When he competed in the first Golden Globe Race in 1968-69, French sailor Bernard Moitessier achieved legend status not for winning, but rather for precisely the opposite—opting instead to keep on sailing, “because I am happy at sea, and perhaps to save my soul.”
It’s a sentiment that Kirsten Neuschäfer understands—“Moitessier just kept going and became more esoteric. I liked that aspect,” she said. Some may have wondered whether the adventurous South African would consider the same, but in the end, her history was made in another way, by becoming the first woman to win a solo round-the-world race when she crossed the 2022-23 Golden Globe Race (GGR) finish line in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, on April 28. After 30,290 nautical miles and 235 days—a course record—she and her 36-foot Cape George cutter, Minnehaha, won without needing the 35-hour time allowance she earned by rescuing fellow sailor Tapio Lehtinen when his boat sank south of Cape of Good Hope.
As she edged her way to the finish line in excruciatingly light air, Neuschäfer—who didn’t even know she’d won until she was within hours of the finish—laughed and talked with the sailing luminaries, journalists, race officials, and well-wishers who’d come out to greet her. “I want to walk on solid ground,” she said in her calm and commanding voice when I asked her what she wanted to do when she touched land for the first time in nearly eight months.
A day later, Abhilash Tomy arrived on his Rustler 36, Bayanat, downing a Coke handed to him after crossing the finish line. Tomy said he needed the Coke after losing 20 kilos (44 pounds) and enduring an extremely short food and water supply. His second-place finish was particularly heartwarming; not only was he the first Indian national to complete an around-the-world solo race, he did so after he was rolled and dismasted in the 2018 race, suffering back injuries that left him unable to move his legs. Partially paralyzed, he waited three and half days for rescue, and after arriving home in India, he underwent surgery to have five vertebrae fused and titanium rods placed in his spine.
“He’s a fighter. Our nickname in the office for Abhilash was Mr. Fixit since he had to fix so many things to keep the boat going—but he did,” Don McIntyre, founder and chairman of the contemporary GGR, said during a press conference on the day of Tomy’s arrival.
Both sailors’ finishes were greeted by thousands of enthusiastic solo sailing fans who lined the waterside, exuding a collective sentiment of goodwill, cheer, joy, and hope.
The race—which takes competitors from Les Sables-d’Olonne and back via four rendezvous gates and the great capes of Good Hope, Leeuwin, and Horn—started on September 4, 2022, with 16 competitors, all men, except for Neuschäfer. In the end, only Neuschäfer, Tomy, and Australian Michael Guggenberger, who completed his race on May 12, finished in the Golden Globe class. Two more, Simon Curwen and Jeremy Bagshaw, ended up racing and finishing in the Chichester class for those who had to make a stop but who wanted to continue to the finish (anyone making two stops was disqualified).
Harkening to the original Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968-69, won by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in the 32-foot ketch Suhaili, today’s GGR requires that vessels are production boats between 32 and 36 feet, designed before 1988, with a full-length keel and rudder attached to their trailing edge. The racers must navigate with sextant on paper charts and use no electronic instruments or autopilot.
Harsh attrition is the norm. If the around-the-world solo Vendée Globe is indeed the “Everest of sailing,” then the GGR can be called the Everest of sailing—without oxygen. Of the nine who started the first Golden Globe, only Knox-Johnston finished. In the 2018 race, 18 set out and five finished, including winner Jean-Luc Van Den Heede aboard the Rustler 36, Matmut, surviving two brutal knockdowns, one of which turned his standing rigging into spaghetti wire.
“I think people don’t realize how much tougher the Golden Globe is than the Vendée [Globe], and that is purely because of the size of the boats,” Knox-Johnston told me at the race’s start last September. “You can go down in the southern oceans on the big boats and you can outrun the waves. These boats can’t. The waves are going to catch them…So this is a very tough challenge. But we are humans, aren’t we, and we like challenges. It’s in our nature. Doing something easy is less satisfactory.”
Certainly that philosophy drives Neuschäfer, who grew up sailing and has made it her profession since 2006, training others and delivering boats. But she has taken her sailing in directions that have been far from ordinary. According to her bio on the GGR site, her longest solo delivery was from Portugal to South Africa, “with only a windvane as self-steering, on an old and maintenance-intensive 32-foot ferro-cement sloop.” She has spent many seasons in Antarctica, working with Skip Novak on his Pelagic Expeditions and with National Geographic film crews. Even off the water, her life has been one of singular adventure and challenge, including, at age 22, cycling alone from Europe to South Africa—more than 9,000 miles.
What this only obliquely conveys is her devotion to hard work and how she acquired the hands-on, muscle-memory learning to repair and rebuild while managing boats in the Indian Ocean. Neuschäfer’s Cape George cutter, launched in 1988, was built by Cape George Marine Works in Port Townsend, Washington; after an extensive search for the boat, she brought it from Newfoundland to Prince Edward Island and spent a winter thoroughly refitting it and regularly working 18-hour or even longer days.
“Kirsten just got in there, soldering wires and cables, doing whatever she had to do,” said Eddie Arsenault, her shipwright at Prince Edward Island. “It wasn’t a matter of just calling up a mechanic or an electrician.”
