What does someone who has spent almost eight months sailing solo and nonstop, without the assistance of modern technology or external assistance, crave upon finishing their grueling expedition? Maybe a mouthful of their favorite junk food? Or a warm and wholesome home-cooked meal? For South African sailor Kirsten Neuschäfer – who recently made history by winning the Golden Globe Race (GGR) – her craving was simple: fresh fruit.
Circumventing The Globe
“The thing I really was looking forward to eating was fruit because obviously you’re out there for eight months and you’ve got …nothing fresh,” Neuschäfer told Daily Maverick by telephone from her current base in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, where the race started and finished. “It was all canned food or freeze-dried food. So, I was really starting to crave fresh fruit like an orange or a banana or something like that,” she said of her diet while she spent more than 200 days circumnavigating the globe.
Neuschäfer’s crossing of the finish line (on 27 April no less, a significant day in South Africa’s history) was not plain sailing, though. She could see the finish line, but there was no wind to push her over. She ended up spending hours near the finish line, with the first boat coming out to greet her and let her know she had in effect won the race. If only the wind would pick up and rubber-stamp her incredible feat.
Eventually, it did. 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 – was finally over the finish line. When she docked, Neuschäfer became the first woman and the first South African to win any type of round-the-world race – solo or assisted, retro or modern. She began her historic journey nearly eight months ago – in September 2022 – alongside 15 other skippers. She was the only woman. Sailing has a reputation for being very macho and the starting list of the GGR was evidence enough. Neuschäfer acknowledged the symbolism of her victory in a sport where transformation has been slow. But she said, for her, gender was not as relevant as testing her skills against some of the best sailors in the world.
Just as it troubled her close to the finish line, the lack of wind was a frequent thorn in Neuschäfer’s side. “Like when I was coming back up the Atlantic towards France. I got into the doldrums [the belt around the Earth near the equator where sailing ships sometimes get stuck because of a lack of wind] and I sat there for two weeks with little to no wind. That was mentally very challenging because there’s nothing you can do,” she said.
“You can’t make the wind come back, but you’re not moving either. And you think about the fact that the other competitors might be gaining a big lead on you because they might be somewhere where they do have wind. So those were difficult times but, again, you can’t really quit. During such times Neuschäfer, whose parents live in Gqebera in Eastern Cape, would jump into the water for a dip, just to stop her mind from being consumed by things over which she had no control. Of course, during such times it is natural to phone someone for a chat to cheer you up. But the sailors could not do this, and would have been disqualified. After all, the slogan of the race was “sailing like it’s 1968”.
A Born Adventurer
The 40-year-old has always loved adventure and exploration. It started when she was a little girl and regularly went on hikes. When she was 22, she cycled down Africa, meeting many wonderful people who accommodated her along the way. In contrast, the GGR was a solitary and personal undertaking. One of very few parallels between the two journeys was external noise from people who told her she was “crazy” and would die.
She did not listen to the naysayers. Besides her parents and sister, she has no immediate family, and no one dependent on her constant presence, making adventuring possible. “That’s always been my first question [to naysayers]. Have you done it? Because if you haven’t, I’m not even interested in listening to you. And for every person who tells you, ‘You can’t do it,’ you’re probably going to meet 10 people who are going to believe in you,” she stated. For now, she is still processing the fact that, despite all the adversity she faced on the world’s waters, she not only stayed afloat, but was emphatically victorious.
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