Above photo: Originally from Gqeberha, South Africa, Neuschäfer has been sailing dinghies since she was a child and began sailing professionally in 2006. Submitted photo
Kirsten Neuschäfer became the first woman to win an around-the-world race by sailing around the three great capes — Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin and South America’s Cape Horn — when she won the 2022 Golden Globe Race (GGR).
The GGR requires that participants only work with the equipment used by the races original 1968 winner, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. Navigational aids like GPS are forbidden, and emergency gear is only available for life-endangering scenarios. Racers must also have GGR-approved yachts built before 1998.
Leaving from Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, racers who don’t suspend their participation must remain alone on their ship for the duration of the race until they round the three Great Capes and sail back to France.
Neuschäfer sailed for 233 days, 20 hours and 43 minutes aboard her Cape George 36, Minnehaha, which she purchased from Ocean Yacht Sales in Newfoundland and Labrador. She sailed into Les Sables-d’Olonnes on April 27, 2023, about one day ahead of her nearest rival. For Neuschäfer, clinching the win that day was a surprise.
“I didn’t know it was going to be like that until I was seven miles from the finish line, so it was a really satisfactory feeling,” said Neuschäfer.
After over half a year isolated at sea, getting back on land took some adjustment for the South African sailor.
“It was quite a change from being on your own,” said Neuschäfer. “Having crowds around you, lots of people and lots of questions and a lot of attention. It was a really good feeling, because it was an amazing welcome. It was amazing to see friends and family again. But, on the same token, it’s quite intense. The first day, you’re kind of on a high after arriving and winning and friends and family. There were strenuous aspects of it too — the media wanting interviews and everything. But on the whole, it was a great feeling.”
The biggest takeaway from the whole experience, according to Neuschäfer, was the new skills she learned and the ones she improved upon along the way.
“I enjoyed the trip in its entirety, even before the race started. Because that was also part of the race — getting to the start line. Working with the Prince Edward Islanders on the refit was really rewarding because of the boat-building skills I gained from it,” said Neuschäfer.
“I think I emerged a better sailor out of it with a better understanding of weather systems and sail trim and all sorts of things. I learned loads out of it, and I think that’s the most rewarding aspect of it is everything I learned out of it.”
While she enjoyed a large majority of the race, the last stretch after rounding Cape Horn was the most challenging part of her journey.
“The absolute most difficult was being stuck in the doldrums coming back up the Atlantic. It was almost borderline demotivating sailing without wind for an extended period of time,” said Neuschäfer.
On the flip side, about 1,000 miles before rounding Cape Horn was some of the best sailing Neuschäfer said she had throughout the whole race.
“It was really good sailing. Probably the best sailing I had the whole race where the boat was just flying along,” said Neuschäfer. “Probably about there when I was breaking some of the speed records. That was just amazing. Nice, big swells pushing the boat along. The boat’s kind of surfing on the swell with wind from behind and just getting amazing speed. That was pretty exhilarating.”
After a life at sea without modern luxuries, rationing food and living a barebones lifestyle, upon reaching land it was the simple things that meant the most to Neuschäfer.
“One of the first things I did, because my friends knew that this was something that I had been missing, was eat ice cream,” said Neuschäfer. “And even just having a hot, fresh water shower was pretty amazing.”
The disconnection from modern luxuries profoundly affected her outlook on technology. Without modern conveniences like cellphones and other smart technology, Neuschäfer said the break from the constant stimulus made it difficult to “reconnect” after making landfall.
“I actually found it really difficult having to get back into that. I had to reconnect, but my phone didn’t work when I first arrived, and I was happy about it,” said Neuschäfer.
“Someone forced a new phone on me and I had to relearn how to use these things. It was a new phone, and it was frustrating. I had people calling me all the time, and I got sucked into having to answer emails all the time. I think that was one of the most difficult things about coming back, you have to reconnect on that level again.”
With the GGR behind her, Neuschäfer has no plans for the future. After her globe-spanning journey, the new champion said she needs time to get her bearings before she thinks about the next adventure.
“People ask me ‘Are you going to do Vendée Globe or something?’ but I’m not a racing sailor, so I probably wouldn’t do very well in the Vendée Globe… I wouldn’t say no, never, but it’s not something I immediately see myself doing,” said Neuschäfer. “As for new adventures, I definitely foresee myself still sailing and doing other land-based adventures, but what exactly they are I don’t know. I’m going to need a couple of months just to decompress and reinvent myself.”