Kirsten Neuschäfer, a South African whose life as a sailor has practically defined the word “adventure,” today won the 2022-23 Golden Globe Race, becoming the first woman to win a solo round-the-world race.
She finished in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, where she began nearly eight months and some 30,000 miles ago, crossing the line to a massive hero’s welcome. In her 36-foot Cape George cutter Minnehaha, Neuschäfer not only won, she took line honors as well—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. She was first to round Cape Horn, and though the leg up the Atlantic saw her lead diminish, she never stopped pushing herself or her boat.
In ocean-racing terms, it was a photo finish for the final week, with GGR veteran Abhilash Tomy, racing his Rustler 36, Bayanat, at times within 45 miles of Neuschäfer. In the end, she pulled away; when she crossed the line, Tomy was about 135 miles behind, predicted to take second place. This would be a redemptive and fantastic finish for Tomy as well, after an ordeal in the 2018 race. While sailing strongly in third place, he was rolled and dismasted in the southern Indian Ocean, suffering back injuries that left him unable to move his legs. He was rescued three and half days later; after arriving home in India, he underwent surgery to have five vertebrae fused and titanium rods placed in his spine.
The race started on September 4, 2022, with 16 competitors—all men, except for Neuschäfer. At the time of her finish, only three competitors (herself, Tomy, and Michael Guggenberger, who was still 1,800 miles to the finish) remained in the running. Two more (Simon Curwen and Jeremy Bagshaw) were racing in the Chichester class—a class for those disqualified for making a stop but who wanted to continue to the finish anyway. Curwen finished just ahead of Neuschäfer on April 27.
Harkening to the original Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968, won by Sir Robin Knox Johnston, 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.
Neuschäfer’s Cape George cutter, launched in 1988, was built by Cape George Marine Works in Port Townsend, Washington. She has sailed it with obvious verve, skill, and real joy.
The rescue of Lehtinen happened last 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 was able to reach him in fewer than 24 hours, taking him aboard Minnehaha from his liferaft 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.)
Neuschäfer grew up sailing and has made it her profession since 2006, training others and delivering boats. But she has taken her profession 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—over 9,000 miles.
For more on the race, visit goldengloberace.com