Dee Caffari's double solo record and 6th place is one of the greatest ever British sailing stories, says Elaine Bunting. Ten years ago she'd never sailed

This is a story you could hardly believe, and there probably isn’t a soul in sailing who’d have put money on it. This afternoon Dee Caffari, the 36-year-old PE teacher who decided she’d like to learn how to sail nine years ago, sailed her boat Aviva across the finish of the Vendée Globe in 6th place.

Not only has she completed one of the toughest Vendée Globes in history, but has scored a result that seemed impossible for a newcomer at this level. Michel Desjoyeaux said he regarded himself as 1st out of 30, and Caffari’s 6th out of 30 is, if anything, even more amazing.

Her main objective was to make another entry in the record books as the first woman to sail alone non-stop round the world in both directions. But with this result she has accomplished a formidable hole-in-one, a feat that might actually be hard for her ever to better.

Caffari decided to take up sailing on a dive charter nine years ago, and did a course at the UKSA in Cowes. Her first job shaped the way everything has gone since: she landed work with Mike Golding, working on his former Global Challenge yacht. Just eight years ago she was scrubbing the bottom of his Open 60 and being told off for missing a spot.

Caffari determined to follow in Golding’s footsteps and was skipper of an amateur crew in the 2004/5 Global Challenge. Afterwards she mirrored Golding’s career progress by sailing her 72ft Challenge boat solo round the world to claim a new record.

It was only two years ago that she lit on the ambition of doing the Vendée Globe and Mike Golding joked “I have a stalker.” Caffari was about to embark on yet another venture he reckoned was out of her grasp and, once again, she has proved him wrong.

No one could be more pleased about that than Golding, who has come to France specially to congratulate her, and was her training partner for the race as his Ecover is a sistership to Aviva. It is another great British result and a glittering example of what determination can achieve.

So how did Caffari do it? I think there are several really important factors in her success.

First, and not to be underestimated in this particularly ruthless race of attrition, is her careful progress and seamanship. Now at day 98 of the race, the latest finishers are not super-competitive- they are two whole weeks behind the winner – but Caffari is steeped in the solid art of seamanship that Sir Chay Blyth’s business drummed into everyone on those races.

Secondly, she has spent as much time as possible out on the water, covering 12,000 miles in the last two years in this and her training boat – which, funny enough, is the very boat she was scrubbing the bottom of eight years ago.

The next important factor was the decision of her team to commission a sistership to Ecover, rather than to go for a Juan Kouyoumdian design and be trained by Mike ‘Moose’ Sanderson, as she originally wanted. You need only look at Brian Thompson’s difficulties in the race in his Juan K design to see how problematical a finish would have been had she chosen this route.

Instead, she chose a boat that fast-tracked her into Golding’s experience, knowledge and design understanding.

Finally, on the hardware side, when manufacturing flaws became evident in the keel of the new Aviva, her team decided not to have the same replacement as Mike Golding and Dominique Wavre and instead to go to a different designer. That apparently small decision probably also saved her bacon, as Wavre had to retire from the race with a broken keel and Golding’s keel head was cracked so he might have had to limp out had he not been dismasted first.

Caffari also has a first-rate preparation team, and the combination of her conservatism and the reliability of her yacht meant she has finished the course without a single major mechanical or structural failure, and with the delicacy required to nurse a woefully delaminated mainsail the final miles to the finish.

It’s a superb achievement for Caffari and an incredible feather in the cap of a project created entirely from scratch barely two years ago.