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North Sails Performance 2023 - LEADERBOARD

Anything but ordinary

by Mark Jardine 2 May 2023 10:00 PDT
Kirsten Neuschäfer wins the Golden Globe Race 2022 © Ville des Sables d'Olonne

235 days at sea is a long, long time on any boat. Couple that with being alone, sailing non-stop around the world, via the five Great Capes, without any outside assistance, and you have what has to be one of the greatest challenges available in sailing.

But the Golden Globe isn't just that. It's a race that limits you to 1968 technology, sailing in a production boat between 32ft and 36ft, as it's a recreation of the original Sunday Times Golden Globe Race which was held in 1968 - 1969.

The original race saw nine skippers start, and only one finish - the great Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. He sailed his 32ft foot wooden ketch, Suhaili, which he'd built with friends in India, and had already sailed to South Africa and back to the UK. He started the race on 14th June in Falmouth, and finished 312 days later, and proved to be the only finisher.

The Golden Globe Race in its 'modern' form came about in 2018 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original race. Australian adventurer Don McIntyre founded the race, limiting entrants to those sailing similar yachts, and using similar equipment to what was available fifty years previous. Safety equipment such as EPIRBs and AIS are carried by the skippers, however competitors are only allowed to use the technology in an emergency.

The 2018 edition saw 18 entrants from 13 nations, with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston firing the starting cannon in Les Sables-d'Olonne on 1st July 2018. Only five yachts finished, with the legendary French sailor Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, who holds the record for rounding Cape Horn 12 times in competitions, winning the race, finishing on 29th January 2019.

Golden Globe Race sailors are anything but ordinary, having to deal with adversity in many forms, which makes the 2022 Golden Globe Race winner even more extraordinary. South African sailor Kirsten Neuschäfer crossed the finish line in Les Sables d'Olonne on Thursday evening aboard her 36ft Cape George Cutter Minnehaha, after 235 days at sea, and did it with a beaming smile.

She's the first woman to win a solo round-the-world race under sail. She rescued a fellow competitor in the Indian Ocean, when Finnish sailor Tapio Lehtinen's yacht sank. She also had a serious race on her hands, with Abhilash Tomy finishing a day after her.

Throughout the race Kirsten seemed to take everything in her stride, typified by her comments after rescuing Tapio Lehtinen, and transferring him to the bulk carrier M.V. Darya Gayatri:

"I'm full of adrenaline now, I've been up helming all night, and it's quite something to be manoeuvring so close to a ship, but we're all good. He was on board, we drank a rum together and then we sent him on his merry way. No congratulations needed for the rescue, everyone would do the same for another sailor, thank you guys for coordinating it."

When asked what advice Kirsten would give to those wanting to take part in the Golden Globe Race 2026, she gave the advice that has been said by so many top sailors, and other sporting heroes, throughout the years:

"I would say that 80% of the whole race is preparation, just to get you to the start line. Just getting to the start is the most difficult step in my opinion, and it's of huge benefit to do as much of the work and refit as you can yourself. To know every nut and bolt, and every corner of your own boat. To do the work yourself will enable you to fix stuff out at sea, or if you're lucky you'll have done it properly and you won't have to fix anything.

"That and get to know your boat at sea. People said to me, 'Why did you sail to South Africa and then to France?' Well, it was a fantastic sea trial, for me to learn my boat, and to discover what I could still improve before the race. To get good, each boat has its own peculiarities, you have to sail your boat to the max, to understand what sails you'll best need, how to perform and how you can improve things. That's all in the preparation beforehand."

Wise words indeed.

The Golden Globe Race is gathering a huge following around the world, for both potential competitors and fans alike. The great appeal is that it feels achievable. Park at the back of your head the details of just how hard it is, the attrition rate, the challenges both physically and mentally, and it is within reach to many. Get yourself a 36ft classic oceangoing yacht and go! Simple really...

As Race Patron Sir Robin Knox-Johnston puts it, "I think this Golden Globe Race is a wonderful idea. Why dream of it and never do it. This is a challenge that has been created to achieve that dream."

At its core, the Golden Globe Race is about the sailors themselves. It is human endeavour, pushing the boundaries of what you thought you could possibly achieve, but without the technologies available to those in the other great solo round the world race, the Vendée Globe, which was inspired by the original Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.

The first woman to complete the Vendée Globe in 1996-97, Catherine Chabaud, was at the finish to greet Kirsten:

"What she has achieved is incredible. There is something extraordinary in the air."

After finishing in Les Sables d'Olonne, Kirsten said:

"I am very happy to see all the people and this extraordinary atmosphere. Of all my adventure, I think that the arrival here with the crowd, the enthusiasm, was the most memorable. My boat was my companion, I talked to her a lot. I even got angry with her, but I love her very much. She's a fast, elegant boat, on which I worked a lot for a year.

"I had the will to win as soon as I registered for the race, and I did all my preparations accordingly. I wanted to win, not as a woman - I didn't want to be in a separate category - but to compete on equal terms with all the skippers. I didn't think about the long-term future, but more about what I wanted to do in the near future. I now want to go on long hikes in the wilderness with my dog for a few months."

Kirsten Neuschäfer has proved to be an extraordinary sailor in an extraordinary race. Spirted and determined, she is the new role model who everyone can look up to.

Mark Jardine
Sail-World.com and YachtsandYachting.com Managing Editor

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