sails filling like puffed cheeks, a briny spray curling across its bow.
After 110 days circumnavigating the Earth on a 25,000-mile course, it was Schwab's last night at sea in the prestigious Vendee Globe a nonstop, solo, around-the-world, endurance ocean race beginning and ending in France, and known as one of the most difficult sailing competitions in the world.
By now, the 44-year-old Schwab is probably at Les Sables d'Olonne, reclaiming his land legs, being feted as only the French can fete, and becoming the first American officially to complete the European-dominated race.Oakland man ending solo globe-trotting ocean voyage
He won't be in first place. The winner, France's Vincent Riou, sailed in about three weeks ago. Yet Schwab is far from last. He'll be coming in ninth out of the 20 boats that set out on this journey Nov. 7. The next boat is about 1,000 ocean miles behind him.
But on Thursday, the waves were still taking a swing at him, headwinds shoving him around
"It looks like a pretty good squall on the radar," he said. "I've been going about 7 knots, but we've got this little rain squall here. It'll go over, and then poof. Nothing. And we'll be going 2 knots."
"I mean, me and the boat and the guitar and Rocky the Lobster and Priscilla the Penguin," he said. "You know, my stuffed animals."
Ah. Must be the natural sanity-saving response to months of solitude at sea. "I'm definitely ready for land," Schwab said, the hull creaking in the background. Or was that Priscilla?
"It's been a long trip. Tomorrow it's 110 or 111 days, I think. Whatever it is, it'll be a record," he said. "I'm the only American. It's mostly money lack of funds that keeps people out. I'm just incredibly stubborn."
Indeed, there was only one other American to ever complete the Vendee Globe, but he was disqualified for getting assistance during the 1989-1990 event. That's against the rules. You have to do this on your own.
When Schwab makes land, it will not just be the end of a three-month voyage, he said, but of more than a decade's work. A lifetime's, no less.
Schwab grew up sailing and has lived and raced in the Bay Area for 20 years. He is a member of San Francisco Bay's Single-handed Sailing Society and has won nearly every West Coast single-handed race there is. As a professional rigger, he ran Svendsen's Marine Store in Alameda for about two decades, leaving in 1999 to begin work on the Vendee Globe project.
Schwab lives in Oakland with his wife, Jeannie, but has spent much of the past year in Portland, Maine, preparing the boat.
"This all started the end of'99, with the long job of creating the boat, raising money, getting sponsors," he said. "Jeannie's been putting up with it for years and years. I say she has the patience of a glacier."
He plans to return to Oakland in March.
During the race, Schwab posted daily log reports on the Internet, where friends, supporters and schoolchildren from all over the world have been following his voyage. His Web site is www.oceanplanet.org.
And what a journey to report. He's faced black squalls blowing down the horizon, the lulls of the doldrums, the Roaring Forties of the hostile Southern Ocean. He's filmed dolphins, patched leaks, bailed water after getting smacked by huge waves, repaired his backup autopilot and secured the mast after a wave knocked it out of place.
Ocean Planet was stuffed full of safety gear and flares and navigational equipment, not to mention food.
"Mostly freeze-dried," Schwab said. "But I have a lot of olive oil and Tabasco and spices to spruce things up."
The course route took him around the tip of South Africa, across the globe, around South America and finally back up to France.
"Some of the storms three or four were pretty bad," Schwab said. "I usually managed to stay out of the way. You have to flow with the punches, position yourself not to get completely pummeled. But that one down in the South Atlantic it got to the point that I was not racing anymore. I was just trying to survive.
"But there have been some amazing moments, too," he said. "The start of the race was unbelievable. There were about 300,000 people there and boats lining the channel. Huge waves of humanity cheering. I had visited a classroom, and the whole class was there and unrolled a big banner that said 'In Bruce We Trust.' That was something to remember."
He looks forward to today's arrival, planning to be there this morning no matter what.
"Even if I have to use my guitar as a paddle," he said.