Kirsten Neuschäfer has become the first woman ever to win a solo around the world race, finishing first in the Golden Globe Race, having successfully rescued a fellow competitor from his liferaft on the way.

South African solo skipper Kirsten Neuschäfer has won the Golden Globe Race, crossing the finish line off Les Sables d’Olonne at around 2100hrs today after 235 days of racing.

In doing so Neuschäfer has become the first woman ever to win a solo around the world race, and she does so having successfully rescued a fellow competitor from his liferaft off South Africa.

She drifted over the line in zephyr light winds this evening in the evening light, having contended with racing through the Southern Ocean, around the three Great Capes, in her Cape George 36, Minnehaha, with huge spectator fleet welcoming her.

“This is amazing, it’s a once in a lifetime experience,” she said on the dock.

“I didn’t know if I’d win it. I was convinced I’d finish it, but after the Doldrums I thought that’s finished [the chance of winning] for me. I was quite overwhelmed [to learn I’d won] I thought I was going to come in 3rd after Simon [Curwen] and Abhilash [Tomy].”

On being the first woman ever to win a solo around the world race, she said: “I’m very happy, but I entered as a sailor and being a woman is just secondary.”

Kirsten Neuschäfer on her Cape George 36 Minnehaha”
Credit: Kirsten Neuschäfer / GGR2022

Neuschäfer went into the race as one of the hotly tipped skippers to watch, and has either held – or duelled for – the lead since Simon Curwen pulled into Chile in late January.

Her nearest competitor, Abhilash Tomy, is some 100 miles behind her, the pair having raced up the Atlantic in a remarkably close match – all the more remarkable given that neither knew each other’s position. In fact, until she saw the large spectator fleet welcoming her outside Les Sables d’Olonne, Neuschäfer did not even know she was in the lead.

Neuschäfer is one of just three skippers racing around the world solo, two more – including Simon Curwen, who crossed the line earlier today – were in ‘Chichester ‘ division (named after Sir Francis Chichester’s 1966-67 solo circumnavigation which included a stopover in Sydney).

Before entering the Golden Globe Race, Neuschäfer worked for legendary skipper Skip Novak, both crewing and skippering his expedition yachts in high latitudes. This gave her invaluable experience of sailing in the deepest Southern Oceans.

Kirsten Neuschäfer arriving in Les Sables d’Olonne as winner of the Golden Globe Race 2022/23. Photo: GGR2022

Her preparation for the race was complicated by covid lockdown, and having bought her 1988 Cape George cutter in Newfoundland she spent a winter in Prince Edward Island near Nova Scotia putting the boat through a thorough refit. 

She then delivered it solo home to Cape Town, practising her celestial navigation on the way, and then to France. Once gathered alongside the other Golden Globe Race competitors, Minnehaha quickly proved itself as one of the fastest boats in the fleet.

While Simon Curwen stole an early lead on the fleet, Neuschäfer, along with Tomy and Finnish skipper Tapio Lehtinen became a pack of three as they entered the Southern Indian Ocean. Then, on November 19, Lehtinen notified race control that his boat had suddenly sunk, and he was in a liferaft. Race organisers raised the alarm with fellow competitors and Kirsten Neuschafer, then in 3rd place, was nearest, around 105 miles south-west.

Neuschäfer made best speed to Lehtinen’s last known position, hand-steering through the night, and 24 hours after he abandoned ship Minnehaha arrived at his position. She executed a textbook solo recovery, 

Lehtinen described the manoeuvre: “She furled in the genoa, lowered the main, started the engine and approached the raft to windward of me so I could throw the throwing line to her, which she put around a winch and pulled me alongside.

“I was able to climb onboard Minnehaha with her help. It was great!”

Fellow Golden Globe Race skipper Kirsten Neuschafer was the first on the scene, rescuing Tapio Lehtinen from his liferaft before he was transferred to the Darya Gayatri. Credit: Anglo Eastern

The pair shared a hug, chocolate and a tot of rum, meanwhile a bulk carrier, the Darya Gayatri approached. Neuschäfer then manoeuvred Minnehaha into the lee of the carrier ship – an incredibly skilful piece of positioning with the ever present risk of clattering her own rig into the ship’s high sides. Once throwing lines were secured, Lehtinen got back into the liferaft and transferred to the ship. Neuschäfer continued on with her race. She was awarded 35 hours of redress for the rescue. 

The remainder of Neuschäfer’s race was not without drama – damage to her spinnaker pole meant she was limited in her headsail selection, and with very limited weather data she had a grindingly slow passage north through the Atlantic. 

However, her win today makes history as the first female skipper ever to win a solo round the world race. Women have won in crewed around the world races – in the last edition of the Volvo Ocean Race, two female crew, Caroline Brouwer and Marie Riou were part of the winning Dongfeng Race Team. In the 2017/18 Clipper Round the World Race Wendy Tuck skippered the winning boat, while Nikki Henderson skippered the boat in 2nd.

Most famously, Ellen MacArthur set a solo non-stop around the world record in 2004, having finished 2nd in 2000/01 Vendée Globe – a finish place yet to be matched by another female skipper. Clarisse Cremer currently holds the record for the fastest solo non-stop around the world time for a female sailor, completing the last Vendée Globe in 87 days, 2 hours and 24 minutes. But none have won a solo around the world race.

Neuschaffer’s time may be considerably slower, but the Golden Globe Race is inarguably one of the toughest sporting events in existence and the skill she demonstrated throughout places her name firmly alongside the greats of ocean racing.

Neuschafer was greeted by Catherine Chabaud, the first female sailor to race solo non stop around the world without assistance. Credit: GGR2022

As Samantha Davies, Vendée Globe and Ocean Race sailor posted: “This is just amazing! So happy to have followed this crazy race and see an incredibly talented female skipper come in to win overall, with a 24h time bonus for having saved a fellow competitor during the race. Just incredible seamanship! I am in awe.”