South African sensation Kirsten Neuschäfer makes history as first woman to win old-school round-the-world yacht race
South African sailor Kirsten Neuschäfer of Gqeberha has rewritten the history books by becoming the first woman to win the solo Golden Globe Race – a journey around the world reliant on no use of modern technology while navigating the globe’s temperamental oceans.
On Thursday, 27 April 2023, as South Africa commemorated the country’s first free and fair elections (starting in 1994), South African sailor Kirsten Neuschäfer rewrote history as she became the first woman to win a solo round-the-world yacht race, as well as being the first South African of any gender to achieve the feat.
While politicians were reciting recycled speeches of hope and the need for change to rescue South Africa from the darkness they’ve helped plunge the country into – Gqeberha native Neuschäfer was gingerly crossing the finish line of the 2022/2023 Golden Globe Race, to provide a beacon of light and positivity for her home country.
Nearly eight months at sea
After almost 235 days and about 48,000km of sailing her Cape George cutter (named Minnehaha) – without any external assistance or the use of modern technology – she arrived at Les Sables-d’Olonne, France. She began her historic journey there nearly eight months ago, alongside 15 others. She was the only woman in the running.
As Neuschäfer crossed the finish line – to a heroine’s welcome by the townsfolk – only two of her fellow competitors were still formally in the race. Former Indian naval officer Abhilash Tomy and Austrian Michael Guggenberger.
Simon Curwen (who finished ahead of Neuschäfer) and Jeremy Bagshaw, who is also South African, were the only other remaining racers from the start list. Neither of those two qualified to win after being relegated to the Chichester class, a section for those disqualified, who wanted to complete the race anyway.
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“From the outset it wasn’t a question of taking any boat that was available and in my price range; it was to choose a boat that I believe can win and can survive the Southern Ocean, and then get that boat at any cost, no matter how much work,” Neuschäfer told Yachting Monthly from Prince Edward Island.
Others who failed to tame the raging waters that they called home for the past few months, dropped off one at a time.
What makes Neuschäfer’s victory even more impressive and emphatic is the fact that she was granted 35 hours extra, after assisting fellow sailor Tapio Lehtinen when he encountered some trouble close to Cape Town and his watercraft sank.
For her brave effort, The Cruising Club of America named her the recipient of the 2022 Rod Stephens Seamanship Trophy.
The accolade is awarded to a sailor annually “for an act of seamanship which significantly contributes to the safety of a yacht, or one or more individuals at sea”.
So efficient were Neuschäfer’s yacht-whispering skills that she still made up the time and didn’t need to tap into the extra hours provided to win.
“South Africa has had other sailing heroes, like Bertie Reed and John Martin, who have done the circumnavigation. But Kirsten is the first South African to do it non-stop and unassisted. How’s that for a gender statement,” said president of SA Sailing Michael Robinson on the 39-year-old’s incredible win.
“We are so proud of Kirsten. She has made not only the country’s sailing community proud, but the whole of South Africa. And provided an exceptional example to both women and men of what’s possible with incredibly hard work and determination.”
This is not the first massive solo adventure Neuschäfer has embarked on. When just 22-years-old, she cycled around 15,000km down the African continent from Europe to South Africa on her own.
“I truly love adventure – it really is what drives me. And I love to undertake these adventures alone and know that I only have myself to rely on once I am out there. To know that I will have to dig deep within myself to find the strength that I need to overcome the inevitable obstacles,” the 39-year-old said before heading to the ocean last year.
“I love the unknown. It really is a way to get to know myself, and to know my own potential – very much an inner journey too.”
According to the Golden Globe Race website Neuschäfer has also sailed several film crews to help them capture the beauty of the Antarctic.
She was featured in National Geographic series ‘Wild Life Resurrection Island with Bertie Gregory’ as she sailed his crew throughout South Georgia Island to shed light on the beautiful ecosystems and hardships they’ve faced.
She also sailed and was a support vessel for several crews from the BBC series ‘Seven Worlds, One Planet’ for footage of leopard seal predation against gentoo penguins. DM