Cole Brauer is the first American woman to sail solo non-stop around the world. Helen Fretter finds out how she's shaking things up.

The first Saturday in November was laundry day for Cole Brauer. One week into her single-handed around the world race, the Global Solo Challenge, the 29-year-old washed her smalls in a bucket, clipped them onto the lifelines of the Class 40 First Light, and posted a light-hearted video about it, hair in a towel, spa-style, with a confetti of underwear fluttering behind her.

Eyebrows were raised. Offshore skippers don’t usually share quite so much. Not only was Brauer going to put it all out there, but she was going to tell her story her own way – humorously, honestly, unashamedly feminine.

Over Brauer’s 130 days at sea her Instagram account became a juggernaut that built to nearly half a million followers. Many had no idea what sailing around the world actually entails.

But Brauer’s race wasn’t just a publicity stunt. She set out to become the first American woman to sail non-stop around the world, and did so in one of the most gruelling ocean races.

Brauer finishing at A Coruña.

Finishing at A Coruña. Photo: Alvaro Sanchis

The Global Solo Challenge is a pursuit format with boats’ start times staggered according to their handicap – for Brauer’s 2008 Class 40, that meant a 29 October start.

It also means that rather than sailing with a pack, skippers are alone for the vast majority of the race, picking off slower opposition ahead, then slogging their way across the oceans without the reassurance of any fellow competitors nearby.

Of 16 starters, nine have retired. Boats were rolled, dismasted, one skipper had to abandon ship after a near-sinking. Brauer was the only woman and youngest competitor.

Sailing an IMOCA with the Magenta Project.

Sailing an IMOCA with the Magenta Project. Photo: Richard Mardens

When she finished in A Coruña on 7 March, her time of 130d 2h 45m set a new benchmark as the fastest solo non-stop around the world on a 40ft yacht. It was 17 days quicker than the winner, Philip Delamare, who had set off a month earlier.

Yet Cole did not grow up in the sailing world. Following her rapturous reception in Spain, she flew home to the States and – after speaking on prime time television and meeting Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House – went back to living in her van. So how on earth did she get there?

Cole Brauer’s Hawaii days

Brauer, and her twin sister, Dalton, grew up in Long Island. Her parents were determined their daughters should be able to hold their own, intentionally giving them gender-neutral names.

“My parents met in a gym,” Brauer recalled. “My dad was a rower, triathlete and cyclist. My mom a cyclist, kayaker and trail runner. My parents pushed me extremely hard in cycling, rock climbing and running. All other sports were not sports, and not as respected.

“Throughout school we had physical fitness tests. My dad looked at the boys’ metric and threw the girls’ metric out. He said, if the boys can do it, you can too. We started with pull-ups; I was already a rock climber and avid tree climber [so] pull-ups came easy. But he wanted me to make sure I did more than any of the boys.”

Cole grinning in sunglasses with an American flag flying behind.

‘The majority of my followers don’t even know it was a race’ Photo: James Tomlinson

Sailing wasn’t on her radar until she went to the University of Hawaii, where she studied nutritional science and took up dinghy racing. “Maybe because I didn’t grow up sailing, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as professional sailors. It was very relaxed,” she said.

“Being in the University of Hawaii, we’re our own separate little bubble. I was just trying to be the best that I could be in Hawaii. Then I wanted to see if I can be the best that I can be in my hometown, on the East Coast.”

After graduating she returned home to make a life-changing decision. “I had a choice between going to medical school or working at a yacht club teaching sailing. And my parents did not see these on the same level at all! My dad didn’t speak to me for six months. He was so upset because, of course, I chose to work as a sailing instructor teaching Opti’s.

“Then everything after that was me asking for work. So everywhere I went, I would say, ‘Hey, if you need a small worker bee…’ [Brauer is 5ft 2in], just to clean the bilges or scrub the bottom of the boat and whatnot. Everyone needs a worker bee. I met all these famous sailors because I was the one that was polishing the stainless on a cruising boat, but next to a TP52. I just wanted to be in that world. And it didn’t matter if I never made it.”

Living in her van in Newport, Rhode Island, she would sneak into the elegant New York Yacht Club for showers. “But I was very much accepted. I love fashion, so I can blend in. And I can get along with a lot of people. So I kind of weaselled my way in, by being friendly and open and not looking like a professional sailor.”

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Working up

Brauer secured her 100 Ton captain’s licence in 2018, and kept grafting. “I said yes to just about every job that I could. And it didn’t matter if it was paid in food or if it was paid $800 a day, I was going to say yes to everything.

“You make families and connections so quickly if you are open to that. I think I just walked into every job as if it was a tryout. And then you’re invited back.”

Pre-race prep in A Coruña.

Pre-race prep in A Coruña. Photo: James Tomlinson

Her sailing CV lists seasons spent racing as bowman on keelboats like J/70s and Melges, crewing deliveries, and boat work doing winterisation and pre-season prep. But it was the Class 40 fleet which offered her biggest breakthroughs – first as a boat captain, then as a co-skipper racing double-handed.

“Short-handed sailing was the only place that was giving me opportunities. Nobody wanted the little 100-pound 23-year-old girl on their fully crewed boat because I’m small and it takes me extra steps to do things. I can’t just pick up the sails and throw them around. I create a pulley system and I drag the sails around. You just have to figure out other ways to do the same things that the big guys are doing. I have to show up earlier, and I have to stay later, but I don’t mind. In short-handed sailing, you have to be able to compromise.”

After some racing successes, including winning the Bermuda 1-2 short-handed race, she secured dream backers – a private family, with a history of supporting women athletes. They bought First Light (ex-Dragon), the Owen Clarke Class 40 she’d successfully raced with previous owner Michael Hennessy, and hatched a plan.

Brauer grinning with a beanie on.

