The unlikely new star of round-the-world sailing

‘I’m drifting round someplace close to the equator, however I don’t know precisely the place as a result of it’s overcast, so I haven’t managed a solar sight for 3 days, and I haven’t seen any wind for every week. Crusing with out wind is about as a lot enjoyable as snowboarding with out snow.” It was March 29 and after 206 days alone at sea, South African yachtswoman Kirsten Neuschäfer was struggling a contact of the doldrum blues. 

Usually a look on the GPS would pinpoint a sailor’s place, however the retro Golden Globe competitors tries to emulate the circumstances of the unique 1968-69 race, when Robin Knox-Johnston relied purely on compass, sextant, velocity log and dead-reckoning to change into the primary individual to sail single-handed nonstop around the world. So no GPS, no autopilot, no web climate forecasts and no boat longer than 36 toes.

The unique Golden Globe Race was an enormous media occasion, attracting a vibrant solid of misfits and dreamers. One in every of them, Bernard Moitessier, declined an opportunity of profitable, deciding as an alternative to proceed crusing around the world indefinitely, “as a result of I’m completely happy at sea, and maybe to save lots of my soul”. After operating into difficulties one other competitor, Donald Crowhurst, reported false positions then disappeared, in an assumed suicide (a narrative dramatised within the 2017 movie The Mercy, starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz).

Over the subsequent half-century, ocean racing remodeled right into a ruthlessly skilled high-tech business, with group budgets for some occasions routinely exceeding £10mn. When the Australian yachtsman Don McIntyre inaugurated the primary re-run of the Golden Globe Race in 2018, his purpose was intentionally nostalgic, “to recreate the Golden Age of solo crusing”. “It’s not about having the newest know-how: there may be nonetheless an enormous aspect of the unknown, a way of journey and a giant aspect of luck,” says Neuschäfer.

Kirsten Neuschäfer and Minnehaha, a 36-foot Cape George cutter © GGR / Nora Havel

Kirsten Neuschäfer smiles for a photo
On board within the Golden Globe Race, which began in September 2022 © GGR / Nora Havel

A satellite tv for pc telephone is among the few concessions to fashionable know-how and I used to be forbidden to inform Neuschäfer that she was truly within the lead. Around the world races are normally wars of attrition and this one (solely the third Golden Globe, after 1968 and 2018) isn’t any exception. Out of 16 entrants who set sail on September 4 2022 from Les Sables d’Olonne on the French coast, solely 5 are nonetheless within the race and two of these have been demoted to “Chichester Class” as a result of they had been pressured to cease for repairs. (Francis Chichester’s 1966-67 solo circumnavigation included a stopover in Sydney). Earlier this month, British sailor Ian Herbert-Jones was rescued by a Taiwanese fishing boat within the southern Atlantic after his yacht was rolled and dismasted in a storm.

Map showing Golden Globe Race route

On the time of writing Neuschäfer stays within the lead, however Indian sailor Abhilash Tomy is simply about 50 nautical miles behind — each are on the right track to reach again in Sables d’Olonne on April 29, after 237 days at sea. Individuals are all of the sudden taking discover of the one feminine entrant, beforehand unknown on the earth {of professional} race crusing, and questioning why she has carried out so nicely. 

Like most ocean sailors, she began on small dinghies — in her case on lakes close to her house in Pretoria — however the expertise that actually set her aside was a land journey. On the age of twenty-two, after a spell in Europe, she arrived in southern Spain, meaning to bicycle all the way in which from Morocco to the Cape of Good Hope. Earlier than wheeling her bike on to the Strait of Gibraltar ferry she had a second’s panic. “I seemed throughout on the mountains of Morocco and remembered all of the warnings from the doom and gloom retailers a couple of girl alone in Africa. However then I reminded myself that none of those individuals had truly carried out it. So I made a decision not less than to go and take a look and simply take it one step at a time.” 

After all there had been scary moments on that 9,000-mile solo journey — like being snatched off the streets of Kinshasa by “policemen” who robbed all her money at gunpoint — however she prefers to recollect the infinite kindness of strangers.

