As winner of the Golden Globe Race, Kirsten Neuschäfer is the first woman to win a solo around the world race. Helen Fretter finds out what drives her
“Sometimes in the tropics, if it’s nice and calm, I’ll drop sail and I’ll lash the helm over to one side,” recalled Kirsten Neuschäfer before the start of the Golden Globe Race. “I’ll jump overboard and have a swim around the boat, and sometimes I’ll swim away from the boat, just to get that feeling of vastness. That sense of eternity. That if the boat did sail away, it would be eternity. And it is a scary thought, but it’s also kind of intriguing.”
What does it take to compete in the longest race in the world, over eight months of isolation? Where the odds are firmly stacked against you. So skewed, in fact, that the risk is not of failure, but of literally having to abandon everything. Perhaps that is part of the appeal: this is a race that can take you to the edge, tempting you to touch the void, to peer into eternity.
Five years ago, the sailing world witnessed a grand experiment. Eighteen solo skippers set off on a recreation of the Golden Globe Race. Small long-keeled yachts, carrying only the most rudimentary technology, plunged into the southern ocean in a bid to race around the world in a homage to the 1968 pioneering event. But the attrition rate was devastating: four skippers had to abandon their boats – one seriously injured; five yachts were dismasted; 13 retired.
You might think potential entrants who witnessed how the 2018 fleet was ravaged by knockdowns, barnacles, even toxic mould, would be put off. But there is something about the Golden Globe Race, a ‘back to basics’ around the world race, that earns it a unique place in sailors’ psyches. It is sailing’s Everest climb. And so in 2022 another 16 (15 men, one woman) set off to do it all again. Among them was Kirsten Neuschäfer.
Spirit of adventure
Neuschäfer, 40, grew up in Pretoria, South Africa. Far from the sea, she learned to sail as a child on inland lakes in Optimists and Hobie cats. But the seed of a bigger sailing adventure was planted from an early age.
“My dad actually wanted to go cruising around the world; that was his big dream. He started building a boat before I was born, but ran out of funds so he sold off his share. But he kept on talking to me about his dream. So I thought, well, if you’re not going to do it, I’m going to have to do it one day!”
After leaving school Neuschäfer was wavering about whether to become a wildlife vet, working in the bush.
“I took a gap year after I finished high school, and the gap year turned into multiple years, and I was less and less attracted by the idea of spending 10 years at university to become a vet,” she recalls.
After four years in Europe, working jobs as diverse as a sailing instructor to training huskies to wilderness guiding in Spitsbergen, she took on her first enormous challenge: to cycle home to South Africa. Having bought a cheap mountain bike in Berlin, she cycled the length of Africa alone aged 22, covering 15,000km across 12 countries on a year-long adventure.
Many tried to put her off doing it, with dire warnings about the risk of dehydration in the Sahara, of tropical diseases, of a violent attack, of failure.
“By the time I started my trip I was full of fear,” she recalled on a podcast, but she not only completed it – sometimes pushing her bicycle for 20km over rutted dust tracks in 40° heat – but had what she describes as “the most life enriching experience”.
It also crystallised her ambition. “After I’d completed my bicycle trip I was standing at Cape Agulhas, looking out towards the ocean and thinking ‘Now it’s time for me to go to sea’. That’s when I then started trying to get jobs, crewing on sailboats whenever I could just to clock up the miles so that I could do my skipper’s ticket.”
She spent the next decade working out of East London, on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, delivering all kinds of boats around the world, from brand new Leopard catamarans (built at Robertson and Caine, just outside Cape Town) to private vessels and even barely seaworthy salvage yachts.
“East London was a good place to be because everyone had to stop, coming from Durban down to the Cape. So I met delivery skippers that were heading offshore across the Atlantic and all over, and that’s how I got a foot into doing the offshore deliveries. It was fantastic, we went everywhere. We were in the Caribbean, North America, South America, Hong Kong, China, New Zealand, Australia, the Indian Ocean islands like Réunion and Mauritius and the Seychelles. And we went up to Europe and the Mediterranean.
