Katy Stickland talks to Golden Globe Race winner, Kirsten Neuschäfer about routing, gear failure, seamanship and how she coped spending eight months alone at sea
Winning the Golden Globe Race meant everything to Kirsten Neuschäfer; her ambition would not only drive her, but would also leave her frustrated and despondent, especially when she became trapped in the calms, believing first place was out of reach.
‘I think at my lowest points I might have questioned why I was doing the race, but I knew why I was doing it and I knew I was there because I wanted to be there, but the low points were the calms, and the worst were the doldrums,’ said the 40-year-old South African skipper.
‘Fortunately, I like swimming and that is the thing that kept me sane. When I got too frustrated, I would jump overboard and swim. I needed that distance from the boat and then I would come back again.’
‘I never thought I would give up; there was no reason to think this as I had full confidence in the boat. I never doubted I would get to the finish line.’
Neuschäfer prepared meticulously for the race she was ‘looking to win through and through’. She chose the Cape George 36, believing it would withstand rounding Cape Horn. The generous cutter rigged 806sq ft sail plan, and the 31.50ft/9.60m LWL – the longest in the fleet – meant it was the fastest boat.
Most of the refit work was done with local boatbuilder Eddie Arsenault on Prince Edward Island, ‘sparing no expense’.
She said carrying out the work alongside Arsenault was ‘paramount’; it meant she knew ‘every nut and bolt’ on Minnehaha. Improvements included fitting 10 external over-specced chainplates, fitting a tandem backstay, rebuilding the bulwarks and the deck and installing a new aluminium spar and reinforcement plates around the spreads and cap shrouds to make the rig as strong as possible.
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‘Even if things didn’t break, the fact is I knew the work we’d done and I had that peace of mind. Also, I knew where to check if something didn’t look right, because I know this boat so intimately,’ she said.
Once the refit was complete, Neuschäfer then sailed the boat from Canada to Cape Town and then to Les Sables d’Olonne. This was also part of her strategy which allowed her to ‘find out all the particulars and peculiarities’ of Minnehaha.
As a result, Neuschäfer had very few repairs during the race. Daily, she inspected shackles and split pins to make sure nothing had been bent, warped or distorted, and would feel the tension of the stays and the shrouds. ‘I knew there was certain lines which would chafe, for example on the main halyard when the full mainsail was up, so I often avoided having the full mainsail up and have it reefed down to one, but if I needed that extra canvas up, I would put another sheath of thicker rope over it and would check it regularly.’
She did make repairs to her broken Watt and Sea hydrogenerator bracket, and broke a spinnaker pole which meant she could no longer fly her twin headsails. The boat’s bowpsrit also developed a problem; the strainless steel cap on the top of the bowsprit began bending slightly. This initially caused her to sail ‘more conservatively’ but once she realised nothing was moving, she was back to sailing competitively.
Like other skippers, she also had barnacle growth on the boat’s hull. She initially spotted them in the Canary Islands, and was able to remove them, but the problem became serious whilst crossing the Pacific. On three occasions in cold water, Neuschäfer dived for hours at a time to scrape the crustaceans from the boat; her reward was better sailing performance.
Solving problems like these helped motivate her. ‘It was invigorating and I had successfully seen all those barnacles scrapped away and drop into the ocean, so even the little obstacles that you are presented with, when you surpass them you get a kick.’
Neuschäfer was the first entrant to round Cape Horn – an area she is familiar with due to her time sailing The Antarctic Peninsula, Patagonia and the Falkland Islands with Skip Novak’s Pelagic Expeditions.
But this time was her first solo rounding, and without the benefit of modern technology.
Like many skippers, she relied on weather fax for information, although most stations no longer transmit. This left her dependent on information from other ships or from weather transmissions by amateur operators via her HF radio, the boat’s barometer and reading the weather.
Without decent weather forecasts, she relied on decades old routing advice – Ocean Passages for the World – when deciding on her strategy for sailing up the Atlantic. Concerned she was too far east, she decided to heard north; a decision she bitterly regretted.
‘I got stuck in the horse latitudes for four to five days. I believe that where I crossed the equator, if I had arrived a few days earlier, the doldrums were pretty narrow so I might have got through there really quick. That could have killed the race for me, and it did upset me for quite a while, two weeks bobbing around in the doldrums, but that is what the race is about. There’s not that much you can read from the barometer in the doldrums; there’s nothing that really tells you how long you’re going to have to wait. The only indication is maybe a nice big line squall that could bring in the change or when the wind starts filling in. That is the difficult thing, not knowing,’ she said.
Although she was sure that first place was out of grasp, Neuschäfer was still ‘navigating as quickly as possible’. It was only when approaching the finish line did she discover she was going to win the race from a passing yacht crew
After 235 days alone at sea, she crossed the line, and become the first woman to win a solo, non-stop round the world yacht race.
Heavy weather sailing tactics
The worst storm encountered by Neuschäfer was in the southern Pacific, around 1,100 miles north west of Cape Horn. Warned of 60 knot gusts and 6m seas by race HQ (weather alerts awere issued if forecasted winds were 35 knots or above), she sailed north as quickly as possible.
Once the storm hit, Neuschäfer trailed 140m of warp ‘The bight was about 70m, which means I had a grand total of 140m of warp deployed off the stern but running through big snatch blocks. It worked beautifully, although at one point, the boat went perpendicular, because something gave on the Hydrovane and the rudder twisted and it was forcing the boat to windward. I just instinctively ran to the stern and it took just 10 minutes to get her downwind,’ shared Neuschäfer, who added at times she has to use ‘the weight of my whole body’ to steer the boat. She also used Bungee cord to help move the tiller.
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