Editor’s Note: At 5 a.m. on September 19, 29-year-old Cole Brauer set off alone across the Atlantic. She is completing her final qualifying sail before the start of the Global Solo Challenge. She will begin the race, which has a pursuit start, on October 28 from A Coruña, Spain. Of the 20 skippers, she will be the only woman.
“You have to give it everything,” Cole Brauer says. It’s 9:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, and she’s calling from the van she’s living in while finishing a refit. “That’s the thing I tell the young women I mentor. They ask, ‘How do you make this happen?’ And I say, ‘Well, you sacrifice a lot and you say yes to everything, but you also have to have boundaries.’ ”
“Give it everything” almost doesn’t cover Brauer’s dedication to and meteoric rise in the world of offshore sailing.
At 5 feet 2 inches and just shy of 100 pounds at the time, Brauer, now 29, recalls securing a spot on the University of Hawai’i sailing team’s roster purely because of her size and gender. It certainly wasn’t because of her experience level—she’d never been sailing before.
However, she is an enthusiastic learner and a people person. Within two years she was captain of the team, and with the open Pacific on her doorstep, it didn’t take long to gain a breadth of experience outside collegiate sailing as well. From there, she moved to Maine, where she met a delivery captain passing through. He barely gave her the time of day, but after several follow-ups and a trial period of scrubbing boats top to bottom, she finally convinced him to bring her along for a delivery.
“It’s really hard to break into the industry, especially if you didn’t grow up with it,” she says. “The only way is to show up and be there and fight for it. There are so many instances in my career where if I hadn’t jumped on a certain opportunity, I wouldn’t have ended up where I am.”
In just a few short years, her career as a professional sailor was off and running, but it was a difficult road. Getting paid the same as her male counterparts was never a given, and because of her age and size, it took tenacity to convince owners to take her seriously. “We’re moving forward, but we as women had to come together and fight for that change,” she says about the ongoing fight for pay equity.
She landed a job as captain of a Class40, and after that boat was sold, the new owners renamed it First Light (formerly Dragon) and offered to let her borrow it for the Bermuda One-Two in June. The biennial race features two 668-nautical-mile legs from Newport to St. Georges, Bermuda, and back. The first leg is sailed solo and the second doublehanded, hence the One-Two. With a Gulf Stream crossing, it can be a challenging, navigationally tricky race.
On leg one, First Light led the fleet by 18 hours into Bermuda. On the doublehanded leg two, with co-skipper Cat Chimney, First Light finished in Newport 12 hours ahead of the next racer. Trouncing the competition, Brauer and Chimney became the first female sailors to win the race in its 24 editions.
“It’s really hard to stand on the podium,” Brauer says. “Everyone is trying to beat you for that spot. It’s so hard. I take it so seriously when you step up and win.”
After the victory, the boat’s owners asked what she wanted to do next. She’d been thinking about either the Transat Jacques Vabre or the Global Solo Challenge, a quadrennial solo around the world race from A Coruña, Spain, and a proving ground for the Vendée Globe. A boat of First Light’s age has a better shot in the latter, so she started prepping for a circumnavigation. She aims to be the first American woman to race solo around the world.
“It’s really hard for Americans to be successful in offshore solo sailing, and I think it comes down to money and support. I have both behind me right now. And if young American women growing up can see, through my campaign, that this is possible, they might dream even bigger.”
The Global Solo Challenge has a pursuit start, with the first boat setting off on August 23, 2023, and the final one on January 6, 2024. Brauer and First Light leave on October 28.
To track Brauer during her qualification crossing, click here.
For more on the Global Solo Challenge, including tracking the skippers that are already underway, click here.