“For Leopard it became really interesting because they used to deliver those new catamarans via Panama if we were going to go to Australia or Tahiti. But they urgently needed a boat to get to the Sydney Boat Show, and asked the skippers, is anyone willing to go via the Southern Indian Ocean because we don’t have time to go to Panama? No one wanted to do it, but I said, ‘I’d love to do it, I’d love to experience the Southern Indian Ocean.” It was an eventful trip, sailing through 60-knot winds with the catamaran surfing down waves at 25-plus knots under bare poles, but Neuschäfer had her first taste of the South.
Before the reincarnation of the Golden Globe had even been re-imagined, Neuschäfer was building the skills that would see her to the start.
“Sometimes it just seemed like everything was kind of destined towards it. For example, the first single-handing I did was on the South African coast, which was a fantastic experience because you have to stay close in shore and be able to survive on cat naps.
“Then I had the privilege of doing a longer solo trip. It’s hard to find owners that are willing to let you single-hand their boat, especially if the boat is dear to them. A friend allowed me to deliver his boat from Portugal down to East London. And it was a high maintenance boat: it had lots of issues and very little electronics, a handheld GPS maybe on board. We put AIS in as a minimum. But even that was an amazing experience towards preparing for the Golden Globe without knowing it at the time.”
By the time she entered the 2022 Golden Globe Race she had clocked up over 200,000 ocean miles.
Southern ocean prep
In 2015 she began working with Skip Novak at Pelagic Expeditions. “Working down in places like South Georgia and Antarctica, that was just a dream come true.
“It was also a fantastic prep in every sense, firstly because it was Southern Ocean sailing and heavy weather sailing. But then Skip used to always involve the skippers and crew in the refits of the boats, whether it was changing out a ram for an autopilot or upgrading the systems, grinding steel, we all did it ourselves. Which meant that if we could do it in port, we could probably also do it when we were sitting at anchor in South Georgia or in the middle of the ocean.”
Novak recalls: “I think her most outstanding attribute is, as we say in South Africa, ‘just getting on with things’. Which means get the job done without being asked, being one step ahead and never turning your back on any task no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable. These are all the things we look for in our operations in high latitudes. Obviously this skill and character set surely lends itself for solo sailing.”
When she entered the second Golden Globe Race, the only thing she didn’t have was racing experience, having only competed in a few relaxed coastal races on the Eastern Cape. Undeterred, Neuschäfer was confident it was a race she could excel at.
“This Golden Globe Race was completely different. More of an adventure race than a high performance race. A race where, first and foremost, you’ve got to make it round, survive with your boat, and then after that, well, you need a whole lot of luck as well. I just felt confident that I’d be able to take care of a boat on a race like that. I wanted to challenge myself to the max.”
She found a Cape George 36 for sale in Newfoundland, bought the boat, and flew home to South Africa for a holiday. Then the pandemic broke out. She spent seven months trying to negotiate her way through border restrictions to get back to her boat, finally reuniting with Minnehaha in November 2020. “By then the winter storms were sweeping across the Cabot Strait, ice was accumulating on the rig, and the boat needed major attention,” she recalled.
She sailed across the Cabot Strait to Prince Edward Island, just north of Nova Scotia, and went no further. Instead she hauled Minnehaha out and spent a year on the remote Canadian island refitting it, hands-on, with the help of a fascinated local community. Determined to visit home before the race start, but not wanting to risk being separated from her yacht again, she sailed single-handed from Nova Scotia to South Africa, then back up the Atlantic to France. The qualification requirements for the race were 2,000 miles solo. By the time Neuschäfer tied up in Les Sables d’Olonne she had done over seven times that.
It was only then that she started to feel daunted.
“I must admit, the three weeks in Les Sables leading up to the race were, for me, incredibly stressful, because all I wanted to do was be on a private dock and completely anonymous, so that I could just focus.”
But while other competitors struggled to find their rhythm after the start – Abhilash Tomy revealed he had suffered PTSD symptoms after starting the race following his life-saving rescue in the 2018 edition; Guy de Boer grounded in Lanzarote; others retired – Neuschäfer was back in her happy place: alone at sea. On the south-bound Atlantic leg she chose not to chat to fellow competitors.