A yacht sailing home in the English Channel, cheered on by people on board a nearby ship
British skipper Robin Knox-Johnston’s yacht Suhaili arrives within the English Channel, April 23 1969, on the finish of the unique continuous around the world race . . . © AFP through Getty Pictures

Sailor Robin Knox-Johnston is greeted by a cheering crowd in London
. . . and cheered by crowds as he arrives at London’s Tower pier, just a few days after his Golden Globe victory © Mirrorpix through Getty Pictures

Again in South Africa she took up ocean crusing and labored delivering yachts. In 2015, she began working for famend yachtsman Skip Novak, crewing after which skippering on his expedition boats in Arctic and Antarctic waters. I sailed along with her aboard Novak’s Pelagic Australis on two voyages to South Georgia and, like everybody, was struck by her calm, quiet competence, whether or not it was reefing the mainsail or cooking an beautiful roast dinner for 15 individuals. At anchor on South Georgia, she thought nothing of swimming a number of hundred metres throughout the bay in a sea temperature maybe one diploma above freezing, then snowboarding over the mountains, in a blizzard, on a pair of ill-fitting boots and borrowed outdated skis. In the future, on the return voyage to the Falklands, unusually for her, she seemed actually unwell. After I prompt hesitantly that she may ask one of many others to take over her watch, I obtained very brief shrift.

That very same resilience has characterised her Golden Globe marketing campaign. She discovered an appropriate boat, 36-foot Cape George cutter in-built 1988, on the market in Newfoundland, and was meaning to sail it south to Bermuda for a complete refit. Lockdowns made that unimaginable and she or he solely made it so far as Prince Edward Island close to Nova Scotia. When she arrived in January 2021 the rigging was dangerously iced over and she or he solely simply made it into harbour earlier than the ocean froze over. Minnehaha, named after a personality in “The Track of Hiawatha”, might go no additional. 

Neuschäfer shares a glass of rum with Tapio Lehtinen, a Finnish competitor she rescued after his boat sank within the Southern Indian Ocean © Kirsten Neuschäfer

Native ship restore man Eddie Arsenault remembers assembly Neuschäfer on the dock. “I requested, ‘do you want a hand?’ and she or he stated, ‘I believe I do’.” Minnehaha was jacked up in a shed and work began in earnest. “As soon as we lifted the deck we opened a can of worms,” says Arsenault. “There have been plenty of days the place we found new issues and at one level I used to be satisfied Kirsten was going to must go to a giant shipyard. However she’s a troublesome cookie, she was laser-focused on what she wished and we simply saved our heads down, grinding away.”

“We” included a gang of native tradesmen, charmed and impressed by the lone sailor’s palpable dedication. Neuschäfer paid what she might, however Arsenault and his associates put in lots of of hours of unpaid work, their handicraft recorded on the Fb web page Neuschäfer had agreed reluctantly to open. They organised a giant fundraising dinner. Mates and followers around the world started donating cash, provides and items of important tools. 

Skip Novak, veteran of 5 round-the-world races, was initially sceptical about his former worker’s lack of particular racing expertise — the truth is that is her very first skilled competitors — however is the primary to applaud her consummate seamanship. Earlier within the race Tapio Lehtinen from Finland had simply 5 minutes to flee to his life raft when his boat sank inexplicably. By probability, it was Neuschäfer who was closest and got here to rescue him, earlier than transferring him to a passing cargo vessel.

Looking down from high up on the mast on Neuschäfers yacht
The view from the mast on Neuschäfer’s yacht © Kirsten Neuschäfer

“I don’t get lonely after I’m doing one thing I actually wish to do,” she instructed me over the sat telephone. Pushed to admit to any dangerous instances, she admitted that black mould from weeks of condensation contained in the unheated cabin had been fairly miserable. She had additionally been annoyed by a damaged spinnaker pole. “It meant I couldn’t take the quick course I wished to. That was actually irritating. However it additionally meant that I missed crusing into an enormous storm, so I used to be truly fairly fortunate.” 

What about sleep deprivation, I requested? “Oh, I’ve had some lengthy sleeps — as much as six hours. However in busy delivery lanes or anyplace close to land, I’ve to sit down up awake, simply closing my eyes for possibly 20 minutes at a time.” (One competitor, Man deBoer, missed a fishing boat within the Bay of Biscay by 5 metres after which ran aground in Fuerteventura). What she actually wished to speak about although, had been the nice instances, like the joys of sighting a land function on Tasmania after weeks of celestial navigation within the Indian Ocean, “realising I used to be proper there, precisely the place I believed I used to be.”

Regardless of the damaged spinnaker pole within the southern Pacific, she was first spherical Cape Horn after which obtained an enormous morale enhance as she sailed previous the Falklands and all her associates in Stanley motored out to wave her on her approach again up the Atlantic. 

As she closes in on the French coast, on the opposite facet of the ocean in Prince Edward Island, Eddie Arsenault is delighted. “It’s fairly rewarding to see she’s doing so nicely. One factor we agreed on proper from the beginning of the refit, was that we had been solely going to work on a profitable boat.”

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