SA-born sailor is the only female skipper signed up for next year’s Golden Globe
Kirsten Neuschafer learnt to sail on a pea-green dam outside Pretoria. Fast forward thirty years and she is vying to become the first woman ever to complete a solo, unassisted, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe.
The 39-year-old adventurer, one of two South Africans entered into next year’s Golden Globe Race (the other is Jeremy Bagshaw), could also become the first South African to complete the Golden Globe, provided Bagshaw doesn’t beat her to it.
“When I was very young I already thought I would like to sail around the world,” Kirsten told SABBEX from her current home in Charlottetown, Canada. “It was my dad’s dream to sail around the world, but he didn’t do it.”
Turning a dream into reality is proving tricky for Kirsten, too, who has already shrugged off a few challenges in her quest. She says her open ocean dream began half-a-lifetime ago when she returned from an overseas trip on her bicycle, having ridden the length of Africa — another epic adventure that clearly shaped her life’s ambitions. She recalls staring out to sea after finishing her bicycle trip at Cape Agulhas, the southern tip of Africa: “I said to myself, there is nothing left but the ocean, so I better take to the seas.”
A lesser mortal may have left it at that. Not Kirsten. She got busy with a coastal skipper’s ticket, and before long was delivering yachts for Robertson & Caine.
Not surprisingly for a seasoned traveller Kirsten found she particularly enjoyed single-handed sailing, where she was in command of her own destiny. “I have always been a solitary person,” she says when quizzed about her solo tendencies. “It may well be temperament.”
One solo thing led to another and eventually Kirsten was crewing for Skip Novak on his Pelagic Expeditions. During one of these trips she was drawn into the excitement of the 2018 Golden Globe. “A mate of mine was totally into the Race and spoke about it the whole time. Friends were sending her text messages and she kept on talking to me about it.
“I kept on thinking that this is really a cool race and attainable for me. I really really liked the retro aspect, and I liked the single handed aspect, and on old school boats. I thought I gotta try do this.”
First on her ‘to do’ list was finding a boat, and not just any boat; it needed to be retro; it needed to be robust. She found the perfect specimen, a Cape George 36, in Newfoundland. Unfortunately she found it at almost exactly the worst possible time, just as the US-Canada border closed due to Coronavirus. By the time she fetched the boat it was well into November last year and the boat had been on the hard for four years. Says Kirsten: “It needed a lot of attention but we had it launched. She was having engine trouble and little cracks were appearing in the bulwarks. I sailed to Prince Edward island and got there around January 6. We had just pulled the boat out when the Bay iced over completely – we really just made it in the nick of time. I couldn’t go any further.”
Seven months later Kirsten is still there, still working on her boat in preparation for sailing back to Cape Town (hopefully), and from there up to France. She will be sailing for months just to reach the Race starting line-up. From there she faces a nearly year-long personal odyssey, by herself, without the comfort of modern electronic equipment (as per Race rules).
Does she worry about it? Not enormously. “There are anxieties, ups and downs,” she concedes, although one suspects she is more excited than fearful. “Generally it is just very exciting.”
For now her biggest anxiety is getting the boat finished in time – she does not have the luxury of thinking beyond the starting line.
Kirsten is quick to point out that she has had her share of good fortune, too, including generous financial assistance to buy her boat (an interest-free loan) and a workspace for her boat on Prince Edward Island. She hopes to attract corporate sponsorship to ease her passage into the Race, but she is determined to get there either way. “Everything is just focussed around this race. I’m using all my savings, and am working on the boat every day almost seven days a week. Sometimes I stay till midnight.”
She should probably get more sleep while she still can.