“I didn’t really feel like speaking to other people because I just wanted to be alone. And also I realised I was going to be frustrated trying to figure out where they were and if they were ahead of me or behind me. I thought, ‘Don’t concentrate on it. It’s early days, you just sail, do your best’.”
Things changed dramatically on 18 November when fellow competitor Tapio Lehtinen’s boat sank beneath him 450 miles off South Africa. Neuschäfer already knew that Briton Simon Curwen was ahead, Tomy behind, and she was likely closest to Lehtinen when she got the message that he was in a liferaft. “From that moment on I forgot about the race. It was just about getting to Tapio as quickly as possible, so I got up as much sail as I could. I spent the whole night at the helm, I didn’t leave it once.”
She executed a smooth rescue – locating Lehtinen in his tiny raft and retrieving him onto Minnehaha, before a tricky transfer to a cargo ship. Then Neuschäfer was on the ocean alone again, coursing with adrenaline. “I had to debrief myself after that. I had to process the fact that his boat had sunk within minutes, because you don’t think about it.
“But otherwise I went straight back into my normal sailing mode. The very first thing I did was seal up the [emergency] GPS again. It didn’t fit into the picture at all.”
Neuschäfer raced on, holding 2nd place through the Indian Ocean, trading places with Tomy in the Pacific. All the while more and more competitors dropped out.
She avoided the worst of the Southern Ocean storms, skirting a low on the approach to Cape Horn. “It was fine. I knew that I had enough time to get to the north so that I wouldn’t be in the dangerous quadrant of the storm. For the first time, I was doing what I said I would, and that was to deploy a warp. Even though it was storm conditions, I had absolute confidence in the boat and when I realised she’s actually handling really well, it was kind of fun.”
Then race leader Curwen had to pull into Chile to make windvane repairs, dropping him to Chichester class. The race was on for the win. She began to push.
“I had a week of fantastic sailing where Minnehaha was just flying. The wind was strong, and there was a decent swell running, but it wasn’t an aggressive swell, the kind of waves that you could surf. I know I had moments where Minnehaha was over-canvassed – I was using just the twin foresails, no main up. One wing pulled out to either side and she was flying along shooting a rooster tail out of her stern. I’d never seen this on a 12-tonne 36ft boat. It was absolutely exhilarating but I knew I was really pushing things on the edge of what’s acceptable.”
Race to the finish
Neuschäfer rounded Cape Horn in the lead (which she confirmed after hailing the lighthouse keeper on VHF). The race would be decided in the Atlantic. With limited weather information available, deciding how to negotiate the doldrums and St Helena High was an exercise in frustration knowing that Tomy’s Rustler 36 Bayanat was likely faster in light winds.
“Where [the weather] did become really difficult was after the Falkland Islands, where I just didn’t really know anymore. There was no information to be had.” She relied mainly on a 1978 edition of Ocean Passages for the World, which sent her on an easterly course. Tomy stayed west.
It wasn’t until the first spectator fleet boats greeted her off Les Sables d’Olonne that Neuschäfer knew for sure that she was about to win. She ghosted over the line on 27 April, becoming the second winner of the modern Golden Globe Race and the first woman to ever win a solo around the world race. It’s a distinction she has never focussed on.
“I never really thought about being the first woman. I was very proud to cross the finish line and wave the South African flag. And if it’s also to wave the flag for women, then great. It’s a good feeling, it really is.”
Ground-breaking female sailors celebrated her achievement: Sam Davies came to congratulate her in person, Tracy Edwards sent a video message, Catherine Chabaud (first female sailor to race solo non-stop around the world) stood beside her on the prizegiving stage “I think that’s when it sank in. Maybe it is an historical thing, maybe it’s not, but I was just incredibly honoured that these legendary sailors were congratulating me.”
As for what next? Minnehaha will likely have to be sold. “I don’t even want to think of the moment of getting rid of her yet because she’s been such a big part of my life. I think only once I’ve done that will I be ready to start thinking of the next big adventure. What it is, I really don’t know, but it will be something…”
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