On the evening of April 27, Kirsten Neuschafer crossed the finish line at Sables-d’Olonne to win the 2022-23 Golden Globe Race. Of 16 sailors who began the round-the-world singlehanded race, only three were still in the running for the prize: Kirsten, Michael Guggenberger who was still well back in the Atlantic, and Abhilash Tomy, who finished a day and a half after Kirsten, a remarkable almost-photo finish after more than 235 days at sea.
It’s been a busy year for circumnavigating races, beginning with the Ocean Race which, having dropped “Volvo” from its title, started off in January. Its seven legs include the Southern Ocean and are sailed in fully-crewed identical boats. The 2017-2018 rules encouraged female participation by allowing mixed crew sizes to increase. It’s raced by high-performance yachts capable of travelling 600 nautical miles in 24 hours and bills itself as “the ultimate test of a team in sport.”
In contrast, the goal of the Golden Globe is very simple. First organized by the British newspaper Sunday Times in 1968, the race departs from France, sails non-stop around the world via the five Great Capes, and returns. The race was revived in 2018. Entrants are limited to sailing similar yachts and equipment to what was available to Sir Robin Knox Johnston, winner of the first race. That means skipping modern technology and the benefit of satellite-based navigation aids. Sextants for navigating, rain-catching for water, wind vane for self-steering. And crew requirements are simple: one person on board. No specifications about gender.
Kirsten sailed strongly though modestly on her boat Minnehaha, a Cape George 36, for the first part of the race; she was third over the starting line and in the top six for the run down the Atlantic. On September 29 when the fleet was in the doldrums, she said, “I’m really enjoying myself… I don’t know where I am in the fleet and actually prefer not knowing where the others are, and just enjoy sailing.”
By November 2 the boats were well on their way to Cape Town and Kirsten had made a 24-hour distance record for the race of 183 nautical miles for a 7.6 knot average, along with 14 of the 20 best days, making her the fastest sailor of the fleet. At Cape Town she tweeted the message: “land ho. whales. seals. birds. no wind. K.” Crossing the south 40s in the South Pacific she dove over the side to scrape barnacles, a prescient move seeing that several entrants left the race partly because of barnacles slowing them down. Others were low on drinking water, but Kirsten had her rain catchers out. She was not leading, however, and wouldn’t attain this position until Simon Curwen retired to fix his windvane in Chile when she went on to round Cape Horn first and Curwen rejoined but in the non-award Chichester class. From then she and Abilash Tomy, the first Indian to circumnavigate solo in 2013, dueled their way up the Atlantic toward the finish line.
Even before taking the lead, Kirsten made a place for herself in a different way. Early in the race she relayed a VHF mayday call from a fellow racer who had gone up on the rocks in the Canary Islands. And in November when Tapio Lehtinen lost his boat in the Southern Indian Ocean after flooding to deck level in five minutes and sinking in 20, Kirsten was able to locate and get him on board from his life-raft, share a glass of rum and put him on a ship bound to China.
Nov 19, Race Committee: “Congratulations you’ve been your incredible self as usual, one in a million.”
“I think anyone would have done it. Thanks so much for coordinating…I am full of adrenalin after helming all night. I’m going to set her on a nice steady course have some breakfast and then I’ll hit the sack.”
Second only to the fortitude of skippers who made it to the finish was the qualities of their boats. I was curious about Kirsten’s choice of a Cape George 36. Alicia, a member of Kirsten’s team, said its numbers were very impressive (good ballast ratio and sail area, heavy so possibly safer in the Southern Ocean but with a long waterline so capable of being fast). Searching online boats for sale located Minnehaha in Newfoundland.
As happens with heroes, they come to mean different things to people. I was like, Yes! A woman finally won one of these races. But circumnavigator and author Nathaniel Warren-White, who met her a couple of years ago while she was getting Minnehaha ready to go in Canada, was impressed by support from the local community and her connection to the school kids. He was moved to support her cause financially and feels fortunate to have helped in a small way. “She had the sure and steady character, the passion and optimism that it takes to pull off a challenge as extraordinary as the GGR.”
Nat encouraged me to talk to Emily Carville, another expert and devoted female sailor and racer.
“What sweet victory,” Emily said. “Kirsten is helping girls and women, and all sailors regardless of gender, see how it’s possible to make the commitment and enable their dreams. When ocean racers help fellow sailors in distress those of us on land develop an inordinate amount of pride, as if they’re our sisters and brothers making the ultimate unselfish gesture. To have Kirsten achieve a commanding win without needing her earned time, and leading the small pack that remained in the race to the end, was pure triumph!”
Emily, a sailor since birth, in 2018 joined the Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team, one of the leading USA contenders in J/24 regattas. The day after the GGR ended Emily texted the Sea Bags team to share her joy in Kirsten’s accomplishments and teammate Joy chimed in to say she watched the last three hours of the race live and cried at the finish.
Lennie Gallant, East Canadian singer, wrote a song for Kirsten “On the Minnehaha”:
On the Minnehaha can you hear the laughing waters hahahaha
She sails into the sun
On the Minnehaha sing a song for the ocean’s daughter
A new day’s begun…
I must admit listening to this song can make me cry for wishing it was me out there.
Contributing editor Ann Hoffner and husband Tom Bailey cruised on their Peterson 44, Oddly Enough. She’s now based in Sorrento, Maine.