Neuschäfer says she was extremely fortunate to find the low-key, methodical, and patient Arsenault to help and guide her. With limited time to prepare Minnehaha and get the required sailing miles on it before the race, she credits him with not only helping her get to the starting line but actually finishing and winning.
Arsenault says Neuschäfer learned a lot. She soon began to execute certain quality-control checks that even experienced sailors might miss. “She kept getting better and better at finding little things that people think are useless, but they’re actually what is gonna save you,” Arsenault said. “A single pin might come out and snag the sail, and to most people it’s just a pin, but that single pin is what holds that whole thing together…She just noticed all the little things and kept focused on what’s important.”
Neuschäfer says that the most violent conditions she faced came when she had about 900 miles to go to Cape Horn. She headed north to avoid a storm front and followed Knox-Johnston’s tactics by trailing a warp while sailing with the wind during the worst part of the low-pressure system. She wasn’t able to completely escape the front, though, and at one point, the rudder rotated on its shaft. It was a matter of rotating it back again, and to know which bolt to loosen to do that. This was something she figured out thanks to the many sea miles already sailed, she said.
“I then just knew what to do in a moment of clarity, so I probably did not take 10 minutes to begin sailing downwind again, which was great because you never knew when an extremely nasty wave was going to come…and again, I was lucky,” she said, to have avoided the worst of the sea state that other entrants fought.
Her seamanship was also on display during the rescue of Lehtinen in November some 450 miles southeast of South Africa in the southern Indian Ocean. When his 36-foot Gaia, Asteria, sank in a gale, Neuschäfer was the closest sailor to him—95 miles away—and she was able to reach him in fewer than 24 hours, taking him aboard Minnehaha from his life raft and later transferring him to a merchant ship that had been diverted to the scene. (For this rescue, she earned the 2022 Cruising Club of America’s Rod Stephens Seamanship Trophy.)
Like Van Den Heede, Neuschäfer “is alone with the sea,” McIntyre noted during the post-race press conference. “You learn a lot when you sail 250,000 miles across the ocean,” he said. “And the boat choice was very, very clever.”
Obviously, Neuschäfer’s Golden Globe was not without extreme deprivation, hardship, and heartbreak. The calms were the lowest points, and she said to get away from everything for a while for her peace of mind, she would just jump overboard for a swim.
“The calms were rough,” she said. So was the self-doubt that occasionally sabotaged her tactical decisions.
“I think Kirsten is more of an adventurer than a competitor,” Van Den Heede said. “This is not a criticism, because in order to do this race, you really have to have a spirit of an adventurer.”
For Tomy, sailing through the same ocean where he was so traumatized during the 2018 race was a challenge, despite his intense preparation to ready his boat and himself. This time, he experienced the worst on January 26—he remembers the date well—when he learned via weather fax of an approaching 60-knot storm. As the wind was picking up over 30 knots, “one thing led to another,” and the hydrovane self-steering became disabled.
“I was stuck with the tiller for 12 hours, and since I didn’t have the chance to add the washboard, water from the waves was crashing into the chart table and the electrical panel,” Tomy said. The mainsail tore, and since he couldn’t switch on the navigation lights, he couldn’t see the wind vane on top of the mast to see his bearing to the wind or its direction.
“It was like just crazy for hours doing crash driving,” Tomy said. The stress on his body caused back spasms, and for a while he couldn’t use his right leg. “I was dragging my right leg around for the next few days” as he mended his sails and made other repairs.
In February, Tomy suffered another knockdown in heavy seas and winds, but he and Bayanat were ready. “As long as your mast comes up, you are fine,” Tomy said. When things did break, which was often, Tomy said he would visualize and plan a complete checklist of what needed to be replaced, the tools required, and every aspect of the task involved. “I’m not an expert at this,” he said, “I just figured out things based on how the boat was behaving.”
Tomy attributes much of his fortitude to what he had to endure while training to be an officer in the Indian military. But one of his teammates told me that his strength is also born of tenacity. “Abhilash is someone who never learns his lesson the first time.”
Van Den Heede said boat preparation and knowledge is not just 80% of the battle, but it is “at least 80%,” as he diverged slightly from Neuschäfer’s assessment of what it takes to finish this race.
“When you embark on such an adventure, you have to be like MacGyver,” said Van Den Heede, whose mast repair after his vicious knockdown in the Bay of Biscay required him to go up the rig, a difficult proposition for solo sailors even in decent weather. “Even if the boat is perfectly prepared and ready, something will happen.”
Managing solitude is obviously key. Its embrace helped Moitessier find that mystical grace he sought and that inspired him to abandon the race altogether in 1969 and continue sailing. For Knox-Johnston, this state of being alone is welcoming, especially in today’s world of always-on instant messaging and communication.
“You are locked away with no one to talk to—that’s good. No one you’ve got to phone at a certain time,” Knox-Johnston told me before the start of this year’s race. “It suited me. I was perfectly happy, actually.”
Bruce Gain has embraced solo and shorthanded offshore sailing for more than 20 years. A former journalist who has written for Wired, National Fisherman, Technology Review, and Popular Science, he continues to sail more than he should on a 39-foot Feeling while working as a software analyst for ReveCom Media.