Somewhere in the Southern Pacific Ocean, Kirsten Neuschafer is alone on her boat, Minnehaha, as she tries to outmaneuver the latest storm to cross her path as she approaches Cape Horn.
Instead of sailing directly for the tip of South America, she’s spent the past day heading north in an effort to skirt the worst of the oncoming weather. The storm is threatening wind gusts up to 55 miles per hour and seas building to 25 feet.
Her plan, she explains over a scratchy satellite phone connection, is to get away from the eye of the storm. “The closer I get to the Horn,” she says, “the more serious things become, the windier it becomes.”
But there’s no turning back. That’s because Neuschafer is battling to win what is possibly the most challenging competition the sailing world has to offer — the Golden Globe Race. Since setting off from the coast of France in September, Neuschafer, the only woman competing, has left all rivals in her wake. Of the 16 entrants who departed five months ago, only four are still in the race, and for the moment at least, she’s leading.
The race is a solo, nonstop, unassisted circumnavigation, a feat first accomplished in 1969, the same year that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. Since then, more people have traveled to space than have done what Neuschafer is hoping to accomplish.
The race is a throwback in most every way. Unlike its more famous cousin, the Vendée Globe solo nonstop race with its purpose-built vessels made for speed, Golden Globe entrants sail low-tech boats that wouldn’t look out of place in any coastal marina. And they do so without modern electronic aids — no laptops or electronic charts, radar or sophisticated weather routing. To find their position at sea, participants instead rely on navigating by the sun and stars and simple speed calculations.
Racers don’t do it for the money. The prize of 5,000 pounds (about $6,045) is the same as it was in the 1960s and is not even enough to cover entry fees. The real lure is the challenge.
“The single-handed aspect was the one that drew me,” Neuschafer, who is from South Africa, says of her decision to enter.
“I really like the aspect of sailing by celestial navigation, sailing old school,” she says, adding that she’s always wanted to know “what it would have been like back then when you didn’t have all the modern technology at your fingertips.”
Satellite phones are allowed, but only for communication with race officials and the occasional media interview. Each boat has collision-avoidance alarms and a GPS tracker, but entrants can’t view their position data. There’s a separate GPS for navigation, but it’s sealed and only for emergencies. Its use can lead to disqualification. Entrants are permitted to use radios to communicate with each other and with passing ships. They’re allowed to briefly anchor, but not get off the boat nor have anyone aboard. And no one is allowed to give them supplies or assistance.
The race motto, “Sailing like it’s 1968,” alludes to the fact that it’s essentially a reboot of a competition first put on that year by the British Sunday Times newspaper. In it, nine sailors started, and only one, Britain’s Robin Knox-Johnston, managed to complete the first-ever nonstop, solo circumnavigation, finishing in 312 days. Despite leading at one point, French sailor Bernard Moitessier elected to abandon the race in an effort, he said, to “save my soul.” Yet another, British sailor Donald Crowhurst, died by suicide after apparently stepping off his boat.
Bringing the race back in 2018 for its 50th anniversary was the brainchild of Australian sailor and adventurer Don McIntyre, who describes the competition as “an absolute extreme mind game that entails total isolation, physical effort … skill, experience and sheer guts.”
“That sets it apart from everything,” he says.
For sailors, it’s the Mount Everest of the sea
Neuschafer, 40, is a veteran of the stormy waters she’s presently sailing, having worked as a charter skipper in Patagonia, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica. Although she’s been around Cape Horn before, this time is different, she says.
Previously she’s been around “the Horn” when she could choose the conditions. But nonstop from the Pacific, with limited weather information, “I’d say, it’s a notch up on anxiety. It’s almost like … trying to reach the peak of Everest,” she says.
Probably the most harrowing moment so far in this year’s race came in November, when Neuschafer sailed 100 miles, staying at Minnehaha’s helm through the night to rescue Finland’s Tapio Lehtinen — one of the finishers in the 2018 race. She plucked him from a life raft some 24 hours after his boat, Asteria, sank in the southern Indian Ocean.
For the rescue, race officials broke protocol and allowed her to use GPS and gave her a time credit on the race. “I basically sailed throughout the night and by morning I got within range of him,” she says.
Spotting Lehtinen’s tiny life raft amid 10-foot waves was far from easy, Neuschafer says. “He could see … my sail [but] I couldn’t see him, not for the life of me.” She later managed to transfer him to a freighter.
That incident reinforced for her how things could change at any moment. In the Golden Globe, she says, “a large proponent of it is luck.”
The days can be serene, but also isolating
The drama of such days at sea is offset by others spent in relative peace. A typical day, if there is such a thing, starts just before sunrise, she says, “a good time to get the time signal on the radio so that I can synchronize my watches,” which she needs for accurate celestial navigation.
“Then … I’ll have a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal, and then I’ll wait for the sun to be high enough that I can take a reasonable [sextant] sight.” A walk around the deck to see if anything is amiss and perhaps a bit of reading — currently it’s The Bookseller of Kabul by Norwegian journalist and author Asne Seierstad — before another sight at noon to check her position.
Or perhaps some music. It’s all on cassette, since competitors aren’t allowed a computer of any kind. As a result, she’s listening to a lot of ’80s artists, “good music that I ordinarily wouldn’t listen to,” she says.
The isolation was more difficult for American Elliott Smith, who at 27 was the youngest entrant in this year’s race. He dropped out in Australia due to rigging failure.
Reached in the Australian port city of Fremantle, the surfer-turned-sailor from Florida says he doesn’t entirely rule out another try at the race in four years. But for now, he’s put his boat, Second Wind, up for sale. He seems circumspect about the future.
“It was really obvious that I stopped enjoying the sailing at some point,” he confides about the rigors of the race. “There were moments … where I found myself never going outside unless I had to. I was like, ‘I’m just staying in the cabin. I’m just reading. I’m miserable.’ “
Smith says there were days when he would see an albatross, but was too mentally exhausted to appreciate the beauty of it. “I was like, ‘This is so sad, you know?’ Like, I’ve become complacent [about] something that most people would never even try, you know?”
Neuschafer, too, has had her share of frustrations. The latest was a broken spinnaker pole, which keeps her from setting twin forward sails on the 36-foot-long Minnehaha — her preferred setup for running downwind.
She’s looking forward to finishing in early spring. But first, she still has to traverse the entire Atlantic Ocean from south to north.
“I’ll get off and enjoy feeling the land beneath my feet.” After that, she says, “the first thing I’d like to do is eat ice cream.”
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