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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Meet the first woman to sail the ‘voyage for madmen’

In an image provided by Mélanie Voerman, Kirsten Neuschäfer aboard Minnehaha, her 36-foot Cape George sailboat. The nonstop, round-the-world Golden Globe Race has become a banner of “retro sailing,” or “sailing like it’s 1968.” The champion this year was Neuschäfer, the first woman to both complete and win the race.

By Lauren Sloss

The nonstop, round-the-world Golden Globe Race has become a banner of “retro sailing,” or “sailing like it’s 1968.” Entrants for the competition, which begins and ends in Les Sables d’Olonne, France, are required to sail small boats alone, using only pre-1960s-era technology — no satellite communication, autopilot, cellphones or radar. Courses are plotted using celestial navigation and a sextant.

The champion this year was 40-year-old Kirsten Neuschäfer who, after 235 days at sea aboard Minnehaha, her 36-foot Cape George sailboat, became the first woman to both complete and win the race.

But Neuschäfer is quick to state that being a figurehead was never the point.

“I did want to win, but not because I’m a woman, or because I wanted to set a record as being the first woman,” she said. “I wanted to be there as a sailor and as an equal.”

Her accomplishments — not only completing and winning the race, but also rescuing a fellow sailor — certainly promise to raise her profile. The Golden Globe, which debuted in 1968, looms large in sailors’ lore — much of the competition takes place in the high latitudes of the Southern Ocean, circling between South Africa and South America, around the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, an area known for punishing winds and towering waves. The race has been referred to, aptly, as “a voyage for madmen.”

Growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, Neuschäfer was always drawn to the outdoors, and to epic experiences.

“I loved reading accounts of adventures — Scott and Shackleton and Amundsen,” she said of the famed 20th-century polar explorers. “It certainly planted the seed in my mind.”

After cycling solo from Europe to South Africa at 22, Neuschäfer began crewing on sailboats in pursuit of her skipper’s license, and later, at the helm, she sailed research and film crews around the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Georgia and Falkland Islands. In preparation for the Golden Globe, her first race, she purchased and refitted Minnehaha in Canada, then sailed the boat solo to South Africa and to France for the race’s start.

Neuschäfer recently spoke about the voyage, the challenges of the doldrums — an area near the equator plagued by light winds — and the possibility of another circumnavigation. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: Despite all of your experience and preparation, was there an extra degree of intimidation around this race?

A: I definitely had moments when I thought: “This could be quite scary.” Before the race, I was visiting my parents in Port Elizabeth, which is known as the Windy City, and it was a night when it was really windy. I was lying in my bed in the house without any danger, but I could hear the trees bending. I was thinking, “Well, in the Southern Ocean, you’re going to experience winds that are much stronger that these winds, and on a 36-foot boat.”

Q: Did you have any moments where you were actively afraid or simply disheartened?

A: I did. But ironically, those moments weren’t because of heavy weather, they were because of a total lack of wind. I got stuck in the doldrums just south of the equator for the best part of two weeks. It’s often said by sailors that the most difficult moments are the calms, because when you are experiencing heavy weather, you’ve got something to keep you busy. There’s a bit of adrenaline. When you’ve got absolutely no wind at all, it’s incredibly frustrating.

Q: Did you get bored or lonely? I assume that was more challenging during the calm periods, but in general, it’s a long time to be alone.

A: I didn’t often get bored. I made sure that I took lots of reading material. It’s the only mental escape; you read a book and you just submerge yourself into the world of whatever this book is describing. And there’s always something to fix on the boat. There were times when I would have liked to speak to a friend, to hear them tell me to just keep going. Eight months is a very long time to be in one place — you’re moving, but the place you’re in is the same. In the doldrums, I’d go for nice swims, which would help me de-stress a little.

Q: How did you feel as you approached the end?

A: There was kind of a sadness once I rounded Cape Horn. It felt like trying to summit a mountain: This is the summit and from here on it’s the descent. There was joy and happiness and relief. But this had become a lifestyle, and it would be ending soon. I had some trepidation about arriving in a place where I was expected. I had moments where I thought, “You know, I’ve still got plenty of food and water. I’m still enjoying myself.” I’d have no issue to just keep sailing.

Q: What’s next for you and for Minnehaha?

A: That’s one question I haven’t been able to answer just yet. I’ve put so much focus and energy toward the Golden Globe Race since 2019. And now it’s all come to quite an abrupt ending. I bought Minnehaha on debt, and I always planned to sell her after the race. But it’s hard because I’ve done so much with this boat. I’d like to do a little trip to get a bit of closure, and I’ll probably take a bit of a break just to digest this amazing experience.

Q: What adventures or destinations, land or sea, are high on your list of places to go?

A: I’d like to spend time in my own country of South Africa, particularly Transkei, or the Eastern Cape — it’s a place that’s just paradise to me. I’d like to master the language, Xhosa. I’d love to go back to the Antarctic and the Falkland Islands. There are a lot of places that I have been, but then again, there are also a lot of places I’ve never explored. There’s still a lot to do in this lifetime. And I think at some stage, though not anytime soon, I might want to do another circumnavigation. It would be totally different, because the seas are forever changing.

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