Photo: James Tomlinson

In big transatlantic races like the Transat Jacques Vabre, First Light would not have been competitive against latest generation 40s. The Global Solo Challenge offered different opportunities: the chance to be one of the newer and most competitive boats, and to bid for the US record.

“I can’t thank them enough because there was no ROIs, there was no return on investments. I didn’t have to give anything unless I wanted to,” she reflects.

“What was so good about them versus a corporate backer is they said that if any time during or before the race that I decided I did not want to do it, there was no obligation. They would pick me up off that boat and get me home, and we’d just make it all go away.

“The first thing I purchased was the media team. Then the second was food! The third, of course, ended up being all the supplies. But the media team was something that I was very specific about.”

Telling a story

First Light was equipped with Starlink and cameras all over the boat, enabling Brauer’s media team to keep her growing legion of fans continually updated. Brauer produced a great deal of content herself (“I was brought up in the media age, I’ve had Instagram since 2013. I can do it in 10 minutes.”) but also offered Patreon-style direct messaging (“Pay $5 a month, and you can talk to me whenever you want.”).

Rounding Cape Horn in the Global Solo Challenge.

Rounding Cape Horn in the Global Solo Challenge. Photo: Cole Brauer Ocean Racing

A few days into the race, Brauer showed herself self-administering an IV-drip, on medical advice, after severe seasickness. And she went on to tell the story of her race through video after video; explaining sail changes and weather systems, dancing on the bow while dolphins swam alongside, climbing the rig, painting her nails, and surfing dauntingly large waves.

She celebrated crossing the Equator with Aperol Spritz and kissing a flying fish. Her audience numbers went up, and up, and by early December she had over 100,000 followers.

Not everything went smoothly. The cameras also captured Brauer being violently flung from her bunk as First Light broached, cracking a rib. There were autopilot issues in December, followed by hydrogenerator problems in January. Brauer shared it all.

“Even when I was right next to the other competitors, I still told [everyone] what my sails were, took pictures of my sail chart and my polars. The French are going to hate me for this! But I just don’t care. Yes, if you can beat me on the water, that’s wonderful. But I’m going to beat you on social media every single time. And that’s where the longevity comes in. Because my followers – the majority of them do not know that I got 2nd place. They don’t even know it was a race.”

Household name

As her following increased, the demographics shifted. She developed a staunch army of supporters, many older women who cheered for Cole like she was a daughter.

Her team began putting out more explanatory videos, sharing updates from her weather router (Chelsea Freas, SeaTactics) or describing the different sails options.
The critics came largely from within sailing – questioning her tactics and safety protocols, or even what she was sharing.

Red flare celebration for Brauer at the Global Solo Challenge finish line on 7 March 2024.

Red flare celebration for Brauer at the Global Solo Challenge finish line on 7 March 2024. Photo: James Tomlinson

“Sailors were the only people, really, that were, ‘How dare she wash her knickers and post it!’ I had no idea people were even upset about that until after the race. You have to do your laundry,” she shrugs.

“Afterwards, people were saying, ‘Well, you lost some respect from some of your sailing counterparts.’ And I said, ‘That’s fine. They don’t have to follow me.’”

But Brauer was doing something that vanishingly few sailors have achieved before: she made ocean racing interesting and appealing to a mass audience.

What’s more, she was building a following in the USA – a country which has historically struggled to field well-funded, competitive offshore entries (the notable exception being 11th Hour Racing, the US-flagged team which won last year’s Ocean Race).

All the while, she was powering through the fleet. Seven boats started with First Light, but as they approached the Azores Brauer was ahead of five, matching Ronnie Simpson on his Open 50. By the time she exited the Canaries, Brauer had passed the final two and was hunting down boats which set off a week ahead.

Greeted by race winner Philip Delamare.

Greeted by race winner Philip Delamare. Photo: James Tomlinson

In the South Atlantic she reeled in all the other competitors except race leader Delamare on his 46-footer Mowgli, and first starter Dafydd Hughes on his S&S 34, who had set off months earlier but later retired.

When Brauer rounded Cape Horn (streamed live to nearly 180,000 people), the deficit to the leader was more than 2,500 miles, and insurmountable – although a fast north-bound passage saw Brauer chip away to reduce Delamare’s lead by another 500 miles.

By the time she was back in the North Atlantic, her following had grown to over 490,000 and she’d been featured in The New York Times. It was time to face the enormity of the public interest in what she’d done.

“I don’t know if [I’m emotional] because I want it to end – or because I never want it to end,” she pondered in a video.

Big ambitions

After the whirlwind reception of her finish, Brauer was back to living in her van. But things have changed for Cole. She’s stated her ambition to be on the start line of the 2028 Vendée Globe, and now is the time to capitalise on the interest her Global Solo Challenge created.

Brauer stated her ambition to be on the start line of the 2028 Vendée Globe.

Brauer stated her ambition to be on the start line of the 2028 Vendée Globe. Photo: James Tomlinson

A move into the IMOCA class would involve a big shift in approach. “If I was to do the Vendée, I’d have to be very, very cautious because the seriousness of the race has gone up tenfold, and I’m not naive to that.

“For this race, it was very open. I had a weather router. I was able to communicate with my medical team, my project manager. I called my mum every single day. And I talked about everything – the weather, the clouds. I talked about what my tactics were.

Brauer celebrating on a pontoon.

‘I had a choice between going to medical school or working at a yacht club teaching sailing.’ Photo: Alvaro Sanchis

“But I think that I will still try within the rules to be me. I don’t think that the Vendée really will care if I’m doing my nails and posting it!

“The boat’s an entirely different animal. And I hope that as I start training and working towards this, my followers will adjust.

“But I just don’t think you have to lose a piece of yourself to be a part of this sport.”

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